Eat, Sleep, Breathe, Isaac
Upon the release of Super Meat Boy in 2010, independent game creator Edmund McMillen had finally struck it big. After years of making obscure and much smaller projects, he and Super Meat Boy co-creator Tommy Refenes became overnight successes. Both critics and fans were in agreeance that Super Meat Boy was one of the greatest games ever created.
In the years since, a lot of things have changed for Edmund McMillen. Most people would assume that after a smash hit, plans for its follow-up would be fast-tracked, but that hasn’t happened. The continuation of Meat Boy’s journey is only now happening eight years later and it doesn’t even involve McMillen. Instead of resting on his laurels, he decided to forge his own path forward.
His follow-up to Super Meat Boy was The Binding of Isaac. Another incredibly personal tale from McMillen, the game combined different aspects of his life and interests into an infectiously clever roguelike with strong religious overtones. Isaac went on to renew interest in the decaying genre while also propelling him forward as a creative force to be reckoned with. To say it was monumental in cementing him as a visionary is an understatement.
In the years since its release, though, McMillen has essentially only worked on Isaac related material. There have been a few odd games here and there (one being The End is Nigh, which is also based on a period of his life), but it seems Isaac has become his magnum opus. Is it even possible for that to happen, considering Super Meat Boy is often heralded as the best indie platformer ever made?
When I was given the chance to sit and talk with McMillen about his work, I immediately wanted to know what was next. Both Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac were hugely influential in getting me to recognize that smaller games can be more meaningful than titles triple-A studios release every year. Without having played either of them, I may have given up on gaming entirely.
But how does one go about planning a follow-up to such a monumental game like Super Meat Boy? It turns out that not believing it was your best effort is the key to pushing yourself. While McMillen knows that Super Meat Boy is a good title, he still felt there was more he could have done with it.
“I’ve heard people have issues with having success and then making something after and, psychologically, that wasn’t a barrier for me,” McMillen stated. “I didn’t think Super Meat Boy was all that great.” To say I was floored to hear that doesn’t do the statement justice. I can’t imagine anyone ever uttering those words, let alone the creator of the game in question.
He continued, though, by saying, “I mean, it was a good game and I hit the hell out of that thing and we worked on it for a really long time and did a really good job. In terms of its design, it was the most simplistic thing I could have ever done to find success with.” McMillen then elaborated that he had been making platformers for years and knew he could make a good one. If he was going to risk everything on a single project that could shape his life, why develop a game that would only appeal to a smaller audience?
As for developing a successor, McMillen knew that the bar was set pretty low for him. People were probably expecting something similar to Super Meat Boy, but the ceiling had been busted wide open. He now had the freedom to experiment with ideas and give birth to a title that was beyond what people were anticipating.
“I strongly believed that nothing I made after Super Meat Boy was going to find the success that Super Meat Boy did. So I already had come into it [Isaac] thinking, ‘I’m not going to worry because whatever I make next isn’t going to be as big as what I made previously'”. With that hurdle already crossed, McMillen knew his next move was just to push himself as a creator. He wanted to work on things that were bigger, weirder, and that forced him to tap into his true potential. With that, he set out to realize The Binding of Isaac without limitations.
Despite not thinking it was possible, Isaac is now what Edmund McMillen is known for. His first taste of success didn’t stunt his career and he has now become an indie darling with millions of fans. People love his games for their personal touches and oft-kilter themes, though it also helps they are wonderfully designed titles with rewarding feedback loops. Isaac, though, has almost taken on a life of its own.
Since creating the Zelda/roguelike inspired baby simulator, McMillen has basically only worked on expansions and a remake of the game. His ludography contains more Isaac than any other property he has created. For all intents and purposes, he has become entwined with Isaac. It might possibly be impossible for him to creatively top.
As far as McMillen is concerned, he doesn’t believe that sentiment. “I have faith in myself,” he firmly stated. “I think I can beat The Binding of Isaac. It is almost impossible, but either way, I’m just going to be as comfortable as possible and make something new.” He then mentioned that for his creative process, he is always writing out and sketching potential sequels to practically every game he has ever worked on, including Super Meat Boy, Gish, and Aether. The chances of those sequels happening are pretty much zero, but McMillen is constantly prototyping ideas to prevent him from becoming stagnant.
