When Did You First Play the Binding of Isaac?

What does it mean to play a game?

At first glance, the question is simple, straightforward, and rather mundane. But, in this piece of experimental game criticism, USC iMAP student Adam Liszkiewicz pushes us to think deeper about the range of different encounters and experiences we have with games in contemporary culture. Liszkiewicz was a student in my “Medium Specificity” seminar last fall, and he wrote this essay as part of working through his responses to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings about defining games in Philosophical Investigations. I found this response provocative and wanted to share it with my regular readers. It’s taken me a few months to pry it from Adam’s fingers, but here it is. I’d love to know what you think.

For me, the essay marks the logical next step in what has been called “the new games criticism,” a mode of analysis which owes much to the “new journalism” movement of the 1960s, especially in its reliance on first person perspectives and evocative rather than descriptive prose. From the start, game critics have struggled with their object of study. Some wrote about games as texts, yet it was clear that each player had somewhat different experiences with the game depending on the choices they made. We got into hot water when we tried to describe games in terms of narrative or game play mechanics. We’ve tried to talk about the affordances of platforms. For the New Games critics, the key concept is experience. Each player has a different experience with the game, and so we might best start by offering as detailed and as informed an account of what happens when we play a game. This route led for example towards Drew Davidson’s outstanding series of Well Played anthologies, which has smart players describe their process of working through key games. But, the key idea in this essay is that the same player might have multiple experiences of the same game and that the process of discovery and experimentation is ongoing, even when we think the game is played out.

 

When Did You First Play The Binding of Isaac?
by Adam Liszkiewicz

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A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philisophical Investigations,  115]

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I first played the game The Binding of Isaac sometime during the winter months of 2011. This is to say that I watched one of its trailers, a short cinematic animation which explained the videogame’s backstory. Which is to say I watched the introductory cinematic cut-scene of The Binding of Isaac and mistook it as an advertisement. I have no memory of this viewing; it is merely implied by other memories, and other images. Perhaps these images are inaccurate?

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No, that is not what it means. And I should not accept any picture as exact, in this sense. [PI 70]

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I first played the game The Binding of Isaac in late January or early February 2012. My two best friends were visiting from Buffalo, NY, and both had become enamored with the game. I remember glancing at their computer screens from time to time, while they sat playing on my couch, each on their own laptop. The game looked interesting, by which I mean I largely ignored it and focused on schoolwork. (My spring semester had already started.) Then my friends showed me the opening cut-scene again. I remember feeling stunned: someone had remixed Chapter 22 of Genesis as a videogame about child abuse, evangelical Christianity, and schizophrenia. The game looked fantastic. I knew I had seen the opening cut scene before, but had no memory of its content. But how could this be true? How could I have seen the trailer but been entirely unaffected by it?

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In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process. (A pain’s growing more and less; the hearing of a tune or a sentence: these are mental processes.) [PI 154]

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I first played the game Binding of Isaac on Friday, May 18th, 2012 at 9:55 PM PST. My wife and I went with some friends to a theater in North Hollywood, and caught the premiere showing of Indie Game: The Movie. The film follows Edmund McMillen, the designer and artist behind The Binding of Isaac, as he and his friend prepare to release their game Super Meat Boy to the XBox platform. I cannot remember if the film mentions or depicts The Binding of Isaac at all. But as I watched the film, I thought, “Oh yeah, The Binding of Isaac!” I believe I bought the game soon thereafter. Thanks to my email, I am certain of the date and time of the film.

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What is common to them all? Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”, but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look
at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! [PI 66]

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I first played the game The Binding of Isaac on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 sometime between 1 and 5 PM PST. I was attending a session of “CNTV 600: Medium Specificity,” a graduate-level course taught by Prof. Henry Jenkins in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. The theme for that class session was “Medium Specificity in Game Studies,” and as a student who studies and designs videogames I was asked to introduce a few notable contemporary games to the class. I began by screening the opening cinematic from The Binding of Isaac. When the clip was finished, someone asked me a question about what the game was like. I remember thinking: “How the hell should I know?”

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But have you a model for this? No. It is just that this expression suggests itself to us. As the result of the crossing of different pictures. [PI 191]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac on two separate occasions between early October and mid-November 2012. During that period of time, I was preparing three new videogames for a gallery show at USC; I worked long hours most days. I hadn’t played a new videogame in months, and I needed to try something new so I could write a short paper for CNTV 600: Medium Specificity. Twice, I tried to take a break from design work, and I launched The Binding of Isaac. I don’t recall what happened the first time, but the second time I fell asleep on my keyboard during its opening cinematic.

