Recently we sat down with Team Meat’s Ed McMillen to discuss his new project, The Binding of Isaac. McMillen is an honest and unique individual–his work clearly demonstrates this. For The Binding of Isaac, we got exactly what we hoped for: honest, but raw answers that reveal the creative genius behind the man.
The Binding of Isaac tells the story of a mother wishing to kill her child. Fleeing in terror, the child runs to the basement of his house. Once in the basement, he discovers quite a few unexpected things, but also the keys to overcoming his murderous matriarch.
Such a sad little child.
1) It seems you’ve gone a little biblical with your latest inspiration. Can you explain the story behind this?
I collect Christian “extremist” memorabilia… I have a bit of a love hate relationship with it, I hate them but I love and appreciate the mount of crazy that goes along with it. I actually have a huge collection of Jack Chick comics (ever one must read this chick.com) and have recently been obsessed with christian video propaganda from the 80′s. The Christian Right directly attacked anything they viewed as pagan as evil throughout the 80′s and rumors about satanic cults sacrificing babies to the devil became news all around the world… though none turned out to be true. Stuff like this really fascinated me.
I grew up Catholic and went through 7 years of catechism, the morbid aspects of the bible were burned into my mind from a very young age. I give a lot of credit to the Bible to making me the way I am now artistically, a ton of stories and imagery from it bleed into everything I’ve done.
The Binding of Isaac is my most literal biblical inspiration, its based on the story of god asking Abraham to kill his only son to prove his devotion to him, for the most part anyway.
2) Classic McMillen realism and gore aside, some might get a little queasy at the thought of a mother wanting to kill her child. Is there a reason behind the madness for this particular narrative?
I dunno, it could have been what I was watching or even the overall mood of the month the game started. It was around the peak of the Casey Anthony trial so I’m sure some of that made its way in. My wife got on a kick of reading morbid news and reading books on child captives kept in basements I’m sure all of these things had a lot to do with the overall theme of the game… On paper it seems a lot more morbid than it is :), nothing in the game is meant to be taken seriously its all very dark, but dark humor.
3) Instead of leveling up you’ve opted for an itemized stacking mechanic. How many paths or options are available for players who want to customize with the stacking?
Customization is a bit limited. You need to think of it more or less like every time you play you are given a new set of powers mostly out of your control and it’s your job find the best way to use each combination. If you save up your pennies and find a few keys you will be able to enter shops to have a bit more control over what items you want your player to have, but for the most part playing as Isaac is going to be very different each time you enter the basement.
Though, there are 3 other unlockable characters you will find as you play that will start you off with a set “class”, these classes are all based on the 4 main D&D classes and the 4 suits of the tarot, fighter (Isaac), cleric, thief and wizard.
4) Just how big is this basement that the child wanders into? i.e. How are levels being organized throughout the game?
It seems to keep going down forever :)
Each level or map is generated out of X rooms that are randomly chosen out of that chapters “room set”. Each chapter consists of 2 maps, the 1st map pulls from mostly easy rooms and the 2nd mostly hard. Each chapters “room set” consists of over 150 rooms that I’ve designed, the contents inside each room are slightly randomized and the visuals are also randomized on top of that. Every map will always contain a Boss room with an exit, treasure room, a shop and a few other secret rooms you’ll discover as you play and as you progress the number of rooms in each map raises. That’s the basic setup of how the game is generated.
Basement level after basement level!
5) You’ve hinted at “tons of dynamic happenings”. Can you explain a little bit more?
The focus of the games design is to make sure no play through is ever the same. The maps are randomly generated, the rooms are randomized, the items are randomized as well as the enemies you fight bosses you encounter and things you might run into as you play. One person could play through the game to the end 5 times and never run into the same items bosses and secrets another player might encounter… that’s the magic of the game, it’s the mystery of the experience.
A good example was when I was playing the game last night, I was on level 6 (pretty far) but I had half a heart and was desperate for health. I happened to collect a few coins and was lucky enough to find 2 nickles in the last room I finished but I didnt have a key to get into the shop. I went searching the map for anything I might have missed and found a treasure chest behind a stone wall, using my last bomb I blew up the wall and opened the chest finding a tarot card, the Moon. I used the card and it teleported me into a hidden room filled with bones and a slot machine right between a few fire pits.
Desperate for a few hearts I started spending my pennies on the slot machine, losing a few times but still getting a heart and a few more coins to play with… that’s when it happened! The slot landed on 3 bombs, usually a great thing because that means I get another bomb.. but this bomb happened to be a troll bomb. I ran from it and it exploded, blowing up the slot machine, coins flew everywhere… but so did a key! I grabbed the key and ran back to the shop unlocking the door and entering it in hopes of a heart or even better an item that would heal me up. Sadly as I entered the room the shop keeper charged at me knocking my coins all over the room and summoning creatures to help him fight.
I ended up killing him and stealing his book of coupons to use in later shops… but it’s stories like this is what makes the game shine… there was so much going on that I actually got lost in the game… and I’m the one that designed all these happenings.
6) How extreme can the appearance changes be? Are we talking full-blown sex change, or just the steroids?
We have both of those actually… Right now there are over 75 special items in the game, 90% of them will change the way you look in some way. Some change your face or body others change your size and color, some give you little companions and others just give you cool headgear.
7) Are the creative and development process with this new team different from the typical happenings of Team Meat?
Yeah its pretty different than working with Tommy, but Isaac is a million times smaller than SMB so it would have been different either way. Florian and I are on totally different schedules so when I’m going to bed he’s waking up, I pass the file to him with a list of design info and he works as I sleep and sends the file back when I get up. One of the biggest changes this time is having Danny on not only as the musician but also as the main play tester of the game, his feedback has been crucial to development.
8) What’s an average day in the life like working on an indie game?
Wake up, check mail, eat, work for a few hours, play with RC helicopter, work for a few hours, Legos, Eat, work for a few hours, watch Judge Judy, watch some Maury, play a few games, go to bed.
I’m pretty sure Florian’s day is more like, work a few hours, play games on steam all day go to sleep. :)
One of the bosses, the Duke of the Flies!
9) Would you consider the Binding of Isaac your magnum opus? Or is that work in the far future?
I wouldn’t consider Isaac my magnum opus at all, not to say its not a big grand in scale for one of my side projects. It’s easily the biggest “small” game ive ever done, but its still rather small and development will probably max out at 3 months at most. There’s a lot there but people shouldnt expect to be paying anywhere near what they paid for SMB, not even half.
10) How long do you plan to focus on solo projects?
I actually jumped on Isaac as a small game jam “game in a week” project when Tommy took a vacation but it ended up having more potential then I thought when that week ended.
Tommy is currently working on the engine for Game #2, so this gives me something to put my time into while he gets the foundation for our next big project ready.
I enjoy smaller side projects, but I very much want to jump into Game 2 as soon as Isaac is finished, I got to prototype a lot of ideas for the next game with Isaac and im very exited to put what I’ve learned to the test on a much larger scale.
Once again, thank you Ed McMillen for all the attention you’ve paid us. We’re looking forward to The Binding of Isaac and more of your mad genius in years to come.