The Binding of Isaac : A Decade of Gaming and a Tale of Joy, Sadness, and Growth

This article is going be different from the usual content I’ve written for Seasoned Gaming. To date, I’ve stuck to reviews, and this is my first attempt at jumping into something more personal and meaningful to me, describing how a small indie game could have such a huge impact on my life. This is much more personal than anything I’ve written before, but I truly hope it shows how gaming can be more than a simple hobby.

The first Isaac screen so many fans ever saw

A little succinct history: The original Flash version of The Binding of Isaac (hereafter referred to as “Isaac”), was released a decade ago on Sep 28, 2011. While it likely isn’t the first rogue-lite game that was released, Isaac helped to put the genre on the map, and greatly contributed to the explosion of growth for not only just the genre of rogue-lites, but indie games as well. Rogue Legacy was the first game to use the term rogue-lite in its description in 2012, but Isaac was one of the first main-stream rogue-lites. Isaac saw it’s first DLC pack, Wrath of the Lamb, released about 8 months later in May of 2012, and this expansion was just the start of how Isaac would continue to grow over the next few years. With just over 1200 hours played on Steam, the original Isaac carried the mantle of my most-played game for a long time until…

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was released in November of 2014.  Rebirth wasn’t a sequel to the original Isaac, but rather a re-imaging of the game. Rebirth took the smoother flash graphics and gave it a more pixelated look. This design choice was questioned as people thought at first it was a downgrade to the previous iteration.  However, the graphical choice was very well received after launch, and still today Rebirth maintains the more pixelated 16-bit look.

Like the expansion schedule of original Isaac, Rebirth has had multiple expansions including Afterbirth, Afterbirth+, and the most recent Repentance. Afterbirth+ also allowed for smaller booster pack expansions, with five of these additions released between March 2017 and May 2018. These booster packs were largely comprised of popular user created mods that were officially incorporated into the game. In 2016, there was a fan created mod called Antibirth, which added an alternate path through the game’s main levels, additional characters, and additional bosses.

The Repentance expansion was the official incorporation of Antibirth into the main game and added two new characters, and also doubled the entire roster through unlockable alternate, or tainted versions. That meant 34 characters to play, two main game modes, and 14 unlocks per character (some of which can be completed concurrently but some require individual runs). The replayability of the game is through the roof.  There are also numerous unlocks that aren’t tied to specific characters, but rather events in-game, or using specific items in specific situations. At the time of writing there are 637 achievements for Rebirth and its expansions listed on Steam, and each one is an unlockable in the game.

At its core, Isaac exists somewhere between the nuanced genres of rogue-like and rogue-lite. The game has permanent unlocks in terms of characters, items, and levels to explore. But the character’s stats don’t change and aren’t able to be upgraded. Some characters get new items that they start with, but that’s the extent of character upgrades. I personally don’t want to get to involved with the boring core gameplay of Isaac, and if you’re here reading a tenth-anniversary retrospective about the game, you likely have some knowledge about it.

As previously mentioned, the original Flash version was released on Sep 28th, 2011. I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb here to say that the world 10 years later is wildly different, and my personal world has gone through upheavals, but Isaac, the little naked crying baby, has been there through it all.  Since Isaac’s release I have gone through a divorce, finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, gone through a handful of jobs, completed both my active duty contract and my National Guard contract, dealt with an abusive girlfriend, my youngest son was born, a new engagement, and dealt with everything else going on the world.  Isaac was my escape through all these life events, whether I wanted to unlock something new, do a daily run, or just try to continue a winning streak, Isaac provided the world in which all that mattered was if that next item was the one that would break your run wide open.

In my opinion Isaac is quite simply the perfect little nugget of gaming that fits into my hectic world as a parent, solider, and just generic adult. Depending on the final goal of the run, it can take on average 30-45 minutes or so to finish, though with the newest Repentance content this average run length is increased a bit since the new areas have some more difficult enemies and puzzles. I’m currently sitting at just about 4,400 hours of gameplay across all the versions and platforms I’ve played Isaac on. That’s 183 days of gameplay, almost exactly half a year.  It’s crazy to think that 5% of my life over the past decade has been playing this game, and while some may think that it’s way too much, I feel like that it’s Isaac that helped me stay sane and stay positive.

