I never liked randomly generated video games. While most games I play (like Mario titles) don’t have traditional narratives, they’re carefully constructed to send the player on a journey of a different sort. That’s stripped away when your surroundings change every time you load up the game.
I shouldn’t be surprised that the person to change my mind about randomly generated video games is Edmund McMillen, the creator of game-changing platformer Super Meat Boy. His randomly generated Binding of Isaac was chaotic, messy, and unpredictable, but still incredibly rewarding. Not only does it encourage you to collect, Isaac provides you a better sense of the world the character resides in and the vision of its auteur with every playthrough.
Now The Binding of Isaac is being adapted as a card game, and I felt so fortunate to interview McMillen about the game’s Kickstarter, his place in the indie game maker pantheon, and what makes Isaac so magical. Give it a read.
A lot of people were first introduced to you by your appearance in Indie Game: The Movie. How do you feel about its place in your legacy?
I still think it’s a great movie that represents a very specific time in my life very well. It may be easier for me since I don’t come off as nutty as the rest of us, but I know everyone in that movie and we are all basically exactly the same people the movie shows us to be. So I guess they did a good job.
The only issue I have with the movie at this point is I know it may have blindly inspired so many people that literally quit their jobs to become indie without really thinking about what it might take or the risks involved. A few years back people used to come up to me and tell me how they quit their jobs and are now indie and loving it. That doesn’t happen as much these days.
I’ve come to realize that being an independent artist of any kind [means you have] a very specific personality type that’s very obvious from a young age. There [is never] a question of what you are going to [choose for your career]. I guess what I’m saying is to please not quit your day job and risk your future to become a starving artist. Leave it to us obsessive workaholics that can only find happiness in the fleeting joy that is being “indie”.
Super Meat Boy paved the way for so many indie games over the last 8+ years. Can you see its influence in 2D platformers that followed it?
Yeah, I guess. There was a small boom of platformers that came out in the years that followed Super Meat Boy‘s success. Hell, even I made another one last year. Let’s face it, platformers are super easy to make and almost instantly fun. It’s a great genre [to start with] for any game designer if they want to jump in and finish something quickly. I’d like to think some aspects of how I design […] has bled into others. I know I’d to be nothing without Mario and Zelda.
How was creating a card game a different experience than creating a video game? Did you develop new skills in the process?
It was totally different than what I had expected and a great deal easier. When designing a video game you spend 1-3 years alone in your room obsessively tweaking and tuning your work, then testing it [until] everything feels ok, then back to working again.
With a card game, I literally had a working prototype in a matter of days without a programmer. I was able to test and modify mechanics, rule sets and gameplay on the fly when testing… and I got to see peoples faces! I got to actually see the joy and horror [that resulted from] the game’s design right there as I fine-tuned it. It’s been a very night and day experience. Sadly, I miss the torture of digital game development so I don’t think this will become my main focus. But I really needed it, it’s really changed my perspective on what game design is and where it can go.
What has surprised you about running a Kickstarter campaign?
Everything? It’s been a very fun and creative experience in and of itself. It’s an honor to have so many people supporting what I’m trying to make and it’s so cool to finally get to work alongside my wife for the first time.
One of my favorite things about Binding of Isaac is its atmosphere, specifically its pervading sense of loneliness. How does that theme translate to the card game, given it’s designed to be played with others?
Well, it’s not very lonely anymore, but it embodies basically every other aspect of what makes Isaac, Isaac.
Binding of Isaac first released in 2011 but you keep updating and iterating on it, and now it’s debuting in a whole new medium. What keeps bringing you back to the property?
The Binding of Isaac is me. Not in a literal sense of course, but every aspect of the game is pulled from my childhood, my personal interests, and my experiences. It’s the most honest and expansive take on who I am and one of those overarching themes is collecting (a.k.a. hoarding). When a game has a theme like obsessive collecting, it’s not hard to expand it. Also, it’s super fun to design and my wife’s favorite IP, so it’s hard to not want to keep building on a game that you see people still enjoying 7 years later.
Is there anything else you want to do with Binding of Isaac as an IP before moving on completely?
I’d love to do a true sequel :). But not for a few years…
I find it interesting that the only comic you published is autobiographical. What makes comics a better avenue to share that kind of story than video games?
I mean everything I do is autobiographical, I just abstract it as much as possible so I don’t get sued or embarrassed about the game’s meaning. To me comics were pretty straightforward storytelling, they didn’t take me much time to make and I made them totally by myself. At this point, they feel very shallow when put against video games as a medium to me. With games you can go beyond a story or message and allow the player to experience your themes, you can go beyond showing them abstract ideas and actually let them live and learn through their actions and the reactions of the things they interact with. Games are a stupidly complex art form that takes forever, but I honestly believe they have more potential than movies as one of the ultimate amalgamations of really compelling art forms.
Do you have aspirations to explore even more forms of storytelling, either by adapting existing properties or making something new?
I feel like I’m constantly simplifying the way I tell a story with my work. I get a lot of pleasure in really simplistic and elegant themes that embody the specific themes and tones I’m trying to convey in whatever I’m working on. The End is Nigh may be my best work when it comes to that. I have no idea where I’m heading, though. I didn’t know I’d be making a card game this year, but the opportunity arose and it felt right, so I did it. The End is Nigh was the same and both experiences felt very inspired. I’m just trying to stay as open as I can and allow life to carry me into my next project.
Go back the Binding of Isaac Kickstarter, only three days remaining! You can also follow Edmund on Twitter and Tumblr. Thanks to Daniel Guillen for his assistance devising questions for this interview.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at email@example.com.