Serious Game Themes and the Binding of Isaac

I’d been avoiding playing The Binding of Isaac for a while now.

See, I have this problem with thematic games.  Binding of Isaac is about a boy whose being tortured by his mother, and the goal of the game is to rise up and kill her.

Needless to say, this rather bothered me.  I kept hearing again and again, “It’s really good.  One of the best games of the year.”  But I couldn’t get past the theme.  Wouldn’t even try it.

In many ways it’s ironic, because it’s a serious theme about something that actually is a serious problem and deserves attention.  So why wouldn’t I play a game about it, whereas I might watch a movie about it and certainly would read the news about it?

I think it’s because words tell.  It’s ok in movies or books to be told something, to receive it, to sit there not reacting.

But games do.  If I’m going to play a game about a serious topic, it’s going to make me want to do something.  It’s got to be something I want to do something about.  And when I play, I want to be involved in it meaningfully.  Not cursory involvement.  Significant, meaningful impact.  Otherwise, aren’t I just wasting my time.

Conceptually, that’s hard to do.  How can you impact something through a game?  The first-order, direct approach, best represented by the Serious Games movement, has been to literally try and impact the problem.  But that’s as hard to do as it is without a game – and often poorly implemented.  I’m not doing any more then I would without the game.

The second-order approach, giving you deep understanding about the problem, has been tried too.  And some succeed, like the excellent Fate of the World.  But often these games don’t go very deep, and leave me frustrated by inaction.  I might learn, but I’m not doing.  Games have a higher standard.  Often what these games teach me is that doing is beyond my reach.

So, in reflection, the real challenge for these thematic games is one of execution.    Like in any game, of going beyond the simplistic bar, and providing new understanding and new capabilities to the player.  Of solving these problems in your game design.  And my old instincts are still that serious thematic games don’t try.  That they are thinly veiled agendas or manipulations.  That they just manipulate shallow emotions around the topic, leaving me frustrated.  And so my instinct was to avoid The Binding of Isaac.

PS  You shouldn’t.  It’s really good.

PPS And it brilliantly exposes a third-order approach – dealing with problems through humor and catharsis.

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