Michael Hancock is the Book Reviews editor on First Person Scholar. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. Currently, his grey matter is engaged in writing a dissertation on the use of image-based and text-based rhetoric in videogames.
“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
The Binding of Isaac, an indie game developed by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl, was released on September 29, 2011. More recently, on September 26, 2012, I demoed the game in front of a class of second year undergraduate students. Individual deviations aside, there were generally two reactions. Those who were familiar with the game immediately started commenting on the layout of the level, the types of enemies the players faced. They groaned when the level’s bonus item turned out to be the subpar Lemon Mishap, and nodded in sympathy as one player put up a brave but futile struggle against one of the more challenging level one bosses, the two-pronged Headless Horseman. The group unfamiliar with the game stared in horror at violence in front of them, as Isaac threw his tears at enemies with blood dripping from their empty eye sockets, only to be further chased by their headless torsos spewing a trail of blood behind them. The one thing the two groups agreed upon was the meaning of the game’s introduction. In the original Biblical story, God commands Abraham to slay his son, Isaac, then tells him to break off at the last moment, explaining it was a test of Abraham’s faith. Reframing the biblical story into a modern context, The Binding of Isaac features a TV-obsessed mother following divine instructions to deprive her son of toys and media devices, and then, finally, sacrifice him. Isaac flees from his mother into an even more nightmarish and hostile realm under his room, and the game begins. Witnessing this introduction, my students came to a single conclusion: The Binding of Isaac is a game with a divine ax to grind.
Level design, aesthetics, and paratextual Bible framing: these were the three salient elements of the game my students immediately identified. Jesper Juul, in half-real, argues that as we play games, the aesthetic dimension (and, implicitly at least, the paratextual dimension) becomes less significant than the game’s rules and design. In terms of prolonged play, then, the theoretical approach most relevant seems to be procedural rhetoric. Coined by Ian Bogost, studying a game’s procedural rhetoric is simply studying how its processes—its rules in action, so to speak—persuade the player to act in certain ways. For Binding of Isaac, the basic rules are presented as simple and uncomplicated; rather than a prolonged tutorial, the controls are splayed in the background of the first room in any playthrough, explaining movement, weaponry, bombs, keys, and the use of special items. As the player moves from room to room, the map of the dungeon expands; when the player reaches the boss of a level, Isaac moves to the next floor, the map resets and the process repeats itself. It’s a rather basic design, and one that various reviewers have identified with games such as Legend of Zelda and Smash TV.
A Lemon Mishap
What the game does differently is its randomness. Each level of the game is randomly generated upon play, with all of the significant locations—item shop, secret room, boss room, special item room—randomly placed as well. The enemies, up to and including the level bosses, are randomly chosen, albeit from a set appropriate to that particular floor. The power-ups are likewise randomized, from the highly useful mutant spider, which allows Isaac to simultaneously shoot four tears at once, to the aforementioned Lemon Mishap, which leaves a yellow stain at Isaac’s feet. Once all the conditions are unlocked, you can even randomize your character pick, creating a moment of chance that happens before the game proper even begins.
The persuasive power of so many randomized events is not unlike that of a slot machine: you continue to play, over and over again, in the hope that, no matter how many times you lost in the past, eventually, the odds will be in your favor. Christopher A. Paul, in a chapter entitled “Balance and Meritocracies,” argues that “balance” forms an ideograph in contemporary discussions about games, that balance is a word used frequently to summarize in short form what many players and designers see as the ideal design. Binding of Isaac finds its balance through imbalance; any one playthrough of the game may be stacked against the player by virtue of the design of the level, the selection of items, the particular level bosses, but because the player never feels too imposed upon because even in a world of lemon mishaps and The Bean, there`s always next time. A procedural rhetoric approach to the game, then, could conclude that it persuades the player to accept randomness into the system, to appreciate good fortune and bad fortune alike.
The Binding of Isaac has generated a lot of discussion in blogs and podcasts. It is the discourse surrounding the game, however, that demonstrates the limitations of that view, and, consequently, the limitations of procedural rhetoric. John Teti, at gamelogical.com, follows a similar argument to the one I’ve posited, that the game’s random unfairness is, ultimately, what it makes it seem fair (though he characterizes this appearance not as the game being more fair, but more real than one with predetermined events, a definition of videogame realism that perhaps is worth discussing on another day). He goes one step further, however, in defining this design as fundamentally deist: “If game creators are like little gods, then McMillen and Isaac programmer Florian Himsl are from the deist school. They only make the rules of their universe; the game’s program and the player do the rest. When Isaac strolls into a den of spiders and half-skulled zombies, it’s not because the creators pre-ordained that it would happen that way.” Chris Remo, of the podcast Idle Thumbs, argues that this god isn’t deist at all, but Old Testament, by virtue of the way the game seems to be entirely arbitrary in terms of whom it blesses and whom it condemns—the PC is less Isaac, he argues, and more Job. (The book of Job, incidentally, tells the story of a wager between God and Satan, that Satan can coerce Job into abandoning his faith by making him suffer through a series of supernaturally inflicted hardship. Arbitrary punishment is only one interpretation of the Book of Job, but, like game realism, that’s neither here nor there.) Max Lieberman, over at Luderacy, evaluates both views, preferring Remo’s approach for its greater emphasis on the player’s interpretation. He further argues (as I eventually will, as well, spoiler alert) that player interpretation should be viewed as being in dialectic with process, rather than casually produced by it. He then ends the essay with his own conclusion on the game, that it isn’t about God at all, but the aesthetic focus on dirt, violence, and difficulty, traits that he ascribes to a thematic exploration of child abuse, based in part on his familiarity with other games by McMillen.
Where does this focus on God, child abuse, and bodily fluids come from? Not so much from the processes, the procedural rhetoric. Admittedly, coping with randomness and arbitrary punishment is in the procedures of the game, but the jump from that randomness towards the nature of the Divine and child abuse requires a look at something beyond the rules, a look at something from the paratext and the aesthetics: the game’s introduction and settings—from enemy names to halo-related power-ups—push people towards those interpretations, which in turn affects their assessment of the game’s process. The weakness of procedural rhetoric is that it tends to downplay everything not related to abstract process. To return to Juul, it dismisses the “story” elements as fiction, while implying that the rules are what’s “real” and significant. It fails to connect process to player, and to larger paratexts of reference. In actuality, many things shape player experience, including process, but also, yes, the game’s aesthetics, and the way it draws on outside material such as—in this case—a Bible story. To get the most out of procedural rhetoric in The Binding of Isaac—or any other game, for that matter—it needs to be considered not as the be-all and end-all of game studies, but one perspective among many.
Or at least that’s what my students would have me think, anyway.