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Games of the Last Decade - The Binding of Isaac and FTL

Following in the footsteps of Spelunky, FTL: Faster Than Light and The Binding of Isaac helped pave the way for the widespread adoption of roguelike mechanics.

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We were going to use this roguelike-focused retrospective to talk about Spelunky, which landed on Xbox 360 back in 2012, but we've written nice things about Spelunky in the past and besides, the game first landed in 2008 and the version we first played four years later was a remake. Technically it doesn't count. The upside of this predicament is that it forced us to refocus our attention on a different game. Well, two actually.

When looking back at the last decade, we've seen an influx of roguelike mechanics into the wider industry, as well as a growing and dedicated sub-genre that is defined by permanent death, soft progression (usually), and procedurally-generated levels/content. Spelunky has been at the heart of this movement, but there are other games that have played notably significant roles in bringing roguelike themes to a wider audience - FTL: Faster Than Light and The Binding of Isaac are two of them.

After Meat Boy there was Isaac, and it was good

What do you do after making an indie darling like Super Meat Boy? That was certainly a question that game dev Edmund McMillen was asking himself, but after week-long game jam with fellow developer Florian Himsl, the answer soon presented itself as if it was a message from the almighty himself. Indeed, religion was the unifying theme that underpinned The Binding of Isaac, a grotesque Zelda-inspired dungeon crawler that mixed macabre design and roguelike mechanics to excellent effect.

The first version of the game was limited by the tools used to create it, so the whole thing was rebuilt and re-released with the subtitle Rebirth, and it's that version of TBOI that most people have played, as all console-ported versions of the game are based on that update. Since then, the developers spent years iterating on the game, adding new features while tweaking this and that in order to balance the game's many abilities.

Games of the Last Decade - The Binding of Isaac and FTL
The Binding of Isaac is a wonderfully grim game.

We mentioned religious themes before, but perhaps we should elaborate on that just a little. Inspired by family arguments, McMillen was drawn to making a game that explored religion. Specifically, TBOI is a reaction to the biblical story of Abraham, who scripture tells us was asked by God himself to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Inspired by this story, and in collaboration with Himsl, work began on creating a game that over the years has evolved into one of the most popular and original roguelites of all. Players are put in the diaper of a young boy called Isaac who heads down into dungeon under his house to escape his wicked mother, who like Abraham has heard the call of God and is out to kill her son. Cue a dungeon crawl of disgusting proportions, with blood and guts and poop thrown at you at every turn.

But what makes The Binding of Isaac so brilliant? Well, the answer to that is relatively simple: variance. Over the years so much has been added to the game, and the result of that constant iteration is a dungeon crawler with almost limitless gameplay possibilities. Naturally, you're restricted by the constraints of the game itself, but once you've got over the hurdle of the stern challenge it offers, it comes into focus just how much flexibility there is. Some of the builds that you can assemble during a run are nothing short of spectacular, and while the procedural nature of the game means you can never guarantee a satisfactory run - sometimes it's just not meant to be - there's enough variety in there that ensures that 60% of the time, it works every time.

To boldly go where not too many people have gone before...

While TBOI and Spelunky proved that roguelike features would work well in top-down and side-scrolling form, FTL: Faster Than Light landed in 2012 to prove that roguelike mechanics could be stretched even further. In this instance, they would take us out of this world and into the depths of space, for a tactical experience that had us hooked from the first turn.

The genius of FTL: Faster Than Light is that it retains the challenge that defines roguelike games, but it lets you take a step back from the action and more carefully consider your actions. Inspired by tabletop games such as the excellent Battlestar Galactica board game and roguelike trailblazer Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, FTL puts players in command of a spaceship and gives them complete control over story events and ship systems. Each sector of the galaxy is procedurally generated so you never know what you're going to get next, but you're always searching for the sweet spot between getting to the exit before the pursuing enemy fleet catches up and exploring each area to make the most out of the opportunities that are available to you.

Games of the Last Decade - The Binding of Isaac and FTL
Tactical space battles are at the heart of the FTL experience.

Things quickly get tough, and each decision is one to be angsted over as failure is terminal. You ship is constantly taking a battering from the tactical space battles, and even when it's in good shape, there is still a wealth of upgrades that have to be made (with new ships unlocking over time to add further variety). The action is pausable, so you can move your crew around the ship and micromanage each encounter, and you'll need to take your time and consider each move if you're going to get anywhere near the big boss at the end of the game.

FTL's impact was also felt in the crowdfunding arena, and it was at the centre of a popular Kickstarter campaign. Developer Subset Games asked for a few thousand dollars to get the thing finished, but they instead got $200K and the future of the project was assured. After building up a head of steam and attracting more funding than was really needed, FTL: Faster Than Light launched in 2012 and was followed a year later by the much-improved Advanced Edition, which also appeared on tablets and worked wonderfully with touch controls.

And that's not all, folks

As we move into a new decade, the spirit of the original Rogue lives on, and when it comes to cultural impact, there are only a handful of games that can boast such an illustrious and influential history. Mario. Pac-Man. Tetris. It's not a long list. The impact can be felt in different ways, too, with traditional experiences like Caves of Qud and ADOM still going strong, as well as a whole host of games that borrow roguelike mechanics without aping the original formula too closely.

Games of the Last Decade - The Binding of Isaac and FTL
Caves of Qud is inspired by Rogue's ASCII origins.

In the last decade, we've seen a number of stellar games that have taken the genre in new and exciting directions. Rogue Legacy, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Slay the Spire, Everspace, Enter the Gungeon, Dead Cells, Downwell and Darkest Dungeon all share the same core theme, but they each explore it in a different way, and all of them are excellent games in their own right. We've even seen the adoption of roguelike mechanics in the triple-A arena, with Far Cry 4 and standalone Prey expansion Mooncrash two notable examples that have explored this fertile area of game development.

With a line that starts 40 years ago and can be traced back to today via Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, FTL: Faster Than Light, and every other game mentioned in this little retrospective, it's clear that roguelike design isn't going anywhere. And while the journey might have started all the way back in 1980 when people started playing Rogue for the first time, it was the gameplay innovations introduced in the last decade that have cemented permadeath and procedural generation in the game design lexicon. With new developers ready to stand on the shoulders of so many giants, here's hoping the next decade has just as many surprises in store for us.

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