The release of Repentance also provided something to the game’s fans, the “true” or final ending. I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible but discussing the ending of the game may contain some spoilers. That said, the ending is purposefully ambiguous and will have different meanings to everyone who plays it. The final section of the game has Isaac traveling back upwards and into his house, where he fights a static-y beast from the television named Dogma. After beating Dogma, the fight is taken to the true final boss who’s simply named, “The Beast”. With the defeat of The Beast, Isaac appears to ascend to heaven and his dad chimes in asking if this is the story that Isaac wants to tell or if it should be happier. This ending is meant to be ambiguous, with developer Edmund stating that he “didn’t want to hold anyone’s hand” and thus left it open to interpretation. Edmund has made it clear that Isaac is supposed to be dead after hiding in the chest to get away from his mother, but the conversation with his dad makes it less clear.

To me, I believe that both his dad and Isaac are dead, and the conversation is being held in Heaven. His dad is asking about Isaac’s memories and telling to reconsider if he just wants to focus on the bad and not on anything good, and that’s why the game restarts (other than being a rogue-lite) so Isaac can have the opportunity to take a different path and change the story. The path upwards to fight The Beast is littered with dialogue between Isaac’s mom and dad and the tense relationship they had with money problems, dad being kicked out, and then mom begging for dad to stay. It’s clear from the beginning of the game that Isaac’s dad isn’t present, but it’s never revealed what happened to him, and the ending leaves it open for interpretation.

The ending was very emotional for me. The first time I saw the ending on Dan Gheesling’s stream I teared up. Partially because it was “the end” of 9+ years of gaming history, but also partially because the story felt very much like my own story. Thankfully, without shooting my way through my psychotic mother’s womb, but still very familiar. I never remember a time when my parents were together. I believe they got divorced when I was about 2 years old. Neither parent ever had much positive to say about the other, and like Isaac I grew up alone. The ending struck me hard.

My dad passed away in 2004 after a lengthy battle with cancer, and while there were no words of wisdom passed to me or any major emotional outpouring, I made the decision to simply remember the good. The bad things that were said between my mom and dad didn’t matter anymore. Like Isaac, I was given the option to tell the story that I wanted.  It’s far too easy to focus on anything and everything negative, and forget that positive things can be found. All you have to do is look. I’m at a point in my life where things are definitely more positive than negative, and while Isaac isn’t needed as an escape right now, it still provides entertainment almost daily. I take pride in daily runs when I can land on the top of leaderboards, and it’s still nice to start the day with a coffee and an Isaac run.

Isaac is a truly special game. Even with all the hours I have logged, the enjoyment is still there. As of writing this the Repentance DLC hasn’t come to consoles yet, and I know as soon as it lands on the Switch, it will easily be a minimum of a few hundred hours more to unlock everything again. Isaac is certainly not a perfect game. There are some runs that are cursed from the beginning and simply not fun, but the joy of the game are those runs where you overcome the game not giving you the easy win tools, or those runs where you have a synergy that will make your eyes melt. I recognize that the game isn’t for everyone. The difficulty can definitely be up there, and the repetitive gameplay isn’t for some. It cannot be argued though that Isaac brought rogue-lites into the mainstream, and while Isaac hasn’t exploded into the franchise like Angry Birds, there has been merchandise, spin-off games, and countless mods created. Four Souls is an incredible card game based on the games for example.

My opinion might be a little biased, but if you have any interest in playing a roguelite (or -like) then Isaac is easily the gold standard and should be given a shot. It still amazes me the amount of content that is in such a little package. If there was only one game that I was allowed to play, Isaac would be it. And after 10 years it’s hard to imagine a world where I can’t play this game. I truly appreciate the game that Edmund has created, and for those of you who read through this little slice of my life I appreciate you as well. Here’s to gaming as something more than just a hobby.

By Nathan Lynch

I'm a father of 3 amazing kids and a US Army veteran who's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days. Outside of gaming I'm an avid cook, mainly meat on the grill or in cast iron, rookie fisherman, and lover of cheese. I primarily play on my Xbox One, Nintendo Switch or PC. My favorite games are rogue-lites, looter shooters, and anything I can play co-op. I am a huge supporter of fundraising for Extra-Life and can be found on Twitter @NatorMVP

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