It's 2:00 AM on a night this past fall, and The Binding of Isaac designer Edmund McMillen is in bed, watching a livestream of people digging a hole in Santa Ana, California on his phone. In just a few hours, he'll have to wake up for his newborn's first doctor visit. "What the fuck are you doing?" grumbles his wife.
McMillen turns over to her. "They found it," he says.
Of course they found it. Of course they found what McMillen had hidden under a pile of dirt, the dramatic conclusion to an online riddle that would exhausted him.
The fans for The Binding of Isaac proved long ago that they're hardcore. They're hooked on McMillen's game, the addictive roguelike The Binding of Isaac, in which players guide a sobbing child through a series of increasingly grotesque dungeons. (You die all the time, but that's the point.) They're hooked on McMillen's every whim, Tumblr post, and tweet. They have been like this since the game's 2011 release, through its remake and its expansion.
Last fall, however, something went wrong. A series of accidents and mistakes fractured the bonds between game developer and his most ardent fans. A series of miscommunications led to hurt feelings, elaborate erroneous treasure hunts, and McMillen eventually deciding he had to (mostly) step away from it all.
"It was the most chaotic and insane thing that's ever happened to me when it comes to work," McMillen told me over Skype recently. "I've been through some pretty crazy stuff, but I've never seen a community of people go from loving you to wanting you dead all over hypothetical 'what ifs?'"
How'd things get so weird, so fast? Let's rewind a bit.
The Game That Wasn't Supposed To Be A Hit
The Binding of Isaac was a surprise hit. Before it, McMillen was known for co-creating Super Meat Boy. That super-difficult riff on classic Super Mario Bros.-style action, starring a character made of meat, was a more obvious success. Isaac was a stranger, more personal game. McMillen filled The Binding of Isaac with a seemingly endless pile of mysteries. Down and down you could go. Where the secrets stopped, only a few people (probably on the subreddit) know. The game has become famous — and infamous — for squirrelling things away; secrets to be mulled over, theorised, and eventually discovered.
Everyone wanted to know the game's secrets, and each new release of the game produced more mysteries that players wanted to solve. Some secrets are intentional, others aren't. Exploits, for example, are a cat-and-mouse game McMillen plays with fans. If a weapon is overpowered, fans abuse it until he patches it. It's part of the fun.
"We had a tester that was withholding information so they could use the exploits that they discovered," said McMillen. "We found out about that and 'uh, you can't really do this anymore.'"
The biggest secret yet was supposed to involve the game's 2014 Rebirth expansion, which had a hidden a character called The Lost. No one knew he was in the game, and there was reason to suspect he'd take a while to find; players would need to kill themselves over and over in a series of very specific locations (i.e. Isaac must die to a mulliboom enemy in the basement or the cellar). The logic was morbid and confusing on purpose.
"Our lead programmer even said 'It will be months. Even if you have the best hackers out there, it will be months before they even realise something is there!'" said McMillen.
One reason Hideo Kojima's 2014's interactive horror teaser, P.T., had such difficult puzzles was to to ensure it'd take players a long time to realise it was secretly a trailer for a new Silent Hill game. As you might expect, players cracked that within hours, and The Binding of Isaac was no different.
After a few days, The Lost was found via data mining. Players dug through the game's code for hints about what was buried. That wasn't in McMillen's plan.
An longstanding urban legend in The Binding of Isaac community suggests it took 109 hours for The Lost to be unearthed and McMillen to find out. Not only that, word was that he was pissed. It's not true, but players point to an interview McMillen did with Vinesauce, in which he appeared to expressed disappointment at how The Lost was discovered:
"It's disheartening. It sucks because we're gonna start working on an expansion soon, but we sure as hell aren't gonna fucking take all the time that it took — especially with Simon, who tried his best to really bury the stuff so it would deter people from doing this, but all they see is a challenge, so they're going to dive right in and do it anyway. I can say right now that I don't think the expansion is going to feature any buried secrets that anybody will care about."
I quoted this interview in a previous article.McMillen disputes the tone and says he wasn't angry.
"The dilemma of doing any of these interviews is that — even when you write this — no one will hear the way I'm talking," said McMillen. "No one will hear if I'm laughing, they won't hear the way my voice is carrying these words, they won't hear how serious [I am]."
To avoid this problem, I've embedded our interview in a sound file at the bottom. If you'd like to hear a lightly edited version of our talk, go right ahead.
