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Goal Setting & The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Of all the games I have played, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is one of only three that breaks 400 hours of playtime. For a selective and episodic gamer such as myself, 400 hours put into a game is actually very significant — the only games that beat that are the supertitle Minecraft and a momentum platformer called N++. I began with its origin, The Binding of Isaac, in middle school, and got its sequel, Rebirth, on the winter solstice, the 21st of December, in 2015. After having already become infatuated with the first game, taking to the second was as instinctual as sleeping. Rebirth was everything that its flash-game predecessor was, and more. All the same enemies, items, progressions, but then more enemies, more items, and more progressions. These memories are so old now, I must half-fictionalize the series of events, but I believe I can do so with accuracy.

I had 100% completed games before. They were casual games at that; Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn make the list. Those games provided an easy first experience for doing everything there was to do in a game. Nothing was incredibly difficult, but the content was optional and challenging enough that accomplishing it felt like a worthy effort. Having come from those, I looked at the achievement list in Rebirth. At the time of launch, there were a whopping 178 achievements, not including those I would soon be faced with once I purchased the expansion Afterbirth. Phew, 14-year-old me must have thought, this will be my biggest challenge yet.

And thus I dove in.

Many, many times will you die.

Part I: Having Fun with Being Bad

When starting something new, it is important to be shameless. Everyone’s heard the quote “nothing worth doing is ever easy”. Rebirth is no different. The game is a ruthless gauntlet of sometimes truly unfair scenarios and challenges; it is not noob-friendly, to say the least. To tell the truth, Edmund McMillen’s games rarely are. And to continue with the truth, not many real-world skills are, either. Practically everyone who begins dabbling in a new artform knows the pain of feeling like you aren’t, and never will be, good enough. But most everyone also knows that such a mentality is likely to get you nowhere.

If I played Rebirth and held myself to the standards of the YouTubers that I watched, I would have given up then and there. How could I be proud of myself when I lost my first ten games in a row? How could I not throw the controller in frustration? Well, because there is a hidden beauty in being bad at a new thing.

Instead of measuring your success in proportion to the success of others, the only meaningful way to measure success is to measure it against your past self. Almost nobody can try at something repeatedly and not get better at it, so I’m going to safely assume that you’re not one of them. If you notice not your shortcomings, but instead your gradual improvements, you will become acquainted with a chronic good mood as you throw attempt after attempt into your chosen challenge. That was precisely the state I found myself in while playing Rebirth.

Failing was never the frustrating part. Failing where I had once succeeded made me frown and think: I can do better. But usually, regression would just push me further. If I was struggling to beat a boss with one character that I’d beaten with another, I would find myself redoubling my efforts. The next step would be to become consistent at beating that boss, and then practice beating them quickly. Once that was done, I would pat myself on the back for achieving my self-set goal. The process was slow, but it was enjoyable. I did not watch playthroughs and think: Now why can’t I do that? Instead, I watched playthroughs and thought: Won’t it be great when I’m at that level one day? And with this mindset, I slowly began winning. And once I started to accumulate basic victories, I could expand my horizons to incorporate more challenging ventures.

The checklist, completed in this case.

Part II: Expanding Beyond the Basic Skill

Once you’ve worked hard at acquiring the fundamentals of skill in any specific craft, the next thing to do is to set goals and develop projects. If you’ve just figured out how to play guitar chords, the logical next step would be to find an easy song to practice, allowing you to showcase your newfound abilities. In a game like Rebirth, those goals are pretty plainly laid out for you. Once you unlock new characters (often by just stumbling upon them), they each have a literal checklist of things you must do to consider them “completed”. You get marks for beating Mom, Mom’s Heart, Isaac, Satan, Blue Baby, The Lamb, and more (yes, it is a ridiculous, silly game)! Once you have these goals, it’s your task to organize them by priority.

For a real life skill, such as playing guitar, you’re likely to pick easier goals that let you practice harder skills (such as, say, fingerpicking) in a safe environment. Similarly, in Rebirth, you likely want to start with easier characters before going for completion with harder ones. For example,, you’re most likely going to get all completion marks with Azazel, a flying, blood-laser shooting demon, before getting them with Blue Baby, a character who is incapable of utilizing health upgrades and has poor starting stats. Azazel definitely represents a “safe environment” in which you can practice fighting all the big bosses you will later have to fight with Blue Baby.

The Lost.

