For those of you not familiar with the industry, indie games are independently developed video games. Instead of being produced by a big-budget studio, indie games are developed and fully funded by a small group of friends with a passion for their work. Because indie games have such a small budget, their developers can very rarely afford to advertise and gain a large following. You will never see an indie game in a retail store. If that small group of friends has any hope of their game selling successfully, there’s only one thing they can do. Make a game that’s really, really good. Enter “Isaac”.
“The Binding of Isaac” is a darkly comic indie game from one of the field’s most highly-regarded figures, Edmund McMillen. McMillen has been developing indie games since the industry started gaining momentum in 2003, and “Isaac” might be his best work to date. Most of the game was developed in just two short months, but since then “Isaac” has sold over 700,000 copies. The game is now awaiting a full-scale remake and porting to consoles later this year.
“The Binding of Isaac” is a top-down 2D adventure game (think of the original “Legend of Zelda”) that’s very loosely based on the biblical story of the same name. “Isaac” does not proselytize though. In fact, some Bible-fans might find the game’s story questionable.
The game opens with a young child named Isaac escaping the clutches of his recently-deranged mother, who believes her son must be sacrificed to appease God. Isaac hides himself in the basement, where he must traverse room after room, confronting the crawling creatures within as well as projections of his own imagined nightmares. Throughout Isaac’s journey, he encounters clues about his mother’s past, and ultimately must confront her.
There are no save points. If you die, which isn’t hard to do, it’s game over. This would be incredibly aggravating in a feature-length studio game, but “Isaac” only takes about forty minutes to play through. Like most indie games, it’s short. It has to be. But despite it’s length, “Isaac” has an incredible amount of content and replay value. Players will log more hours into “Isaac” than in most modern studio games.
The game is hard. Really hard. I’ve played the game for twelve hours so far (which is about the same length as most modern singleplayer campaigns) and I’ve only made it to the final boss three times, not winning once (Keep in mind that you unlock more content every time you complete the game). In an ordinary game like this, most players would give up, tired of retracing their steps and never winning. However, with “Isaac”, you never play through the same game twice. There are two hundred different items in the game, dozens of enemy types, over twenty unique bosses, and at least thirteen endings. Additionally, in every new game the map layout, rooms, terrain, enemies, and items are all randomly generated.
“Isaac” isn’t for everyone though. If it weren’t for the cartoon-y graphics and sly humor, the game would be horrifying. Isaac’s imagined nightmares are often grotesque and a little frightening. And many of the upgrade items cause visible physical harm to Isaac, though they benefit him by increasing the amount of tears he produces (tears are the game’s main weapon). If you’re enjoying a game of “Isaac” in a public setting, someone is almost guaranteed to ask you what on earth you’re playing.
To me, “Isaac” is the perfect example of a successful indie game. It lacks the complexity and shine of a big-budget game, but it has addictive game-play, a great art style, a good story, a killer soundtrack, and a great deal of replay value. Big title publishers could learn a few things from “Isaac”.
“The Binding of Isaac” is available on PC and Mac for five dollars through Steam, a free software distributor (For those of you grounded on gaming consoles, keep an eye out for the re-release of “Isaac” on your platform later this year). The game often goes on sale for less than two dollars on Steam, which is an incredible steal. I highly recommend the average game enthusiast checks it out. For five bucks or less, “Isaac” requires little sacrifice.