Friday, June 7, 2013

Uraveling Isaac

The Binding of Isaac is not only one of most entertaining video games i've ever played, it's also by far one of the most interesting. i've heard this game described as a Roguelike meeting The Legend of Zelda, and while the dungeons and enemies are like Zelda, and the random nature of the floors and items is Roguelike, i feel that's just the setting, or the structure, To me the heart is how you attack, how you play, it's reminiscent of old arcade games like Asteroid or Centipede, there's even elements of both in the games enemies. And that is what drew me into the game. But not the only reason to love it. The story of Isaac, is somewhat based on that of the binding of Isaac in the Bible, God tells a parent that they must sacrifice their child to him. The story itself isn't the important part, but how it is presented however is.

You get told the story through the drawings of Isaac, this game is in his imagination, not to say that his mom isn't really trying to kill him, we see in the first ending, after he finishes the drawing of him defeating her, she really does burst into this room with a knife. So i imagine Isaac, much like the biblical one, gets saved by an act of God, in this case, his mother getting brained by the Bible. In all subsequent endings, we see Isaac pulling things out of a chest, i imagine the chest his mother locked away his "wicked things" in. The first thing he takes out is a fez that allows him to play Judas, which is a pretty funny burn honestly.

But this just further illustrates the point that Isaac has a strong imagination and likes to play dress up. As we see from the loading screens however, this causes the other kids to tease him. The loading screens are a really fun and brief glimpse into the life of Isaac, we see Isaac crying in the fetal position, surrounded by darkness and evil, he has various thoughts that make him cry, kids teasing him for dressing up as a girl, getting pantsed in front of a girl, people busting down the door while he's in the bathroom, falling to his death in his magically appearing cellar door, or and of course, hyperventilating inside of his chest.

And that's' the heart of the game, as you'll notice, every room of game is shaped like the inside of a chest. The last character you unlock is ???, and while Eve is just Isaac in a wig and make-up, just as Samson is Isaac in a Rambo gear, ??? isn't Isaac in a costume, he's Isaac's ultimate fate, alone and blue in the face. He's dead son, ran out of air. Suffocated. It's also worth noting how many of his memories involve him getting pantsed or otherwise exposed. His clothes are apparently part of his wicked ways, so Isaac spends the entire game cold and shamed, lying naked on the floor.

Enough of the story though, let's get into the real meat of the game:

This is the only instruction the game ever gives you.

A game that doesn't hold your hand is a godsend in this day and age.
Sometimes items you pick up are nice enough to give you hints of what they might do, most of them just like to make jokes, and from what we already know, the joke is always on Isaac. As you can perhaps tell from the sketches on the floor, tears are Isaac's only defense. The power-ups you gain are things that would increase your tears, everything from onions, dead pets, a rock to the head, and the one i find the most tragic, a hand mirror with the description "My reflection"
There are roughly five types of items, alterations (i feel calling them upgrades or power-ups would be dishonest), space bar items, trinkets, familiars, and orbitals.
At any time you can have up to three orbitals circling Isaac, these act like a shield, anything that hits them won't hit you, some do damage when contacting enemies, one even fires when you do.
Familiars are followers, most of them are just additional tears, but some drop items, others give extra lives, a few attack of their on volition, then there's The Holy Water which is completely useless.
Trinkets have random effects, from having a chance to act like another item, changing room drops,  or even giving you a chance of getting bombs, hearts, keys, or extra money whenever you pick up a coin. They were added with the Wrath of Lamb expansion, and can be both useful or a hindrance depending on your goal. With the exception of The Tick, you can always swap one out with for another.
Space bar items, i tend to think of as "OH Shit!" items. Tammy's head is a good example, when you hit space to hold up the head of your dead cat, tears shoot out of you in all directions. Not all space bar items do damage, some can change your tears for the duration of the room, others can give you a shield of make you invincible for a short time, they all have a charge though, and to recharge you must clear rooms with enemies, some recharge after one room, most seem to be three rooms, some even take up to six. Combat items tend to recharge quickly, the already mentioned Tammy's head only takes one room, while items that make you fly or invulnerable, usually have the max six charge needed.
And now on to the most important items, alterations. Any alteration you pick up is permanent, though some can over-ride others.These items can change your stats, charge your space bar items, let you fly, change your attack from tears to urine, nearly anything you can think of. The one constant with these items though, is they all physically alter Isaac in some way (save for a few health ups. but considering they're dog food and spoiled milk with names like "Lunch" and "Dinner" they just serve to give us a bit more insight into the life of Isaac.)
Let's take a look at some screen shots of my most recent Judas run:

