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When mastering a game makes it less fun

For this week’s open thread, I’m joined by Matt Kodner, a Gameological contributor and fellow former Gameological summer intern. For as long as I’ve known him, Matt has been into The Binding Of Isaac, the randomly generated (or, to be more precise, “procedurally generated”) cartoon dungeon crawler from designer Edmund McMillen. From the sounds of it, though, he’s getting close to becoming an Isaac “platinum god” and might be on the verge of putting the game down for good. As usual, share your weekend gaming plans down in the comments.

Matt Gerardi: What are you playing this weekend?

Matt Kodner: I’ll probably be playing The Binding Of Isaac this weekend and for the next weekends. I’ve been at it for almost a year, and I’m finally at a point where I can see myself putting the game down.


MG: Wow. That’s a big step. What do you think is behind the change?

MK: Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve gotten pretty good at this game, which kind of sucks the fun out of it. I’ve invested an embarrassing amount of time into this thing, and so much of those early hours were spent wallowing around the first few levels. It’s hard to get traction, because each time you die, you have to start over from scratch. I forget, have you played it at all?

MG: Yeah, I’ve played some.

MK: So you know what it’s like to start out and have no idea what’s going on. I’m at the point where I don’t need to look up what items do in the wiki anymore, and I’ve internalized all these strategies that high level Isaac players use. I’m able to beat the game, all the way to the tenth level, pretty regularly. When I first started, that seemed impossible and the idea of even getting there was hysterical. At this point, running through the whole game is just a matter of playing smart enough until I’m basically able to kill everything without trying. It’s a weird anticlimax. When I started, it was a huge accomplishment if I made it to the third level.


MG: Has this been a sudden development? Or has the fun been draining out gradually?


MK: It’s definitely been more of a gradual drop. It’s not like I’ve gotten much better in the past month. I don’t think I noticed how well I was playing until recently. It was always a beautiful struggle to fight my way through, but now I’m just setting myself up for a walk through the park. I blame it on Twitch—and partially on you because you wrote about the Isaac racing league, BOILeR, around a year ago. There’s this entire world of Isaac enthusiasts who have each put 2,000 hours into this game and race against each other. They’ve even got a commentator who explains all the little crucial choices step by step.

For me, getting good at Isaac was about taking what these gurus were doing and trying it out myself. It was extremely gratifying at first, to have a little control over the game, but once I crossed over that threshold of being good enough to stave off dying, it just seems anticlimactic. I feel like no one was supposed to get good at Isaac. We were all supposed to wallow around, dying in those early levels over and over again. There’s so much information left out of the game, like what items do. They have all these crazy effects, but all the game will tell you is, “You’ve been blessed.” So of course, I took to the Internet to figure out what the Mitre does. “Oh, okay, it gives you more soul hearts. Neat.”


There’s something like 200 items in the game and a million other little things to keep track of, but there’s an entire wiki that explains everything. I relied on that a lot starting out, but I think it took a lot of the fun out of it, which is why I’m excited for Rebirth, the updated Binding Of Isaac remake, to come out. There’s going to be all these new, insanely vague aspects of the game, and the Internet won’t have all the answers.

MG: So you’ve mastered it, and playing it has become less fun. When you play it these days, does it feel like work?


MK: It’s definitely not work to start it up, but there are times within a game, which usually lasts for about 30 or 40 minutes, where I’m standing in one room playing a slot machine for three minutes just, like, staring at the screen and waiting for something good to happen. I keep firing it up, because I’m really close to 100-percent completing it, which is something I’ve never done with a game before. All I’ve got left to do is beat the game with the extra weird, weak, misshapen characters. So I’ve been playing them lately, which is new and challenging but also makes the game drag on because they start out so weak. I have to be extra careful, and I end up staring at my computer for four minutes playing a fake slot machine.

MG: Ah, the truth comes out. This is about completing the game, in so much as you can complete a game that’s randomly generated anyway.


MK: I’m not sure how far you’ve gotten, but you know how the title screen changes as you start to unlock more stuff? It’s got a lot of different pictures of Isaac and his mom, reflecting the backstory a little bit. But once you complete it, like really complete it, there’s this really pathetic and hilarious screen that shows a bulbous guy surrounded by flies with the words “STOP PLAYING.” I used to think it was ridiculous that people got to that level, but now I see myself closing in on it, and I kind of want that self-effacing reminder to stop playing this dang game.


MG: [Laughs.] That’s a great touch. 

MK: Is it weird that I want to be part of an elite group that’s so clearly being mocked by the developer?


MG: He’s doing it with love, I think. I mean, how could you not love a group of people who have devoted themselves to something you created? He’s just concerned is all.

MK: After all the abuse I’ve taken in Isaac, maybe that’s what I’m really after. Some good old-fashioned love.


MG: Isn’t that what we’re all after in the end?

MK: It must be. I don’t think I ever thought I would have this kind of conversation when I first started Isaac, this game where you are a baby shooting tears at monsters and killing psycho manifestations of your mother


MG: You know, for as puerile of a game as it is, there’s definitely a lot to be said about it, both thematically and in terms of its design. Also how it fits within its creator’s oeuvre. It’s maybe the clearest incarnation of Edmund McMillen’s style.

MK: I like how it incorporated (or recycled) a lot of his old characters from other games and jammed them into Isaac’s universe. It feels like a culmination, where everything came together for McMillen. It’s really a bizarre game, between the gross-out humor, religious references in the item pool, and insane amounts of strategy that go into actually playing it. It’s so dense, and there’s so much to think about. I’m looking forward to taking a break. The remake is coming out soonish, I think, and there’s going to be a bunch of new stuff to parse through. I might wait a while to play it though. I feel like I should wait a while. But who am I kidding? I’m probably going to fire it up on day one.


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