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The fundamental fact here is that we lay down rules, a technique, for a game, and that then when we follow the rules, things do not turn out as we had assumed. That we are therefore as it were entangled in our own rules. This entanglement in our rules is what we want to understand (i.e. get a clear view of). [PI 125]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. My gallery show had just ended, and it was time to take a short break from work. I remember sitting down at my desk–it must have been Sunday, November 18th–and playing Team Fortress 2 for about ten or twenty minutes. I have played over 800 hours of Team Fortress 2 over the course of the past four years; it is a kind of habitual action, a comfortable pattern of thinking, like shooting baskets alone at a park. This is why my wife told me to stop, when she came into the room. She said it was time for something new. So I launched The Binding of Isaac.

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What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. [PI 309]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac on Sunday, November 18th, 2012. I was hooked almost immediately.

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What I do is not, of course, to identify my sensation by criteria: but to repeat an expression. But this is not the end of the language-game: it is the beginning. [PI 290]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac on Monday, November 19th, 2012. I’d played the game for hours the day before, but somehow it felt like I was playing a new game again. In part, this is because of the freshness and volume of the game’s content, much of which cannot be accessed until it is unlocked through successful gameplay. Different content appears in different playthroughs, so you never know what you’ll encounter in a given level. Moreover, the game’s levels are procedurally-generated; they are created algorithmically, via a set of instructions, rather than being pre-designed and static. This means that each playthrough of The Binding of Isaac happens in a substantially new space, with unpredictable configurations of content. This also means that there is no one version of the game world. Instead, the game reveals itself as a kind of mindset one brings to bear on arbitrary content in an unstable architectural configuration.

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As is frequently the case with work in architecture, work on philosophy is actually closer
to working on oneself. On one’s own understanding. On the way one sees things. (And on
what one demands of them.) [BT, 300e]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac throughout late November 2012. The game remained surprisingly fresh, despite hours and hours of gameplay. Each time I played, I saw new configurations of space and content. Too, I saw that space and content offer new configurations of the game’s central character. The Binding of Isaac is a “roguelike,” a colloquial term for a videogame featuring randomization in levels and content, as well as permanent character death. This means that roguelikes usually afford opportunities for character progression through a random distribution of power-ups and magical items. These items traditionally increase (or decrease) the underlying statistics that govern your avatar’s attributes, and thus its relationship to the surrounding level environments. The Binding of Isaac takes this an unconventional step further: the items Isaac picks up also change his physical appearance. Isaac is routinely changed by objects in strange and often profound ways. His body grows, shrinks, and changes color and shape; his costumes change him from Cain to Judas and back to Isaac again; sometimes he cross-dresses and becomes Magdalene or Eve; other times he is deformed by reactions to pills; he sprouts wings, becomes a cyclops, or grows a tumor on his head. In these and other ways, The Binding of Isaac becomes an ever-changing game defined in part through an unstable character, and it follows that the meaning of the game becomes equally unstable.

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Let us say that the meaning of a piece is its role in the game. [PI 563]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. I can’t remember the exact date, but it occurred when–for no apparent reason–I felt like watching the opening cinematic again. To this point, I had always interpreted this introductory cut-scene quite literally: Isaac’s mother was an evangelical Christian who one day started to hear God’s voice; this voice instructed her to discipline Isaac for his sinful behaviors; eventually, the voice commanded her to kill Isaac, as a demonstration of her faith, and in true Abrahamic fashion she picked up a kitchen knife; Isaac fled to his room, and then to the basement through a trap door hidden beneath his bedroom’s carpet. This had long been my reading of the opening cut-scene. But the longer I played the game, the more troublesome my interpretation felt. When I watched the cut-scene, I noticed something new: Isaac’s thumb in the bottom-left corner of the frame. And then I saw the shadow of Isaac’s head, looming over his thumb. Suddenly, a cartoon fly buzzed through the frame. I was dumbfounded: how had I never noticed these things before?