With Isaac, he even admitted that the only way he’ll ever likely top the original is by making a sequel to it. “I love the game a great deal. It is definitely one of my favorites that I’ve done. So I can see myself making a sequel to it in the future. I don’t know when, but I’d like to do some different games. I don’t want to get stuck in that Isaac hole.” He then laughed as 2018 seems to be the year of Isaac all over again.
The main impetus for this interview was in relation to the then-in-progress Kickstarter campaign for a card game version of The Binding of Isaac. Since then, another expansion to The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was announced. While that is taking a fan campaign and integrating it into the Isaac mythos, it seems McMillen can’t escape that crying baby. He does see himself moving on from Isaac soon, but the reason he has stuck around this long is simply that he finds it enjoyable.
“Isaac is kind of more like a universe to me,” McMillen said, “and I want to just keep expanding it and making it cooler.” That being said, he is thinking about possibly reuniting with Tyler Glaiel (of The End is Nigh fame) and producing some other weird offshoot. With regards to this particular game, though, McMillen is not anticipating another platformer. He wants to make something really different and out of left field.
As for what a sequel to Isaac would look like, the only bit of information he was willing to give me was a general quote: “If the original Isaac is The Legend of Zelda, then the sequel would have to be Link to the Past.” As for why he is being so vague, McMillen put it very bluntly. “If I mention something mechanically and there are a bunch of modders out there, they will just mod it into the old game.”
That is actually how the fan mod Antibirth (which is now becoming an official expansion called Repentance) came to be. He told me that the logical expansion of ideas for a sequel would be obvious to the more creative minds out there. In fact, a lot of the ideas he wrote down for The Binding of Isaac 2 are exactly what fans had crafted for their visions of Isaac’s adventure.
That isn’t to say McMillen isn’t appreciative of what fans do to Isaac. When the founder of Nicalis (publisher behind Rebirth), Tyrone Rodriguez, suggested mod tools, Edmund was excited for everyone. It even got him thinking about what new things he could concoct for Isaac, which led to the release of Rebirth’s second expansion. The main idea, though, was to create smaller updates so he could constantly be tweaking instead of delivering massive content drops at once.
What then happened was a chapter of his life that was wrought with turmoil. He didn’t get into any specifics, but due to his child being born around the time of Afterbirth’s development and a bunch of other personal issues, McMillen wasn’t as closely involved with Afterbirth+ as he wanted to be. This led to the initial release feeling lackluster and almost like a stain on Isaac’s legacy. Even I felt similar, though I rated the expansion quite highly due to the potential for what mod tools could bring (namely some ridiculous Pokémon expansion I saw that was all the right kinds of awesome).
The process behind all of that is what sprouted The End is Nigh, actually. “It was a really, really, really shitty time and all of that comes through in The End is Nigh, because I wrote about it,” McMillen said with a heavy breath. “That’s what I did to purge the experience. It’s one of my most proud moments.”
After all of that trouble, you’d think he would have wanted to leave game development behind. Instead of starting work on another video game, however, McMillen shifted gears to the physical realm. His reactions and experiences bonding with other people over game creation are what spurred his fascination with board and card games.
For The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls, he started prototyping the idea when he fell ill after releasing The End is Nigh. He didn’t have the energy to look at a computer monitor, but he was able to draw out ideas and create makeshift cards to produce a card game. While he had initially turned down a pitch from Robert Bowling (of Call of Duty fame), after prototyping the game with his wife, McMillen came back around to the idea producing a physical card game.
However, this happened about a year later. For all he knew, Bowling could have moved on from wanting to adapt Isaac into another format. As McMillen put it, “Regardless of whether or not the offer was on the table, I still would have done it. I was already excited about the project and was happy with the design.” What he didn’t expect was that waiting for so long would end up requiring him to shift into high gear.
