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Postmortem: McMillen and Himsl's The Binding of Isaac
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Postmortem: McMillen and Himsl's The Binding of Isaac

November 28, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

2. Uncensored, Unique Theme

I strongly believe that game enthusiasts want what they haven't seen yet, and that adult gamers should be treated like adults. Some people might argue that Isaac isn't "mature" when it comes to its content, but those people would be ignorant fools! When I designed Isaac's story and overall theme, I went in wanting to talk to the player about religion in a manner I was comfortable with -- that is, with dark humor and satire.

A lot of the content in Isaac is extremely dark and adult. It touches on aspects of child abuse, gender identity, infanticide, neglect, suicide, abortion, and how religion might negatively affect a child, which are topics most games would avoid. I wanted to talk about them, and I wanted to talk about them in the way I was comfortable with, so that's what I did with Isaac.

I'm not saying everyone who played Isaac did so because they cared about these themes, or that they even understood why they were in the game, but I strongly believe that this adult conversation I dove into with Isaac is what made the game stand out to people and kept them thinking.

I grew up in a religious family. My mom's side is Catholic, and my dad's side is born-again Christians. The Catholic side had this very ritualistic belief system: My grandma could essentially cast spells of safe passage if we went on trips, for example, and we would light candles and pray for loved ones to find their way out of purgatory, and drink and eat the body and blood of our savior to be abolished of mortal sin.

As a child growing up with this, I honestly thought it was very neat -- very creative and inspiring. It's not hard to look at my work and see that most of the themes of violence actually come from my Catholic upbringing, and in a lot of ways I loved that aspect of our religion. Sadly, the other side of my family was a bit more harsh in their views on the Bible; I was many times told I was going to hell for playing Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering (in fact, they took my MtG cards away from me), and generally condemned me for my sins.

I wanted Isaac to embody this duality I experienced with religion. I wanted it to show the positive and negative effects it had on me as a child -- the self-hate and isolation it instilled in me, but also the dark creativity it inspired. The Bible is a very good, creatively written book, and one of my favorite aspects of it is how so many people can find different meanings in one passage. I wanted Isaac to have this in its story as well, which is why the game's final ending(s) have many possible interpretations.

3. The Wrath of the Lamb expansion

Doing a DLC expansion was never in the plan for Isaac; I assumed the game wasn't going to do well, so it wasn't something we really ever even talked about. I had a few pages of "dream ideas" that I wanted to add to the game, but I had to stop working on them and put them on the back burner, since I wasn't sure how much the extra content would matter if the game didn't do well. Six months later, we ended up taking these dream ideas and expanding them into an extra-large DLC expansion.

The Wrath of the Lamb expansion added over 80 percent more content to an already-bloated experience -- and people ate it up. 25 percent of the people who purchased Isaac also paid for the expansion, and that ratio is going up by the day. We honestly didn't expect to make it, but once I started seeing such a positive, creative fan response, I felt obligated to continue Isaac's adventure.

Honestly, however, the number-one reason why I did the expansion was because my wife Danielle had already 100-percent-completed the game. It was the first game I had designed that she became obsessed with (she's actually playing it right now, behind me, while I'm writing this), and it made me extremely happy to see her fall in love with something I had made. I just had to continue it (also, she wouldn't shut up about wanting more).

4. Circumventing Censorship with Steam

Steam is amazing, and with the Isaac release experience I've found another crucial reason: You can use it to sell uncensored and unrated games. This was vital with Isaac, because I wasn't going to bother with getting an ESRB rating for a game I wasn't sure was going to sell more than 100 copies. Valve knew the game was weird and could possibly get some backlash, but they allowed it on Steam because they felt it had potential, and I love them for that.

Another huge plus to working on Steam was the ability to constantly update Isaac with fixes, updates, and new content. They would upload a new build within the day we submitted it to them, and if we had released it on any other platform this would have been impossible (and probably cost us about $40,000 to try).

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Michael Griffin
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I really love this game; Isaac's story reminded me of improvising a D&D campaign using the bits and pieces of toys I had on me--albeit in a darker way. There's a sadness to this game that really adds another dimension, which is why it can sometimes be hard to play for too long.

A Wii U or 3DS version would be fantastic--local co-op crossplay between them would be even better. I think the GamePad is particularly well-suited to single-screen play here, too. I didn't know Nicalis was working on the new version! That's great news.

Thanks for this post-mortem. I think it's refreshing to hear stories where the creative process is allowed room to fail--and soars because of it.

