Pills, Poop and Pentagrams: In Conversation with Indie Gaming Legend Edmund McMillen

The man behind 'Super Meat Boy' and 'The Binding of Isaac' discusses the imminent release of 'Afterbirth', and much more.

Jonathan Beach

Above: a still from the trailer for 'The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth'

Forget Fallout 4.

Forget Halo 5, forget Star Wars: Battlefront, and stick The Taken King up your ring. There's a dank, dark, dripping corner of the gaming world that's looking forward to one game this year, and one game only: The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth.

Afterbirth is the official expansion to Rebirth, a rollicking, randomly-generated roguelike released last November to huge critical and commercial success. Packed with blood, babies and bodily fluids, it's the latest brainchild of Super Meat Boy maker, indie legend and sleeve-tattooed horror fanatic Edmund McMillen.

I got up at the arsecrack of dawn to chat to California-based Ed, to find out a little bit more about Afterbirth, and peek behind the shit-covered curtains of one of the indie scene's biggest success stories.

This interview contains spoilers.

Ed McMillen (photo via Wikipedia)

VICE: It's been almost a year since the launch of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. How have you been since then?

Ed McMillen: It's been an interesting year for me personally, because my wife and I are having a baby (which has since been born). So it's been a very new kind of experience in terms of getting my life in order for that, and trying to work on games while that's happening.

But Rebirth was pretty effortless, because it was the first time I've ever just done design before, where I got to just direct, tune, and have a good number of very competent and trustworthy people around me.

The Isaac games are well known for their scatological and Satanic content, and you're clearly a guy who understands the language of horror. How much of an influence has horror cinema and literature had on your career?

Huge. My two biggest influences growing up were the Catholic side of my family and the fact that I saw The Toxic Avenger and Evil Dead II when I was like six or seven. Take those things, mash 'em together, and you basically get me.

My mom was a single mom, so it was pretty easy for me to be like hey, I like the way this cover looks, and then she would just let me rent it. So I was alone in my room watching The Toxic Avenger when I was seven.

Seeing movies I probably shouldn't have been seeing moulded me in many different ways, and I always thought it'd be cool to make a game that might be that to somebody, like, "Maybe I'm not old enough to be playing this."

You once said that really good art should upset some people. How successful do you think the Isaac games have been in achieving this? Have they upset many people along the way?

I don't think they've upset anybody. And I don't know if that's a failure or achievement on my part.

It's definitely pushed me to go a little bit further. My latest little game Fingered is all about stereotyping the way people look in different ways, comparing it with the criminal justice system and talking about the death penalty, and I thought that would get a lot of pushback.

But the only pushback I ever get is from guys on my side of the street, but extreme left, insane people, who don't think you should be allowed to say what you wanna say.

My non-gaming girlfriend plays Rebirth on the Vita constantly. Have you noticed or been surprised by the cross-gender appeal of the Isaac games?

Yeah. I have. It's very appealing to women for some reason, and I don't know why.

When I originally created it, one of the driving forces for me was the fact that my wife played it. She's likes games, but she's not big into the hardcore stuff like Spelunky, and never really got that into anything I was been working on, but with Isaac she went in deep.

She was 120 hours in before that game even came out, and she was the reason why I made the DLC for it, because she was done and I wanted her to see her keep playing it.

A lot of female friends who don't normally play a lot of games seem to get hooked in and play it a lot, and yeah. I have no idea. For whatever reason it does definitely seem to speak to women.

Ed's cabinet of Isaac-related curios (via his Twitter account)

Why do you think the Isaac games have such a devoted cult following?

I don't know. I hope that the reason it's done well is because I've achieved something artistically. To make this really out-there, honest and weird game that I really wanted to play.

Someone asked me recently if I had written the story the way I did because the Bible can be interpreted in different ways, and that was one of the things that I definitely set out to do.

But I don't think many people see the themes in that way. I mean, what's so appealing about a naked abused child crying on shit?

I guess the real appeal is the fact that you can play it endlessly.

