Human Nature Through the Lens of The Binding of Isaac’s Game Mechanics (By Marina Kittaka)

Human Nature Through the Lens of The Binding of Isaac’s Game Mechanics 
By Marina Kittaka

Note: this essay was written in an academic setting, so it’s in a slightly different tone than I would use for an average article or blog post. It also is written assuming that the reader may have little to no background in video games. 

The interactivity and nonlinearity possible in video games allow for the creation of alternate realities with their own internal rules and value systems. In one sense, all fictional and non-fictional narrative communication functions in this way: altering or exaggerating aspects of reality in order to convey some feeling, theme, or idea about our own existence. In games, however, the resulting experience is inherently unique each time the game is played, even before the player’s interpretation of that experience. The Binding of Isaac adds a large amount of randomly generated structure to this already variable experience, pressing the player’s mind to search for patterns; this creates fertile ground for the formation of superstitious, mythical, or supernatural beliefs. By tapping into this shared human psychology within its own alternate reality, Isaac creates a powerful space in which to contemplate the religious themes that populate its explicit narrative.Structurally, The Binding of Isaac is often classified as a “roguelike.” Rogue was a dungeon exploration game released in 1980, which featured a great deal of procedurally generated content. This means that the game designers did not create one specific dungeon for the player to inhabit, but instead created algorithms with which the game would generate a unique dungeon each time the game began. Like Rogue, Isaac features procedurally generated dungeons, including randomly appearing items (often with themes relating to childhood or religion), enemies, and boss creatures. Isaac also features “perma-death,” a common feature of roguelikes. While in many games, death simply sets back the player’s progress in an otherwise consistent storyline, death in Isaac means you must start over in a new, procedurally generated dungeon, without any of the items that you collected on your previous playthrough. The result is that Isaac is played in distinct “runs,” lasting around 20 to 80 minutes each. Depending largely on random factors—although also on player performance—runs take on various characteristics: slow, tense, over-powered, fun, etc.

Humans are programmed to search for patterns and to find confirmation for their feelings and beliefs. These quirks and biases come out strongly in the face of the randomized and mysterious events in Isaac.  For instance, on each floor, there is an item room containing a single item that grants new abilities or changes the players stats (movement speed, damage done to enemies, attack range, etc). Naturally, some items are much better than other items, and this can have a dramatic effect on the player’s perception of how frequently they appear. Across many runs, a powerful and coveted item may seem extremely rare, while an item you hate is exceedingly common. In reality, Edmund has confirmed that the items found in item rooms are “literally random” and not weighted to bad items over good items (McMillen, Formspring). One explanation for this phenomenon may be that the player frequently hopes for the good items, thus noticing every single time they don’t appear. All of these small disappointments add up to create the illusion of the rarity of the desired item. Even regardless of “good” items versus “bad” items, random chance sometimes leads to a player getting some items more frequently than others. It’s hard for a player not to desire some sort of meaning in the distribution; players will ask Edmund about this on Formspring, making statements like, “I’ve seen harlequin baby and chocolate milk in almost every run I’ve done over the past month, and things like stigmata and mom’s eye haven’t shown up since may” (McMillen, Formspring).

The strange psychological effects of The Binding of Isaac become even more apparent while watching someone else play and describe their thought process throughout. “Let’s Play” (LP) videos on YouTube and other sites provide that exact opportunity. Northernlion, a popular Let’s Player who uploads Isaac runs every day to YouTube, makes frequent commentary on the item combinations and character of the runs he’s been having, creating a narrative across runs out of an essentially random series of events (Letourneau). Perhaps even more interesting is the way he personifies the randomly generated aspects of the game, frequently thanking or cursing “The Troll Engine” for the items and enemies encountered throughout the game. For instance, if a single key could spell the difference between life and death, and a key is trapped across a chasm, Northernlion might say that the Troll Engine is messing with him. Of course, rationally speaking, Northernlion is not convinced that there is a real personality behind the random events in the game. Nonetheless, when facing a particularly unique, ironic, or unfortunate outcome, it is easy to feel—on some gut level—as if someone is pulling the strings.

Notably, not every situation in Isaac is up to pure chance. For instance, some items and statistics can change how often you receive money, keys, and other items. Some playable characters have secret stats that make them more likely to find certain items. In other words, sometimes correlation is due to causation. Experientially, this is true to life—there are factors that affect every situation that are not obvious or explicit but are also more relevant than random chance. The presence of these factors only serves to encourage speculation about hidden effects that other items or characters might have; the fact that the odds occasionally do change feeds directly into hypotheses that can essentially function like superstitions.

All of these facets of Isaac’s design serve to highlight the strange ways that humans tend to deal with information and events in our own reality. In particular, Isaac serves as a potent exploration of religious belief. In many cases, religious experiences are comprised of sequences of events that simply seem too meaningful to be random. Similar experiences can occur in Isaac through verifiably random incidents. However, Isaac’s structure does not lend itself to simply condemning religion as pointless superstition. The sense of wonder engendered by engaging with the mystery of the game’s mechanics is one of the main reasons to play the game at all. Ascribing a god- or fate-like persona to the game’s random generation is an intensely human response, and allows the game to have an emotional and personal relevance. And beliefs about the game’s mechanics—whether true or not—can change the decisions that the player makes, for better or for worse.