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It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. [PI 201]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. I still can’t remember the date, but it was the day I realized that the game’s introductory cinematic was drawn by Isaac himself. The opening cut-scene was the same story it had always been, but the author and narrator had changed. And as I watched the introduction all the way through–perhaps for the first time ever–I saw Isaac hang his drawing on the fourth wall, as an invisible barrier separating him from me. It was then that I realized The Binding of Isaac is not a remix of Chapter 22 of Genesis; neither is it about child abuse, evangelical Christians, nor schizophrenia. In fact, it is not “about” anything. It is an habitual action, a commonplace pattern of thinking. The Binding of Isaac is drawing.

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But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for. [PI 499]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac in early December 2012. Already, I had logged more than forty hours of gameplay. I had watched and listened to interviews with Edmund McMillen; I had read reviews and interpretations of the game; I had talked extensively with the two friends who had introduced me to Isaac. I had even played (and beaten) McMillen’s other big game, Super Meat Boy. In short, I had been a diligent graduate student, preparing to write a short seminar paper. My view remained that the game was best understood as a habit of drawing, and when I situated that habit in relation to the game’s imagery and cut-scenes (of which there are currently 14), that habit could be interpreted as a troubled child’s means of escaping reality. It was an interesting reading of the game, and I’d even found a blog post expressing a similar view, which McMillen himself described as “by far the most mind blowingly accurate breakdown of the over-arching meaning behind the Binding of Isaac’s ending”. Everything seemed to fit together. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet purchased and installed the game’s expansion, The Wrath of the Lamb, which adds 80% more content to the original game. McMillen has recently described the expansion as a continuation of Isaac’s adventure, including “dream ideas” that didn’t appear in the original game. I had turned into a serious fan of both Isaac and Isaac; how could I not complete the adventure?

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The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. [PI 109]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac throughout early to mid-December 2012. I installed The Wrath of the Lamb expansion pack, consumed as much new content as possible, and diligently worked toward some fuller understanding of the game. I found spare moments, in breaks between work projects; I slept a little less. I played for twenty more hours, bringing my total above sixty hours played. And after all that, I still wasn’t anywhere close to unlocking the true, final ending of the game. I was exhausted and running low on time, so one afternoon I decided to end the game right where it began. I gave up trying to win the game myself, and instead I simply watched the game’s final ending on YouTube. My intent was to finish playing The Binding of Isaac and start writing an interpretive essay about the game. Instead, the game’s final cinematic cut-scene revealed an entirely different game, and I had no idea how to play it.

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A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about”. [PI 123]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac on an afternoon in mid-December 2012. I had just watched the game’s final ending on YouTube, and in a flash it had changed my understanding of the entire game. I tried to regain perspective, and replayed the game in my mind. The Binding of Isaac begins in Isaac’s bedroom, where the young boy is drawing pictures and telling himself stories about his impending death at the hands of his crazed mother. Isaac is constructing an adventure through his drawing practice, and that practice takes Isaac and you down through his home’s basement, down through caves and into depths where he must fight and defeat his mother. When she is defeated, the player unlocks a cut-scene (drawn by Isaac) showing Isaac’s victory over his mother. But this victory is short-lived, and Isaac must then continue “down” into his mother’s womb, where he must defeat his mother’s heart. Once he has beaten both his mother and her heart ten times–while inhabiting a number of biblical characters, each receiving their own unique “ending” cinematic scenes–his mother’s heart is replaced by a giant fetus. Concurrently, Isaac must travel down again into Sheol to fight the Devil, and then down (or up?) to a cathedral where he fights himself, and after these battles even more “ending” cut-scenes are unlocked. These scenes depict Isaac standing over his open toy chest, the chest in which Isaac has found rewards in previous “endings”, but this time Isaac is rewarded with perspective: he sees that he has been playing all of the characters in a fantasy world, and in reality he has been in his bedroom the entire time. Reeling and conflicted, Isaac steps into his toy chest and closes it. This chest constitutes the final level of the game, and once you beat the final level of The Binding of Isaac for the seventh time (at minimum), you are rewarded with the game’s final “ending”. And this ending completely changed my perspective on the game, as well as on my own perspective.