Part III: Experimenting & Pushing Your Comfort Zone

There is inevitably going to come a point where the next step is bigger and gnarlier than any previous singular steps you have taken before. In games, we call these “difficulty spikes”, and no matter how smooth a developer attempts to make the difficulty curve, spikes almost always crop up in one way or another. However, with Rebirth, I find it more likely that this massive leap in difficulty was intentional. If you’ve played the game, you likely know what I am talking about.

The Lost.

The Lost is a character unlike any before. They have no health, and ask that the player takes absolutely no damage anywhere in the run. For context, previous characters had up to 12 spots for hearts, allowing them 24 hits, or at least 12 hits on enemies that did higher damage on later floors. The game’s difficulty was absolutely based around this idea of “health management”, which expected you to get hit at least sometimes, and more likely a lot of the time. To ask that you play a character who is incapable of taking any damage without dying is, to put it lightly, unreasonable.

To continue with the guitar analogy, this is somewhat akin to my own experience attempting bar chords. You needed to build finger strength for other chords, sure, but to use the entirety of your pointer finger to hold down all the strings was absolutely beyond anything I had done before. (To this day, they still sound slightly out of tune when I play them!) But to truly compare this to The Lost, imagine that you are a late addition to a band, and they now want you to play a song using bar chords, all the way through, and they’ve got a big gig coming up next week where they plan to play it at the climax in their set. That, I believe, would be roughly equivalent to the jump in difficulty experienced when first playing as The Lost in Rebirth.

I’ll admit, I actually didn’t leave The Lost for last, which I imagine many people did. You see, getting completion marks with different characters in this game unlocks a variety of items that you can find on subsequent runs, and the items unlocked by The Lost are, appropriately, some of the very best items in the game. I felt ready to take on the challenge, and that beating this challenge would make all subsequent challenges significantly easier due to the items I would unlock. I cracked my metaphorical knuckles, fastened my metaphorical headband, and started on the hardest challenge yet. In all honesty, it felt very similar to when I was first playing the game; it felt like learning an entirely new skill.

And I’ll be honest again. Feeling that I was somehow bad once again was frustrating. I had learned not to compare myself to others, but just comparing myself with myself, I felt like I had somehow regressed. I had to, many times, walk away from the game after a failed run and center myself with something else. In fact, I believe this was what started my first big break from the game.

Anxiety incarnate.

Part IV: Nearly Giving Up

A natural part of learning a new skill is doubt. If we refer to the monomyth, this is the part of the hero’s journey called “the ordeal”, where our protagonist loses all hope. I don’t think this is very typical, but “the ordeal” actually happened to me twice. The first time was due to what was asked of me by the challenge of The Lost. It felt totally beyond my skill level, and drove me away from completion. It took me two years to really come back to the game.

With skills such as playing guitar, assuming you didn’t keep it to yourself, you are likely to have some people in your life who feel bad that you gave it up. Maybe a parent, or a close friend, who wants to encourage you to follow your heart. With videogames, especially solo videogames, it is more than likely that these support groups will not be present. My return was entirely dependent on happenstance; in January of 2017, Afterbirth Plus, the second expansion, came out. Once I saw the expansion, I knew that I was destined to come back. This expansion delivered new characters, new challenges, new bosses, and a whole lot more. I wanted to play with those new characters, I wanted to go after those new challenges, I wanted to beat those new bosses… but I felt obligated to finish what I had started. I told myself: All that new fun stuff is a reward for beating The Lost, and I won’t let you have any of it before then.

The equivalent, I suppose, is realizing that there is so much more that will become available to you once you get over the hump. In this case, it was self-imposed, but for many it is not. How many songs must utilize bar chords? How many songs that you want to play include hammer-ons? If you really nail that gig, how many more gigs might you be able to get? Before then, the answer was not many. There was very little content after beating The Lost. It was the final stretch. It took seeing a new horizon for me to realize just how amazing it would be to overcome what was stopping me before. And isn’t it funny that the end of “the ordeal” in the monomyth is called Rebirth?

Triumph  incarnate.

Part V: Getting Back Into It(?)

I did the unthinkable. I beat The Lost. Celebrations were had. All of my friends heard about it, whether they cared or not. Soon after that, I blazed through the rest of the characters, and revisited some that I had already completed in the base game to get new completion marks with them.