So you think it's more of a gameplay thing, rather than the themes or aesthetics?

I think it is, but I'd prefer if it wasn't. I dunno. Maybe there are just a lot of people out there who like the stuff that I like. Which seems weird. To this day, I don't get it.

What do you think the most annoying enemy in the game is?

Envy, by far.

I reckon it's the little red spiders. I've been doing a lot of Lost runs recently, and they seem to fuck me up the most.

(Laughs) Yeah, that's because they have those random movements. In terms of their AI, half the time they're looking for you, and half the time they're not.

Isaac's a weird juxtaposition of enemies that home in on where you are, and enemies with random movement. It's the enemies with random AI that really fuck with you.

"The past three years have become so frightening as an artist that I don't want any part of it and I don't consider myself a part of it. I don't participate in anything, because I don't feel like I'm welcome." Ed McMillen

What's your relationship with the big Isaac streamers like Northernlion and CobaltStreak? What do you think about game broadcasting in general?

I know those guys, and we talk randomly, especially if I'm working on something new. I always want their opinions.

I actually learnt a lot by watching Northernlion play the game, because I learnt how other people play and see the game. Watching people play your game is always really important for game designers, because you've only got one perspective on how things work.

Maybe that's one of the things that made Isaac a cult success. It hit right at the time when Let's Play became a really big thing, and because there's so much random chance and so many weird things happening, it was easy for them to riff off of, commentate on and be entertaining with. They're basically playing a slot machine slash Zelda slash Troma movie.

People often come up to me and say, "Hey I watch your game all the time." (Laughs) It's interesting.

Have your feelings towards the indie scene changed much over the last five years?

When I started making indie games in like 2003, the scene was made up of like 36 people, who talked to each other and would meet up at GDC (Game Developers Conference) and stuff. We loved each other, talked about bullshit and everything was great.

By 2008 or 2009, when it boomed and a lot of developers started getting picked up by larger studios and getting publisher deals, it was huge. World of Goo was huge, Braid was out, Castle Crashers was out, and you saw it start to eat itself.

I don't know if it was the polarisation of big indie and little indie, but way back at my first IGF (Independent Games Festival) in 2004, there was this game in the finals that had a publicly known multi-million dollar budget sat alongside us, with no budget. And the indier-than-thou mentality got really extreme once everyone started succeeding, and you saw indie developers start fighting over what they felt was "right".

It moved away from the games, making games, and moved more towards who was bigger, who was doing better, who was doing more for the world and the community, and it just turned into fucking high school. Everybody was competing, like, who was better than who, and what was a game, and "let's grab our pitchforks" and it just got worse and worse over the years.

I feel like I haven't been seeing so much of that stuff since the weird Gamergate stuff died down, and I like to think people are mellowing out now, but the past three years have become so frightening as an artist that I don't want any part of it and I don't consider myself a part of it. I don't participate in anything, because I don't feel like I'm welcome.

Article continues after the video below

Ed McMillen wearing a 'Spelunky' T-shirt (via The Binding of Isaac (Brasil), photographer unknown)

What makes a great indie game? Do you have any favourite titles of the last few years?

Spelunky has to be at least in my top ten best games of all time. I love that game so much. It's such a game developer's game. I think Braid is a fantastic game, World of Goo, and Cave Story is phenomenal too.

All of the games I mentioned succeed on so many levels when it comes to doing something and saying something different, but a great indie game is something that not only brings something new to the table, but everything about the game embodies what it is.

World of Goo is (designer) Kyle Gabler in every fucking way. His sense of humour, the way he acts, the way he carries himself. Every aspect of the way Dan Paladin looks is embodied in Castle Crashers. And I feel like the most special indie games have that going for them. And of course, they're even better when they're well-tuned, polished, playable games that make you feel smart and challenge you.

Right, let's talk Afterbirth. You've got a very open relationship with the fans via Reddit and the Isaac blog. Have there been any pros or cons to this level of transparency?