“When I approached them to do this,” McMillen recalled, “they told me, ‘We’ve got to do this now.’ I’m thinking now means within the next couple of months, but literally within a week, I had signed a contract. After that moment, within days they were at my house.” It was a scary realization for him, but only because of his prior experiences working with people.
“For all the projects that I’ve worked on, for the most part, I’m the one that pushes,” McMillen told me. “I’m the one that carries. I’m the one that drags people along and motivates them. With Studio71, those people are so fucking serious and so professional. It was nice to be able to work with people like that. They were moving so much faster than me and it was kind of inspiring in a way.” In our conversation, he gave a special mention to Garima Sharma and Javon Frazier for their excellent work.
What McMillen believes is that a lot of the programmers he has worked with just burnt themselves out. While that hasn’t personally happened to him, he knows it can be hard to constantly motivate someone if their heart isn’t in it. For himself, he has a burning desire to create all the time. He needs to be working to keep himself sane and alive, so he doesn’t believe there is a point where burnout will hit him. If anything, shifting focus to Four Souls after The End is Nigh was likely him realizing he was reaching a tipping point in video game development and needed a new break.
“The thing with creative people,” he explained, “is that we have to remember we are creative. That doesn’t tie us into one medium. You have to be creative with how you inspire yourself. Be creative with how your work day goes and how you reward yourself. My major motivator is that I designed, in a creative way, not just the things I’m working on, but the way I’m working on them.”
He then went on to list the different ways he kept himself sane while knee-deep into development on Four Souls. Along with doing creative blog posts on the Isaac website and even some podcasts, he also took to Twitter to do some “AMA” type requests where fans would send in questions. Even interviews, like the one you’re reading now, were an outlet to prevent him from locking himself up in a box with the lights off.
He continues to stress that, too. From playing Magic The Gathering with his friends to spending time with his wife playing Pokémon Go, McMillen is constantly pushing himself in different directions to maintain the light in his life. “You’ve gotta never lock yourself in a room unless you want to die. To stay mentally healthy and sound as a creative person, you have to get outside and you have to interact with other people and the social environment. If not, you’re going to be chewing bullets really fast.”
You can see that sentiment applied directly to Four Souls, as well. When the project was announced as the Kickstarter went live, some people were upset that a digital version of the game wouldn’t be available. While it is certainly possible to adapt into a video game, McMillen doesn’t want that. When I asked him about how he’d consider bringing Four Souls to the digital realm, he bluntly said, “I wouldn’t”.
As he stated numerous times around the Kickstarter’s launch, the social elements that are so integral to Four Souls cannot be translated to a digital space. There is a completely different dynamic of looking into a person’s face and reacting to them that you won’t get over the internet. While he won’t stop people from porting the game to the popular Tabletop Simulator, he won’t be producing an official version in the foreseeable future.
As for what is coming next, Mewgenics is still on the table. McMillen hasn’t given up on the project, but Four Souls did sidetrack him from pushing it further. He didn’t elaborate too much on the ideas he wants to bring into Mewgenics, but it has certainly evolved beyond whatever the concept was a few years prior. Tyler Glaiel is now involved and he tossed around the idea of it being a brawler hybrid with roguelike elements alongside the Animal Crossing-style hoarding aspects of the original idea.
“It’s a big project, though, and that’s the thing: it is very daunting,” McMillen stressed. Following up the card game, he isn’t sure if he wants to go for a project that will take six months or two years, so he isn’t committing himself to a firm date for Mewgenics. What he did tell me was The Legend of Bum-Bo would likely release by the end of this year. “Both [Bum-bo and Four Souls] will probably be finished by the end of this year. After that, my plate will be pretty clean.”
Even if he does miss those dates, I have yet to play a game by Edmund McMillen that doesn’t stimulate some part of my soul. People like to associate creators such as Hideo Kojima and David Cage with the term “auteur,” but Edmund McMillen is just as much of a driving force behind his projects as those two big names. You will not find a title in his ludography that doesn’t immediately scream, “I was worked on by Edmund McMillen.”
Even if some people can’t get behind that or his projects start to lapse in quality, they will always be reflections of his life and the state of his being during the period they were created. That, for me, is far more important than simply being a good game.