Here in the womb, Isaac has transformed to a flying demon that shoots giant bloody tears.

By this point, Isaac had become a tiny cat,  roughly the same size as his orbitals and familiars.

Or to really display how crazy things can get, enjoy this animation from a random Isaac run:

In the penultimate ending, having already pulled everything out of the chest, we see Isaac reading the Bible that saved him earlier. He then looks up at his mirror with a troubled look and watches as his reflection changes into a demon. Now in his mind, he feels his mother was right, with a sad look on his face he locks up the last wicked thing in the chest, himself. i mention this because it is interesting how twisted Isaac can be by the end, no longer a scared naked boy, but an avenging angel with a conjoined twin growing off his face, or a cybernetic demon twice the size he started, sometimes you can even be just a floating head. The point is items, even those from God, change Isaac, no matter what you do, you're a monster by the end.

In a recent tumblr post, game creator Edmund McMillen brought up that the annoying pile of guts boss known as Gurdy, was originally supposed to be a pile of dead Isaac's. And goes on to point out that even though they strayed from it in a few cases, all the enemies are supposed to be twisted versions of Isaac. This is most apparent with the Gapers, they're just zombie Isaacs with blood streaming from their eyes. They then start rotting and swelling becoming Muligans, creatures that explode into flies when killed, from there they become Hives, even worse for wear and now actively spitting flies for defense. The final stage seems to be the Swarmer, a decrepit face being flown around aimlessly by the flies that live off it. Other than the psyche of Isaac, the enemies represent death and decay. Though it is presented in the way a kid understands it. Flies spawn from poop and rotting things, maggots are a separate creature. My pet cat Guppy isn't really dead because he has nine lives...

As you can see from the gif i posted earlier, at the end of The Womb, you fight It Lives!, Isaac in fetal form, a boss that starts out being called Mom's Heart. You destroy past Isaac, the one mom loved. After this feat, you can move on to heaven or hell, or as they're called The Cathedral and Sheol. After defeating Satan in Sheol, you get the ending of Isaac hopping in the chest, flashing as every character and a demon to boot, though not ??? obviously. After defeating Isaac in The Cathedral you get the ending of him reading the Bible and it making him feel like he's wicked. The sad glance at the chest. As for The Chest, well i need to bring up the neat progression the game has first. You get the game's first ending is the first time you beat Mom. Later you move into the womb and fight the already mentioned Mom's Heart, which after you defeat it enough times turns into "It Lives!" Defeat that enough, Sheol opens up, with Wrath of Lamb Expansion you can also unlock The Cathedral. Now the first few times you beat The Cathedral you gain a piece of a Polaroid, fortune telling machines throughout the game tell you a cryptic "Bring Him The Photo" And once you get all the pieces, Mom starts dropping a Polaroid trinket, take it to Isaac and you get access to The Chest. The Chest, on top of having rooms full of multiple bosses, is unique in that you can't bomb any of the doors open. The place is difficult, Isaac's make believe won't let him escape, he is confronting reality in the form of ???, his own mortality. After defeating ??? we get a series of photos being placed inside the chest, they show Isaac's family being happy, his until now unmentioned father shown there smiling with Isaac and his mother. Then there are shots of Isaac dressing up like his mom, Isaac cowering from his shadow which looks like an evil demon, Isaac's mom coming after him with a knife, and the last photo seems to be Isaac and his mother watching his father leave.

