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Edmund McMillenDescribed as a “Zelda-esque” shooter, The Binding of Isaac is Team Meat’s follow-up to last year’s Super Meat Boy.

I had the opportunity to interview Edmund McMillen, half of the two-man studio, about his new game.

Rachel Jagielski: What is the concept of The Binding of Isaac?

Edmund McMillen: The basic concept of Isaac was to make a seemingly endless experience. Roguelikes are notorious for being able to do this very well, so I pull a lot from the core design of them in Isaac to create a dynamic world that feels endless, surprising, and mysterious. The player can keep replaying the same game with different results every time.

The core of Isaac's gameplay is a shooter; though, the closest game it would compare to is Smash T.V. Dual controls: one to move and one to shoot. The foundation and structure of Isaac is based on the dungeon structure and resources (coins, hearts, bombs keys) of Zelda NES.

All this put together with a leveling system that uses items that stack to "level up" basically turns these three, very different game designs into something totally fresh and new…that’s the basic concept behind the game.


RJ: In a July interview with IGN, you said that the concept for The Binding of Isaac was partially based on "Christian scare films of the '80s." The game’s title is a reference to the Bible. Would you elaborate further on the game’s thematic influences?

EM: The games story was inspired heavily from a story in the bible called the Binding of Isaac, where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to Him to prove his devotion. The biblical influence came from my obsession with Christian propaganda films of the '80s — when there was a lot of panic within the Christian Right about the satanic influence within things like music, movies, and especially role-playing games like DnD [Dungeons and Dragons–Ed.]. Also, anything viewed as pagan.

A lot of these propaganda videos revolved around fictional satanic cults that ritualistically abused and sacrificed children to gain demonic powers (there has never been a government documented case of any of this, by the way). This bizarre fascination these films had with child abuse and satanic cults pushed me towards biblical stories that mirrored what they were saying, and it all kind of came through in the game's story and overall theme.

My wife had also recently been reading weird cases of captive women birthing and tending to their children in basements their whole lives…it all kind of bled together.

It sounds serious and dark, but the game isn’t a serious game at all — it's pretty light compared to the content I’ve mentioned.

RJ: Your previous game, Super Meat Boy, was known for being difficult but fair. Do you think this game will be described similarly?

EM: Yeah, I think it will be, but in a very different way. SMB was hard but popped you back into place right away…you’d die 1000s of times in a few hours. Isaac is hard, but it only gets harder the more you play — and the more you play, the more the game unfolds and unlocks new bosses, items, and levels.

The thing that makes them very different is simply the time between deaths. In SMB, you can die 20 times in a level that takes you 15 seconds to finish. In Isaac, you can have play sessions that last 45 minutes and end in permadeath: When you die in Isaac, that game is 100 percent over; you never come back with items you had in your last play session. It's always a different game and different "character."


RJ: Do you have any plans to include a level or dungeon editor in The Binding of Isaac?

EM: The game doesn't work that way at all.

Isaac's maps are randomly generated. Basically, each generated map or level consists of about 10 to 20 rooms that are randomly placed and organized. The 10 to 20 rooms are randomly picked from a set of 200 plus custom designed rooms (per chapter), and the items, enemies, secrets and pickups within those rooms are also randomly generated. Each time you start a game or enter a new level, the map is dynamically made. Aside from the 10 to 20 rooms, the game also chooses a treasure room, a boss room, a store, and a secret room (there are also four other room types that appear in the game under certain circumstances).

Everything inside these key rooms are, again, random, including what boss(es) you fight. The game features over 20 bosses, and there are only eight full levels to a play through. So there’s a great chance you will never face the same set of bosses at all. (The bosses' stats and rooms are also chosen from a set of four.)

RJ: Your games have all been influenced by old-school SNES-style gameplay. What is it about old-school game design that still works so well today?

EM: I think the thing that’s most appealing about retro games of the early '90s is that the gameplay of those games were pushed to the top above all else: The gameplay is what mattered most, and that’s where all good games shine. When working in 2D, you kind of take a step back from stuff like visuals, story, writing, voice acting, and so on and just focus on gameplay. That’s what I take from those games, anyway.

RJ: What has been your personal high point as a game developer?

EM: Winning the IGF [Independent Games Festival–Ed.] with my first published game, Gish, in 2005 was my first big one. The creation and release of my games Aether and Time Fcuk were big personal achievements for me as well. The obvious huge one was Super Meat Boy and its mainstream success.

Isaac already feels like another high point for me when it comes to design and theme; it’s a lot more risky than SMB in many ways, and I really enjoy that. It feels like I’m stretching out again and making a bit of room in the box I’ve been placed in.

Originally posted on Digital Hippos.