Sable, The Binding of Isaac, vibes, and mechanics

End of year dabbling

Sable would be better if it were fun. It suffers from being an open world collectathon with no real mechanics. You climb, pick things up, talk, and that’s it. The aesthetic—a spare cel-shaded world with a muted palette, crisp lines, and strong character design—is very pleasing, as is the game’s warm if undramatic dialogue, where everyone is mostly sweet. Japanese Breakfast did the soundtrack, which is excellent and vibey. The whole thing runs on vibes, really. You might like the vibes, or you might not. I like them. Still, it would be better if it were fun to play. My kingdom for a discernible gameplay loop.

The Binding of Isaac, meanwhile, is the opposite of vibey. It is pure mechanics. It is math dressed up. There’s some narrative to be drawn from all the Christian trauma and gross body stuff, but at the end of the day, you’re there to collect items and try to get good synergies to successfully complete a run. You’re there to smile when you pick up three fly-related items and transform into the “Lord of the Flies,” which allows you to charm all fly-type enemies. It’s hard to write about games like The Binding of Isaac because they’re about as straightforward as the medium gets. To understand why it’s good is to experience it. It all clicks. It all hums. It’s a closed system of logic that makes you feel good. It’s one of the few games where I can lose 32 runs in a row and still feel hooked. (True story.)

There’s no real reason to compare these two games besides the fact that it’s the end of the year and I’m playing them both. I’ve been toggling between games this past month more than usual, taking my time with God of War Ragnarök so that its more repetitious aspects don’t grate on me as much. Both Sable and The Binding of Isaac lend themselves well to this kind of play. Sable lets you get a little breath of its wild for 10–20 minutes at a time. It feels like a nice brain bath in a stressful world, even if it’s a little boring. The Binding of Isaac by contrast is something I’ll probably be playing in-between other games for a long time. It’s fun for as little or as long as you have to play it, and there’s no need to feel guilty about putting it down. Its endless content will be waiting there for you when you return.

I guess the real reason I’m writing about the two is to remark about how, even though I’m a Words Guy,™ there’s something to be said for games like Isaac that eschew narrative in favor of unvarnished play. Games that say no to vibes and yes to math. They don’t give me a lot to write about, really (the bosses are challenging and varied; I like how hard the game is; I can’t stop playing it; etc.), but they’re sticky experiences, lodging into your mind in a way a good puzzle game does. I think about Isaac when I’m not playing it the same way I do with a Tetris or Lumines.1 I imagine patterns and evaluate tactics. I am not having a Very Literary Experience, no, but I’m also not upset about it. Games that lean so far into being pure mechanical experiences almost enter into a different category of experience for me. They can feel more like a favorite album, like something you dip into when the mood strikes you. And right now, the mood strikes me to play a lot (a lot) of The Binding of Isaac.

Sorry, Sable. I liked you but didn’t love you. Isaac? You’re my favorite game I didn’t write that well about.

This Backlog was mostly vibes, wasn’t it? I’ll be back in a couple weeks to round out the year with the first edition of the Backloggies: a horribly named excuse to name my favorite games I played this year.

  1. Lumines alone made me glad I had a PSP back in the day. And now I want to play Lumines again. Great.