On a lighter note: The mechanics of Isaac

by berv

I’ve been playing a great deal of The Binding of Isaac as well and, having exhausted my political energies responding to Frangibility’s previous post, would like to get into greater depth about the mechanics of the game. Specifically, I’d like to examine the multiple-playthrough/procedurally-generated-content/progressive-unlockable nature of the game and how that’s so damn compelling.

When Isaac was first released, the available media did little to recommend it to me. It looked like a sluggish shooter with simplistic arena design and no interesting obstacles to contend with. Then it came down the pipe as part of the Humble Bundle’s latest package and I, being the sucker for indie bundles that I am, had no choice but to pick it up. If I’m lucky, one of the three games will give me a couple hours’ enjoyment. If not, I’ll throw it on the Steam pile and resign the cash spent as a donation to indie devs.

Once I began playing, I found that, as a shooter, the game is indeed very simple. Power-ups that change the way your shots work are few and far between and the combat rooms are extremely basic. The variety of the enemies and the relatively high level of difficulty led me to keep playing. Then I died. Then I realized that the levels and powerup distribution are procedurally generated. Compelling +1.

So I played on to seek out more of the variety that the game had to offer. Soon, I was unlocking achievements and the rewards that came with them. In a very similar way to another of my favourite bite-sized roguelike-inspired games, Desktop Dungeons, these rewards were not immediate, but came in the form of gradual additions to the variety of the game: powerups, bosses, characters, etc.  The more you play, the more interesting the game gets. On any given run, you’re liable to encounter maybe 10-15 different powerups.  Initially, these are taken from a pool of (I’m guessing) 50 or so. Continued play results in the expansion of this pool to an eventual 131 and brings with it alternate bosses, secret levels, and a gradually escalating difficulty. Honestly, this is like a straight injection to my reptilian brain.

Rather than encouraging a grind through well-trodden and repetitive territory (as oh so many do), Isaac presents a unique series of challenges each time you play, which increase in their potential complexity the more time you invest. Facing a room with a maximum health of 1 heart and a handful of bombs is a very different experience than facing a room with the ability to fly and shoot beams from your mouth. Each time I play, I am engaged in the particularities of that run and am forced to think in new ways to adapt to the unique circumstances presented. By conquering these challenges, I am rewarded with new and increasingly complex ones! As one who appreciates the way in which some games make you think about a problem instead of just throwing an obstacle at you again and again until you overcome it, this variability is much appreciated and extends the playtime in a far more meaningful way than “running the same quests, but choosing evil dialogue options this time!”

There’s a great deal to be said for meaningful procedural generation: when your system presents new gameplay challenges with each permutation, you’re making good use of its possibilities. By contrast, when you make use of such a system to fluff up the size of your world, relying on tired rehashing of old material perhaps coated in a different colour of paint (e.g. planets in Spore), I’d say you’ve wasted a great deal of potential.

Though there is certainly value in video games that tell a single story with depth of character and plot as well as those that present beautifully polished and scripted combat encounters, I grow more and more drawn to those that let the player write their own story, be it as simple or as bite-sized as limitations demand. I’m not talking, really, about an overarching story of redemption or some such topic, but the story of your character’s unique development, approach to challenges, and eventual end, be it victory or defeat. When procedural generation leads to emergent gameplay, when it can surprise the player, when it can provide depth of choice in actions, I think you’ve accomplished a level of “game” that scripted games just can’t touch. Is it a purer game (and less of a passive experience/activity) because of this?