Sean Hogan
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Rad, glad it worked out so well! In general I wish people made their games more personal and as reflections of themselves...there's something about games with parts of the personalities and thoughts of the creators that's appealing - maybe gaining insight into their minds, etc. Are you going to be making all of the 16-bit graphics for the console version?

Michael Pianta
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Great article. I hope Nintendo does allow this game on the Wii-U. I think it could be a perfect fit - you could pull it down onto the game pad or whatever. And also I just want Nintendo to stay relevant. Indie developers like you are the bright future of games, all the consoles need to have this sort of thing on their platform.

Michal Dawidowicz
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Hey, you can make Flash games outside of FLA for years now, doing a little bit of research would probably saved you tens or hundreds of hours fighting with big ass FLAs. But past aside, I'm patiently waiting for the Rebirth now!

Tinus TheBoss
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So is the Rebirth not coming for pc/ steam? only for console? :S

Matt Hackett
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Many of the limitations you faced sound just like the issues I'm having with HTML5, which currently feels like developing with an old, shitty version of Flash.

I read this like three times in GD Mag. Solid game, great take-aways. Thanks for writing this, loved it.

Brian Devins
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I had no intention of buying this game until my friends, one after one, gushed over it. I bought it and couldn't believe how riveting it was. It's actually one of my favourite games of all time. I sure hope Reborn will make it to PC - I feel like I haven't paid enough for this game yet.

Craig Timpany
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I wonder if the Binding of Isaac could've made it through the Steam Greenlight process if it were pitched today? I'm not sure they'd even allow it to have a listing, seeing as they disallow "inappropriate or offensive content," whatever that means.

Daniel Boutros
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A great game. One my favorites of the year, pre-Wrath of Lamb. After that, it felt like starting again for me. :)

Was stunned it didn't even get an award nomination at any of the indie shows. Smelled like bullshit to be honest.

BTW Tyrone, I'm jealous. Great game dude.

Epona Schweer
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Reason #437 of why I work with indie creatives and am such a fan of McMillen's stuff.

Andreas Ahlborn
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I`m left quite speechless, how much technical naivety the "what-went-wrong-paragraphs" 3 and 4 show. How comes that an obviously talented game designer like McMillen would eventually blame his tools for the technical problems he created by not knowing the basics about his crafting tools?
It`s like a carpenter would complain about his hammer, saying: a hammer is probably the wrong tool for driving in nails, because wood is softer than metal. FYI: You don`t hold a hammer by its head.
If Ankama can use flash to drive a game like dofus, and you have problems with it even if your scope is much smaller...that doesn`t exactly speak for you having done your homework.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Actionscript 3 hit the market in 2006. You should think every programmer that wants to use this technology would have made the shift long ago.

Samuel Roberts
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Florian Himsl was the programmer, not McMillen, and AS2 was chosen because that was what Himsl was comfortable programming in. Still seems somewhat off that someone would actively choose to continue using such outdated technology when AS3 has been around for over five years, but that was the situation.

John Jenks
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Congratulations on such an unexpected hit.

I loved Isaac. As much as it caught you off-guard with its success, it caught me off guard with its unique charm and its simple yet addictive gameplay. And the fact that you made this game for YOU and not for US... well that simply earns more respect for you and for the game from me.

Nikolay Osokin
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In regards to Negative Point 2 (Lack of testing) I wonder how McMillen would feel about conducting future business using the pay-for-the-alpha model that a few indies have adopted. That way no one's getting hurt that doesn't want to participate in a buggy alpha/beta period, and there's greater community interaction and gauging of interest, which would have shown him how 'tiny' his niche base would have been.

In general, Binding of Isaac has been a genius product since launch. I've put in 100+ hours (like most have, I presume) and am excited to give it a try on consoles, especially considering the complete overhaul of everything. I dig the flash graphics and design, but I generally would love a remixed version of most games, and the 4 options put on his tumblr all look neat.

Mohamed Almonajed
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God bless you Edmund.

jicking bebiro
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for me this is the best roguelike game i've ever played. This is what i call indie for being what it is .

Kyle McBain
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Never played but the basic structure, or should I say lack there of, sounds like Oblivion from the Elder Scrolls series. The items are not required to progress, and all the enemies level up as you do. It makes me wonder why I am leveling up at all. It's not "magic". It's laziness. And the fact that the map is exactly like Zelda is odd to me. I know it is not... but definitely feels like plagiarism. The only reason this game sold well is because of Super Meat Boy.