In the expansion, Greedier Mode was added, an upgrade to the previous Greed Mode. I beat it with all characters for the completion mark, and then tried again and again at it to max out the donation machine at the end, which yielded more unlocks the more money you put in it. After a thousand coins, I unlocked The Keeper, another challenging character, very similar in difficulty to The Lost. I beat everything with him as well, and was feeling at the height of my game when I finished. I then ran the gauntlet of all the secret challenges from the challenge menu, some of which pushed the limits of what I was capable of. But then, they were gone.

It was here that I felt I was nearing the end. At some point, all that was left was the miscellania — the “get five of this same pill in a single run” and the “sleep in beds ten times” achievements. In fact, there came a point when I was one achievement away from completely beating the game, one achievement from 100% mastery of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and its two expansions. The last thing I had to do was to find every single item at least once so they could be in the compendium, and I would achieve all that I had set out to achieve.

It was then that disaster struck.

Edmund McMillen released the last planned update to the game… and it added an entire new character, a slew of luck-based achievements (a good portion of the miscellania I had cleared out just by playing the game so much), new enemies to find, new items to get, new secret challenges… to those who had already done everything there was to do in the game, it was a gold mine. To me, who was so close to finally climbing Mt. Isaac, it was devastating. I didn’t give up, not immediately. I unlocked The Forgotten, beat everything with him, and then even attempted some of the more random-feeling achievements… but then I left. That was in 2018. It felt like I had gotten so close to victory, and I was pushed down. I tossed the controller away and left, intending to never return again.

I can do anything!!!

Part VI: Realizing You Make the Rules

Now this… this is definitely unusual. No person is supposed to lose hope twice, that’s not the common progression. You reach the hump, you overcome it, you persevere. But there was a point that I reached that crushed my spirit even more than the first. It was once I fully understood that I was basing my success on labels. 100% was a label that I had been striving for, for more than a quarter of my life, and definitely over half of my most developmental years. I had, by that point, achieved most of my goals. By this point, the present day, there are 403 achievements. I have, as I write this, 399 of them, but I had a good deal less when I left the game in 2018.

Just like before, pure happenstance brought me back. With the recent quarantine, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home with not much to do. Passing by Rebirth in my Steam library while searching for things to sparked fond memories, so I picked up the game a little less than a month ago and started knocking out achievements again. It was then that I realized why I had stopped playing those two times.

I was going for goals that other people laid out for me. I was being externally motivated instead of internally motivated. My goal was to fill out every achievement on the achievements list, and unlock everything there was to unlock. But did I want to beat The Lost? I felt a great sense of achievement when I did, but did I want to? Clearly not very much; it drove me away from the game in the first place. You may stare your goal in the face, and question whether you want it. Hopefully, you come to the conclusion you really do. I stare my goal in the face, and I falter. 100%, true 100%, has lost its draw.

After putting 400 hours into the game, I don’t consider it bragging to say I’m decently good at it. After a myriad of failures, setbacks, and doubts, good old-fashioned effort won out and I can now reach win streaks of 10 or more with consistency. The real goal was to be good. Achievements served as clear indicators of reached levels of skill. You beat everything with The Lost? Well, according to Steam statistics, that put me in the top 10% of players. So I looked at these last remaining achievements, the ones that asked me to simply find some random items in the game, and I saw that they were not measures of my skill. That 100% isn’t the be-all-end-all of Binding of Isaac mastery.

I have been holding out on saying it, but the real biggest achievement is to 100% the game three separate times. And I don’t think I want to do it three times. That is not my goal. For now, I am having fun returning to a game that I thought I had abandoned. Now I’m realizing I’ve simply done all I want to do. I achieved my goal, because the goal was mine to set, and if my dream doesn’t include making it into the top 5% of players, or the top 3%, or the top 1%, then that’s fine. I set my own goals, not anyone else.

Once I realized this, it was natural to get back into the groove of playing. I think I will keep playing, for the time being, just to take a trip down memory lane and maybe 100% the game once if it so happens upon me. When I finally do that, I think I may never pick up the game again. There is a bit of melancholy to that, isn’t there? The guitar player doesn’t stop playing guitar because he knows he is now a good guitarist. But games are just different that way. I am ready to move on from The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth in a way that I have not been ready to move on from any game ever before. It’s been a good run, and I plan to savor the last couple hours I spend on this game.

I think I am ready to pick up a new skill and be bad at it again. I’ve recently begun learning piano, if only because it is an instrument in my house and I have time on my hands. I am ready to restart the cycle with new knowledge and a better sense of my path. I hope that some of this knowledge, I have imparted to you.

Hoping you overcome “the ordeal” as well.

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