Playing The Game of Chance

The strange satisfaction of letting luck decide your gaming fate

So far, I’ve invested over 872 hours into the various iterations of The Binding of Isaac, which wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s fallen under the roguelite’s spell. But from outsiders, that figure, equivalent to about thirty-six days, elicits a response that I assume is equal parts admiration and disgust. How can anyone invest that much time to a single game, they ask? It’s pretty easy once you’ve given yourself over to the power of the random number generator (RNG).

Spin Me Right ‘Round

Here’s a screenshot I took of the first upgrade item I encountered during my last Isaac playthrough:

Yes, I took it, and yes, it ended poorly.

That time, Eve’s Mascara was waiting for me, but because Isaac uses RNG to determine the items I get, the enemies I fight and the layout of the dungeons I crawl through, the game will be different and unique every time I play it. Lots of games feature randomization to some degree. RNG is used to drop loot in Diablo, resolve combat in X-Com, drive the cars in Crossy Roads and manufacture the sweets in Candy Crush.

But in Isaac, RNG is such a central concept that in some ways, it is the game, and this adds tremendous variety along with the same unpredictable tension that makes sports and gambling so compelling. Hence my obsessive commitment.

Rogue’s Gallery

It’s not a comfortable relationship, however. So much of the experience is left up to chance that it’s possible to win and lose regardless of your efforts because RNG tilted towards one extreme. The phenomenon is so emotionally fraught that it’s inspired its own meme: the cheekily named RNGesus, who, like his Biblical counterpart, both gives and taketh away.

(image credit: http://www.redbubble.com/people/nitroherp/works/15093091-rngesus)

It can also make for a steep difficulty curve. My current gaming obsession is another roguelite called Enter the Gungeon which forces you to shoot your way through monster filled lairs with an arsenal of cleverly designed guns. Because the experience isn’t linear, you can’t memorize layouts or patterns and brute force your way through; I’ve logged about ten hours and I’m just now getting comfortable — with the first floor.

Every single game of Gungeon has been a Sisyphean nightmare of frustration and at best, I’m left shaking my head and muttering under my breath; at worst, I’m questioning my decision to buy the damn thing. So why do I do it? Games are supposed to make you feel powerful and empower you to influence the outcome with your skill. So why do I keep putting myself at the mercy of such a cold, uncaring system?

Two reasons: one, it helps sustain a sense of mystery that’s all too fleeting in games and two, it’s a punishing but effective teacher.

Retaining the Magic

There comes a point in every gaming experience where it stops being ‘new,’ and it usually happens fairly early on. There is joy in seeing what comes next and discovering the little twists, but what you see is generally what you get until the ending credits. In relationship terms, this is like having your mate bare their souls on the third date. But games like Isaac never really leave the flirtation phase: they tease and tantalize by only showing brief glimpses of themselves at any given time.

I still experience unexpected moments of novelty in Isaac, which is saying something considering everything we’ve been through together. I’ll luck into an unexpected item combination or find a new humiliating way to die, and for a brief moment, I’ll feel the same sense of wonder that I felt when I first installed it. It’s especially impressive considering its relative weight class: it’s brilliantly designed and executed but it’s much leaner than heavyweight productions like Fallout 4 or Civilization 5 which rely on sheer mass and overwhelming complexity to provide the same sense of near-infinite value.

Snatching the Pebble

RNG can also be a coldhearted taskmaster when it comes to new skills and mechanics. Most games hold your hand like a friendly school teacher doling out lessons in small doses. Having trouble with a tough enemy or section? No worries, keep trying, you can do it!

RNG is the white-haired master from every kung-fu movie you’ve ever watched, forever shaking its head at your sorry effort. When my spaceship blows up in FTL, it doesn’t offer words of encouragement or hope; instead, it get in my face and shouts “Again!” And just when I think I’m starting to get it, just when I start to feel a glimmer of hope, it swiftly kicks my ass to remind me that I don’t know a goddamn thing.

I feel your pain, Beatrix. (image credit: http://killbill.wikia.com/wiki/File:ChapterPaiMei.jpg)

And yet, there are moments when the student can prove himself worthy. Bloodied and bruised, I’ve risen to the challenge and the chaotic conditions make the thrill of victory that much more intoxicating. It’s also short lived because RNG has no memory or soul, but I do, and the next time I get beaten down, I have a reason to get right back up.

Embracing the Chaos

There is a dark side to all this random madness, however; let’s call it LucifeRNG, perhaps? Things in Isaac can be too luck dependent, to the point that only 2.2% of the Steam community has bothered to unlock its master achievement, 1001%. I’m in that small minority, but the grind almost made me quit the game forever. And that sense of accomplishment I mentioned earlier? It’s a little tainted. Was I really behind the wheel at the finish line or was I riding shotgun while RNG chauffeured me to glory?

This makes it difficult to unconditionally love its use in gaming. People have written thoughtful missives on its shortcomings as a mechanic and openly railed against its ability to negate skill in games like Heartstone; even the Isaac community frets over it’s unfairness. The angst is easy to understand. Gamers are used to being in control and having full agency over their fates, so its demoralizing to see your efforts wasted by an arbitrary twist of math. The presence of randomized elements in online competition can also rub against the grain of our need for fair play.

But luck has no allegiances nor does it take sides. Whether it’s a million dollar poker hand or my ill-fated journey to the second floor of the Gungeon, it’s not working for or against anyone, and its a fools errand to attach any motivations to its efforts.

As unlikely as this may seem, The Joker is a fairly deep reservoir of philosophical inspiration, and he got it right in The Dark Knight when he said, “Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.” He could have just as easily been talking about RNG, and once you give in to that truth, you’ll discover that the benefits, though hard-won and sometimes poisonous, can be well worth the pain.

-t

I used to work in the games industry (GamePro, Wikia, IGN) and will periodically write about whatever’s on my mind. You can find me on LinkedIn and send me constructive, well-reasoned feedback on Twitter and email (taekkimsf at gmail dot com).

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