I've always said I'd never develop a public beta, because to me it would feel like painting a picture with an outline, but blocking out the lights and the darks, and I wouldn't want to show anyone that because nobody would be able to see where I was going with it. But getting feedback from players and trying to make an expansion that caters to the way people play feels very okay and appropriate to me.

There was a Reddit thread with a thousand item suggestions for Afterbirth, and I actually thought I'd get better ideas than I did. I went through all of them and came away with ten. And out of those ten, I'd say five are the actual designs people suggested, and the other five are heavily modified versions to make them work in the game.

But it was cool, like hey, let's brainstorm with a thousand people on Reddit, someone's bound to say something awesome! I'd never done anything like that before, and I wanted to make Afterbirth an expansion that people really want.

'The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth', release date teaser

The PAX Prime gameplay footage was great. Greed mode especially looks like a lot of fun, in a sadistic kinda way. What was the inspiration for that?

The inspiration for greed mode was greed. I tried my best to fold that theme back in on itself as much as possible throughout.

I've been testing it out extensively now, and I can tell you that every single death was because I got greedy, I tried to save up my money for an item I really wanted, and disregarded my health.

You get more interesting, hectic, and heart-pumping setups, and the daily runs complement that as well. There are real consequences to your actions.

Given the fact that The Binding of Isaac is not the most mainstream of titles, how would you convince new players to pick up Afterbirth?

Play the game. Do four runs. And I think by the forth run, you'll understand how and why it's appealing.

When I put Isaac out, there weren't many other games like it, other than Spelunky. Reviews were meh, I think IGN gave it a seven, and most people just thought, "Oh it's just a randomly generated Zelda." And I had to plead my case in interviews, like give it a chance. You'll understand that it's actually really fun when you die, because then you get to do a whole new build. And maybe the next run could be totally insane.

Which aspects of Afterbirth are you most excited and proud of?

Most of it, actually. I'm really proud of greed mode, and the daily runs, those are the two things that stand out the most.

I'm proud of actually having made over a hundred new items that feel new. There's a new familiar called the Multi-Dimensional Baby. It mirrors your movements, and whenever you shoot through it, it doubles your shots and turns them into these weird flashing black and white things.

Every little item does something new that people will have a fun time messing with. And I have an idea of the items that people will be like, "Oh, this is the greatest." There's a shitload of new dice; it's good stuff. There's a lot of ways to break the game.

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A screenshot from 'Afterbirth' (via Steam)

Have you had any thoughts on where to take Isaac post-Afterbirth?

Isaac embodies me more than any other game that I've worked on, so it's easy for me to keep with it. I'm still just blown away that something so strange could be so popular and so accepted overall, that it's hard for me not to see it as a really special thing that I wanna keep going with.

I really enjoyed working on Fingered, and I'd hope to do more small things like that. I think it threw a lot of people when I put a game out that I'd only worked a couple months on. I'm really proud of it.

I don't think I have another big expansion in me, though. We've talked about the possibility of creating an expansion that consists of a level editor type thing, so I can hand it off to people like, if you wanna keep this thing going, then build a community full of people and make your own levels. Beyond this, there's no point going any further unless it's a full sequel and a whole new experience.

What's going on with the PS4/Vita release for Afterbirth?

It'll get a release, hopefully this year. (Nicalis founder) Tyrone (Rodriguez)'s working on it now actually. The PAX Prime demo gameplay you saw was from PlayStation, so we're just jumping through the hoops with Sony.

Cool. And finally, can you give rabid VICE-reading Isaac fans a cheeky little exclusive Afterbirth spoiler?

Sure, let me open up my handy-dandy Afterbirth item list. (Long pause) Ah, wait. Can I be vague about an item?

Ed, you can be as vague as you like.

Okay. There's a new familiar that levels up as you do things. It's kind of like a Meat Boy, but more realistic as far as being able to max it out. And if people like that, that's something I'd like to do more of in the future.

The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth is out on Steam on October 30th.


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