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Thus I might supply the picture with the fancy that the smiler was smiling down on a child at play, or again on the suffering of an enemy. This is in no way altered by the fact that I can also take the at first sight gracious situation and interpret it differently by putting it into a wider context. [PI 539]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac on an afternoon in mid-December 2012, while watching the game’s final ending. In a game dominated by grotesque cartoon imagery, this cinematic is startling in its simplicity and plainness: it is a sequence of polaroids, found by Isaac in the chest in this room. This sequence of snapshots depicts a loose retelling of important moments in Isaac’s life. The player is shown Isaac standing between his mother and his now-absent father; this constitutes his father’s first appearance in the game, and the entire trio is smiling in an outdoor setting. The next image shows Isaac’s mother with what looks like a young girl, in the same outdoor scene, again introducing a new character (a sister?) or a new perspective on old characters (mother and cross-dressing Isaac?) who are, again, smiling. Next, a few particularly open-ended images: Isaac photographing himself, unhappy, with a shadowy figure behind him; Isaac’s parents, looking happy together outdoors; Isaac alone outdoors, looking sad; Isaac leaning back against his chest, head hung down, hands covering his face. And then, the sequence ends with two stark, powerful, and totally ambiguous images. Next to last, an action shot of Isaac’s mother brandishing a knife, with absolutely no context in the image. Finally, a view from behind Isaac and his mother, as they watch what can only be the father walking down a road, and off into the distance. The plainness of these images contrasts powerfully with the game’s dark and disturbing comic-book aesthetic, lending an unprecedented feel of resolution to the game. That said, the ambiguity of the final images completely upends that resolution: At whom was the Mother brandishing a knife? Was she the monster we’ve seen depicted throughout the game? Or could she be a misunderstood, exaggerated fabrication of her son’s troubled mind? We are left with one strong clue: in the center of the final frame, Isaac’s arm is extended toward his mother, and his hand rests on her back. This opens up the game to an entirely different perspective, of a mother and son in a single-parent household, where Isaac has been struggling to understand what has happened between his parents, and who he and his mother have become as a result. Moreover, it presents the possibility that The Binding of Isaac was a powerful re-imagining of the original Genesis text all along: the Mother as heroic, knife-wielding defender of her son, who expels Abraham from their home. Here at the end, I felt another beginning, another game waiting to be played.

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No; my description only made sense if it was to be understood symbolically.—I should have said: This is how it strikes me. [PI 219]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac while I was writing this essay. The act of writing about the game has, in retrospect, presented itself to me as a kind of unwriting, an unraveling of the bindings of a videogame text. And I see my unwritten text as a parallel to Issac’s drawings: both are practices of composition oriented toward a kind of therapy. For Isaac, drawing was a therapeutic practice of assuaging pain; for me, composing this essay was means to break free from the hold of the game’s opening cinematic. For both of us, our therapeutic practices helped us to expose fallacies in our thinking, and to better understand our worlds and our places in them. Of course, Isaac is a conceptual container, a drawing that draws. For whom was he doing therapy?

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But don’t you feel grief now? (“But aren’t you playing chess?”) [PI, Part 2, i]

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I first played The Binding of Isaac at 9:18 AM on Thursday, December 20th, 2012. That was the moment I wrote this question: if videogames can promote a love of knowledge, are videogames philosophy?

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The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. [PI 133]

Adam (A. J. Patrick) Liszkiewicz is a media artist and activist who designs experimental and socially conscious games. He is a co-founder of the award-winning game design collective RUST LTD., and a Provost’s Fellow in the interdivisional Media Arts and Practice PhD program at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of AFEELD, a collection of playful intermedia compositions that exist in the space between poetry and videogames. Beginning in Fall 2013, he will be the Game-Designer-In-Residence at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, and a Social Justice Research Fellow at USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. You can reach him through twitter (@afeeld) or e-mail (liszkiew AT usc DOT edu).

Comments

  1. Ornat Turin says:

    Dear professor Jenkins,

    I accidently entered your blog when I goggled “school and science fiction” as I am preparing a lecture about the imagined school at the future according to si- fi movies. That is, will there still be classes, human teachers, grades, Crime and punishment in the years to come? And how is the popular culture prophesy agrees with scholarly futuristic analysis?
    I reached one of your old posts presenting a syllabus of a media theory course triggered by science fiction. I would like to thank you for sharing this and also, I am about to check some of the bibliography you suggested there, but if you have something in mind that is more relevant I will be grateful.
    Sincerely,

    Ornat Turin (Ph.D.)
    Media education department
    Gordon College of education
    Haifa, Israel

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  1. […] the case, I’ve decided to try something a little new, somewhat inspired by this article (http://henryjenkins.org/2013/03/when-did-you-first-play-the-binding-of-isaac.html) by Adam Liszkiewicz on the Henry Jenkins […]