The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth — Joy in the Chaos

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a game by Nicalis, Inc.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a defining game, standing as a representation to other roguelikes of the quality they should strive for and what it means to be a roguelike.

A roguelike game can usually be categorized by the following, a heavy focus on randomization; maps, items, enemy types. The game is usually procedurally generated, and most telling of all, the death of the player is permanent. This means that the player usually loses all progress on that run of the game and is forced to start from the beginning from scratch. Binding of Isaac exhibits all of these traits and does very little to deviate from these base principles, however, its execution of these principles is masterful.

The Binding of Isaac is based on an extremely dark premise, an infant trying to escape his mother who is trying to kill her child because she believes that god has demanded this of her. This immediately sets the tone of the rest of the game’s atmosphere, with the enemies being a bleak representation of humanity and degrading the further you dwell into this dungeon that was meant to be your family’s basement. This basement also becomes more sickening the deeper you go. This tone gives the game an immediately defining feel when compared to other games of the same genre, its style is distinct and rememberable immediately to this property. The tone of the game is not what makes it defining however, instead that would be its near perfectly executed take on roguelike gameplay.

A basic look at The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

The gameplay of The Binding of Isaac is seemingly simple. You use the ‘WASD’ keys to move as you would normally in a pc game, keep in mind the game is at a top-down perspective, use the arrow keys to determine which direction you wish to shoot your projectiles, press e to drop a bomb, q to use items in your pocket, space to use a specific item allocated to the space bar. The player also has hearts representing their hp at the top left, as well as the amount of money, bombs, and keys the player has as well. The map can also be shown in the top right, it will obviously not show you the whole floor layout but instead only what you have traversed. The basic gameplay loop is shooting your enemies with your projectiles, which will be referred to as ‘tears’ for the remainder of this writing, while trying not to get hit yourself and die. All of the game is based on these basic controls, and manipulated into something magical through the game’s randomization.

First I would like to speak about the randomization of the map. There are several floor types in the Binding of Isaac, these will not change and will always be in the same order from beginning to end. The possible enemies also depend on what floor the player is on. However, the actual map layout of these floors as well as a secret room or a specific room, amount of enemies, the boss, and the positioning of enemies are all randomized. This means that the base layout of the player can be learned and predicted by the player, the player can learn where secret rooms are most likely to spawn based on the map layout and decide whether they would like to use a bomb to try to open its entrance if it is indeed there, but since it is randomized it cannot be truly learned. Enemy types can also be learned, the player can recognize what strategies they should employ versus certain enemies or bosses, but the player will not know for certain how the enemies will be deployed or exactly which one will before they enter the room, meaning they must adjust their strategy on the fly.

In-Depth look at HUD

The introduction of randomized items is The Binding of Isaac’s crowning achievement however. Every floor has a gold room that contains a random item that augments your character in some way, whether it be as something as simple as a damage up or speed buff or something as interesting as making your projectiles spin around you as if they were slowly escaping the orbit of a planet. With there being 436 items in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, many having unique synergies with one another, this makes each run extremely memorable and different from the last. A really fun synergy for example would be a combination of the item Brimstone, which changes your tears from being a rapid-firing projectile to being a chargeable death laser that shoots in a narrow line in a direction you choose, with any item that gives your tears a homing effect on enemies. What this does is make it so that your laser will twist and turn to hit every enemy in front of you. All items in the game also add to the look of your character for that run, further making each run feel distinct from another since your character looks very different every run.

Standard Brimstone shot
Brimstone synergizing with an item that causes your tears to split into multiple

The randomization of the items and maps with the brutal gameplay loop, it’s a very punishing game to be sure, makes the game extremely fun and satisfying to overcome. The example of the item synergy I provided earlier is extremely strong, it's very easy to win a run if your luck is good enough to get that combination. However that is usually very unlikely to happen, instead the item you get most of the time is not going to be extremely strong and they are going to synergize in a way that has obvious weaknesses. This means that on most runs the player has to adjust their playstyle depending on what items they randomly got for that run. Sometimes this can make the game frustrating when your items are just terrible and you can really feel like the odds are stacked against you, only frustrating because there is little you can do to improve your situation due to the random factor, but the good about a game like this is that you can ditch the run and just start a new one if you feel like that run was just going terribly. Runs in this game aren’t terribly long, usually lasting only 30 minutes if you beat it. So the player doesn’t feel a huge sense of commitment in the same sense they would in an RPG they put 200 hours into a single playthrough.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth offers much in the way of deeply satisfying gameplay with little risk of frustration. In a way, it is a toy, fun for the experience of witnessing and fighting through the utter chaos in front of you that starts every time you begin a level.




A collection of game reviews and reflections on design challenges from the students of IMM 270–02: Game Studies and Design, part of the Interactive Multimedia program at The College of New Jersey (Fall 2020 semester)

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Matthew Stokes

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