Two of the most powerful items in the game are related to his parents, the first is Mom's Knife, a weapon of little range but devastating power, you even put on Mom's dress while welding it. Perhaps wicked Isaac caught Psycho on TV one night. The next, which is rather difficult to unlock, is Daddy's Love, it's part pun on the Daddy Long Legs boss, part metaphor for Isaac's relationship with his father. While you have this item, there is a shadow following Isaac around, when you enter a room with enemies, the shadow moves and a spider leg stomps down on them, usually killing them in one hit (the games AI actually gets a bit confused if it doesn't kill them). Even though his father isn't there with him, his father still loves him, is still looking out for him. No really, he can beat you up!
The most havoc you can wreak however, is by transforming into Isaac's dead cat Guppy. As i mentioned Isaac seems a bit in denial that Guppy is dead, when you die, the game brings up Isaac's  diary-cum-will, leaving all the cool items you grabbed on that run to Guppy.

No man please, i freakin' hate Gurdy.
When you become Guppy, your face and body change into that of a cat's (and it's adorable), you gain spectral flight (if you didn't already have a flight ability) and you spawn insane amounts of kamikaze flies every time you fire on an enemy. Have a fast enough fire rate and your swarm will clear the room for you. Having completely unlocked everything in this game, i usually tend to strive for becoming Guppy every run. So much fun.
i imagine Guppy is the most powerful partly because he's a bit hard to unlock (you have to gather three of four Guppy parts) but mostly because i imagine Isaac loves that cat more than anything else in the world. He has no friends, his mother is crazy, and his dad is gone. Just a boy and his cat.
(i suppose there are also the uber-powerful Dr. Fetus items, but that's just Edmund's ego)

All in all, this game is a brilliant look in the mind of a lonely and troubled boy, he spends all day lost in his imagination because he has nowhere else to go. And i just love the way it's presented, even ignoring the various endings, you learn so much about this poor boy from the items he picks up, and the effect they have on him. i fear some people may write this game off, because it's full of immature jokes and internet memes. However, what else would you expect to find inside the mind of a little boy? It's all videogames, memes, and things that make him cry.

The gameplay itself is also top notch, the controls are tight, like Super Mario Bros. tight. Nearly every time i die, i know it's my fault and not game's, nearly. i won't lie, it is an insanely buggy game, spiders randomly slip through cracks and Mr. Maw will slingshot across the room without warning, and there are things that just plain don't work. Edmund however is addressing this, and completely redoing the game, and adding all sorts of new things, and while part of me is looking forward to a harder and better crafted game, part of me will miss the bugs you can exploit in this one.

One useful technique, that i think was a feature and not a bug, and hope will be in the remake, is repeatedly beating the same boss with the help of Guppy. See, you can pick up Guppy's tail, which makes drops change into loot chests, or Guppy's Head which is a space bar item that summons flies, however you can also just pick up Guppy's dead body. This item is seemingly useless at first, and rightly avoided by beginners, but can be used beautifully with the right knowledge. Guppy gives you nine lives, but takes you down to one heart each time you die. So what good are nine lives if you only have one heart? Well, if you kill yourself in a boss room, you'll spawn outside of the room, and the boss will respawn when you enter again. Normally you're only going to do this in the early levels, but after defeating a boss ten times, the drops stack up, ignoring the stat up items, the health drops alone should put better off than you were before picking up Guppy. So this might be a bug as it seems exploitative as hell, but on the other hand it takes  skill, and what other use could Guppy even have?

And if you're interested in more of the wonky mechanics of this game, be sure to check out Xaiter's excellent Let's Play. Nearly every trick i know, including the Guppy trick, i learned from this LP.

Bugs and all, The Binding of Isaac is one of the best videogames i've ever played, and if you haven't played it, you're doing yourself a great disservice.

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