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Behind  Binding of Isaac 's blasphemous success
Behind Binding of Isaac's blasphemous success Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
October 29, 2012 | By Staff

October 29, 2012 | By Staff
More: Indie, GD Mag, Art, Design, Exclusive, GD Mag Exclusive

Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac is an unlikely indie best-seller, and he knows it.

"I knew Isaac was special, but if you asked me to bet on whether Isaac would sell over one million copies in less than a year, I would have bet against it," McMillen writes in the postmortem for the November 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, "It was designed to be a niche hit at best."

He adds, "I had hoped it would gain some minor cult status in small circles, kind of like a midnight movie from the '70s. From any mainstream marketing perspective, I designed Isaac to fail -- and that was my goal from the start."

Here are some choice extracts from McMillen's postmortem:

What went right: Uncensored, unique theme

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.

What went wrong: "Blasphemy" and controversy

Not surprisingly, controversy made a few appearances in Isaac's release year, but not in the way you might think. During Isaac's German retail launch, the German ratings board gave Isaac a 16+ due to "blasphemy." That itself didn't cause controversy - instead, it was the idea that said blasphemy could affect the age rating on a video game.

Blasphemy isn't something you can define for everyone (what's blasphemous for one religion isn't necessarily so for another), so how could one define something as containing blasphemy? It was a very interesting argument, and I'd be lying if I said that having the first game rated 16+ due to blasphemy didn't feel awesome, but sadly it was this controversy that I believe eventually led to Nintendo's decision not to port Isaac to the 3DS.

I remember my wife being worried about Isaac release, worried that it might offend the wrong people and someone could end up being hurt. I can't say I didn't have some hesitation about this aspect of talking about religion in a satirical and possibly blasphemous way, but I couldn't help but avoid the simple logic that, well, most of those kind of people don't play games. And after over a year, I really believe that's true. (Thank God!)

More in the November issue

The November issue of Game Developer magazine is now available via subscription and digital purchase. This issue also features a "mid-mortem" for free-to-play Shoot Many Robots: Arena Kings by Demiurge Studios, and the annual Game Developer Power 50 list. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

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Game Designer


Abby Friesen
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We need more games that cross the line. Maybe not every line should be crossed, but dagnabbit, stepping over boundaries can be a good, inspiring thing.

Kyle Redd
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Let's hope for the best. Game themes have been stuck in a rut of "hero saves the world from evil" for so long it will probably take more than one successful outlier to shake things up, but there are certainly many talented devs out there now who have the talent (and hopefully the willingness) to follow McMillen's example. Christine Love, Anna Anthropy, thechineseroom, Cakebread, and Size Five Games are some of the people I think could be persuaded to really push the boundaries in gaming.

Mike Arcuri
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Cute and dark at the same time and built upon challenging and time tested core game mechanics - Binding of Isaac is the kind of game that spreads by word of mouth because it's both provocative and fun. That's how I first learned about it 9 months ago - by asking someone what he was playing and then seeing a short demo. Well done Mr. McMillen!

Thomas Happ
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I've heard the "going to hell" thing myself regarding D&D. Somehow I think the supreme ruler of the universe would have other things to worry about than us nerds casting magic missile into the darkness.

Julian Gosiengfiao
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BoI is hands down one of the best games I've ever played, and one of the purest gaming experiences you'll find. I won't be putting it down for a while.

That said - the art style truly, truly disgusted me and almost stopped me from playing the game.

After I finally got past it though, (gamer desensitization, har) I kind of wondered what was all that about - the imagery is pretty sick, but it didn't feel flat-out gratuitous.

I guess the content worked to stir intrigue at least - I find myself reading plot theories and other interviews with McMillen just trying to get inside his head. Without a doubt his stuff is pretty controversial - but what's really nice is it also feels like plain old self expression, more so than "SHOVE THIS MESSAGE DOWN YOUR THROAT".

Hate to admit it, but BoI wouldn't've been the same game without that incredibly personal touch. I'll still be trying to rinse my mind of that damn Jesus loves me song, though.

Zach Grant
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Ha, my Catholic mother asked me if my Magic cards were devil worshiping cards when I was a kid. Sadly the Harry Potter books were banned from my Catholic grade school for witch craft. Some of my friends weren't allowed to celebrate Halloween because of the demonic theme. Missing Halloween is child abuse in my opinion :)

John Flush
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as I'm from the group that know about this game but didn't buy it I would have to say the fact it was in a Humble Indie bundle put it on the map for me. I pay attention to these sort of niche games that hit these bundles. To me a Humble indie bundle is like 'making it' in the Indie realm. I will have to admit though as I looked into it the art style turned me off enough that I never bothered to get it, even after the hype and fanfare.

I wonder how many others just took that marketing and tried it out.

Graham Luke
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God bless Edmund McMillen.

Matthew Fioravante
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"I knew Isaac was special, but if you asked me to bet on whether Isaac would sell over one million copies in less than a year, I would have bet against it. It was designed to be a niche hit at best."

Pay attention to this quote. If more people made these so called niche hits instead of trying to maximize their audience we would have some amazing games right now.