Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There’s a famous Malcolm Gladwell factoid that’s frequently cited about expertise, suggesting that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something in order to truly be excellent at it. Like most Gladwell quotes, it’s simultaneously pithy, non-obvious (in an obvious sort of way) and probably factually wrong, but the concept itself is undeniably intriguing: How long do you have to spend with something in order to claim true familiarity or talent?
It’s an idea that gets more complicated when you start thinking in terms of games. Outside a few truly epic novels, there’s no other artistic medium that’s expected to last in the way even a shorter game is, pretty much by consumer-mandated default. (If you’ve ever had to listen to colleagues bemoan reviewing a three-hour superhero movie while there’s a 60-hour review copy of a Far Cry title sitting on your PS4, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.) Even shorter games are often expected to be endlessly, perfectly replayable, with the rare exceptions—one-shot narrative experiences like Firewatch or Gone Home—running the risk of getting dubbed “poor values” by a consumer base trained on the concept that “more” is invariably more.
Even within the pantheon of 70-hour RPGs and slow-burn shooters, though, there are those interactive products that jump the rail from “games” and into the realm of actual lifestyles, blowing past the 100-hour mark and into timespans better measured in days or weeks. For some, it’s massively multiplayer games, designed to Skinner box our brains into the seductive rhythm of the grind. For others, it’s endlessly playable shooters, luring people into the blood-soaked pursuit of excellence, or the endless, empty playboxes of The Elder Scrolls.
For me, it’s The Binding Of Isaac.
Isaac—originally created by Edmund McMillen, and polished into near-perfect portability by a team at Nicalis with a Rebirth remake in 2014—is a top-down, Rogue-inspired shooter about a naked baby crying and pooping in a basement, then murdering his mom, crawling inside her corpse, and getting into fights with the devil that lives inside her. (Still crying and pooping the whole time.) It’s a gloriously addictive mashup of Zelda, Smash TV, and the worst instincts of every repressed Freudian out there, and I’ve played it, at a conservative estimate, for roughly 680 hours of my life—approximately 28.3 days. Or, as I like to think of it, February. I’ve played a February of Isaac.
“Why?!”, you ask, questions about my own proximity to a basement presumably bubbling up on your lips. Part of it is baked into the merits of the game itself: Isaac performs a subtle alchemy that few games of its type can hope to match, marrying easily picked-up game play to a staggering number of randomized, game-changing items, ensuring that every run is familiar enough, while still feeling like it has the capability to be radically different every time. It also has one of the most pleasantly compelling “just one more game” loops around, constantly using new treasures to bribe players into taking one more run down into their darkest psychological/scatological dreams.
But if I’m being honest, The Binding Of Isaac is also a particularly shit-stained concept of comfort food. I can play Isaac while eating dinner, watching a movie, or editing a podcast (also about The Binding Of Isaac, because of course it is). And I’m not alone; games have a unique capacity to turn free time into time spent, hopefully with a vague sense of fun or satisfaction popping up in the process. They walk the line between self-indulgence and self-care. Whether you’re warring in Warcraft, calling your duty, or just determinedly plundering every single cave in Skyrim, games are uniquely suited to serving as a shield (or an escape) from the anxieties of the world, one that can come into stark relief when you finally give in and check the rapidly rising hour count on your Steam account. As a data nerd, Steam is a treasure trove for this kind of stuff; I’ve got an especial taste for trying to tease info out of achievement statistics, pouring over the global player percentages for completing various milestones and seeing which tasks give the majority of people the most trouble to complete.
Am I an expert at The Binding Of Isaac? Gladwell would say no, and I’m actually inclined to agree. (It’s a big damn game.) But I am an expert in using games like it as a kind of self-medication. That used to bother me. Now it just mellows me out to a sort of bemused acceptance, especially when people who spend their lives obsessing about other hobbies (sports, yoga, or any thing else they use to take their minds off the oppressive, ever-present now) start going off about the universes that live in their own mind. We all have our own ways of getting by, and there are worse ways to spend a February.