"Really, I didn't care!" he said of the players data-mining secrets about The Lost. "Really, it was just like: it sucks and now I know. If I do it again, I know how to do right."
The game's next expansion, last October's's Afterbirth, would be his chance to "do it right."
If It Weren't For You Meddling Kids ...
Playing The Binding of Isaac isn't the only reason fans are obsessed. Players are also really interested in the game's vaguely articulated story. On its face, the game is about Isaac's troubled relationship with his evangelical mother, but there's a lot more happening...if you know where to look. Importantly, the series has said little about Isaac's missing father, and McMillen wanted to fill in the gaps by telling a new story through an alternate-reality game (ARG). That's one of those games that takes place in the real world, often involving fake phone calls or websites, scavenger hunts and the like.
If there was a lesson from The Lost, it was to never underestimate players, and if you wanted to hide something, extraordinary measures were required. McMillen's solution was to place the unlocking mechanism for Afterbirth's biggest secret outside the game and in the ARG. That secret was The Keeper, who would help bring closure to one of the game's longstanding mysteries about Isaac's father, a character hinted at but never seen.
There was one big problem: Afterbirth was scheduled for the end of October, and McMillen's daughter was expected at the end of September. If McMillen wasn't around, the plan was to unlock the Keeper when enough players took down a particular boss.
In four days, he sketched out and wrote his first ARG. It would involve players closely analysing the game to make discoveries in the real-world, eventually unlocking a new piece of content. It was a deep rabbit hole, one meant to keep people buzzing after the game was released.
"It got to the point where I said 'ok, I think I can do this,'" he said.
That was kinda true. But McMillen was about to find out how quickly things could go wrong.
When Afterbirth launched on October 30, people seemed to love it, and McMillen believed everything was going according to plan. But as he rushed back and forth from a local Kinkos to prepare physical elements of the ARG, things started to get weird.
McMillen was distracted, and brushed off the resentment that was slowly building in The Binding of Isaac's most hardcore communities, like the game's subreddit. The Steam page for Afterbirth had promised at least 120 new items, but in the days after the game's release, people only came across 74.
McMillen presumed people were being impatient, and unlocking the items was a matter of time. He ignored their pleas, and when asked him for information, he simply joked about being called a liar.
Expect an afterbirth patch mid week should address all big issues and maybe add a few things ... Maybe
— Edmund McMillen (@edmundmcmillen) November 2, 2015
all the features on the steam page are true minus one.. but not the one you are thinking, also i wish death upon all the non believers!
— Edmund McMillen (@edmundmcmillen) November 2, 2015
im hiding the remaining content beyond a series of micro-transactions that im calling an ARG, i also require the souls of the non believers
— Edmund McMillen (@edmundmcmillen) November 2, 2015
This prompted people to go "ooooooh" and start digging deeper.
"This was still when people weren't sure if it was an actual, real-life thing or something they do in the game," he said. "Because I'll tweet something vague about getting outside or something like that and people are like 'oh, maybe there's a way to bomb from the first floor so you can go outside the game!'"
Days went by, and the items still didn't show up. People were pissed.
"Why lie to us?" became a mantra in the subreddit and elsewhere. Others wondered if the items had been time gated, arbitrarily held until a later date. (McMillen told me had to Google the concept of time-gating content, having never heard of it before.)
They Crazy People Were Right All Along
Enough time passed that McMillen became concerned parts of the game hadn't been found yet; it didn't line up with the brutal efficiency fans had picked apart previous versions. During some testing, McMillen freaked out: items were missing.
"All these items are gone!" McMillen remembered thinking. "What the fuck is going on? I go back to my old build before launch, look that up, and the items are there. 'Oh my god, there's items missing! We just patched the game.' [laughs] We didn't even know that there were items that were just gone."
While McMillen was discovering his mistake, fans were digging deeper. McMillen's ARG (and accidental) teases had them searching everything. For days their desperate hunt continued. Some had even went through passages of the Bible for clues.
It didn't help when McMillen and his Nicalis founder Tyrone Rodriguez, whose company worked on The Binding of Isaac, stoked the flames in the lead up to a patch adding the items. The two harped on the urban legend behind the number 109.
Technical difficulties at 10:09PM EST resulted in a short stream, but thanks for joining tonight and being generous with your time!
— Tyrone Rodriguez (@tyronerodriguez) November 3, 2015
— Edmund McMillen (@edmundmcmillen) November 3, 2015
Worse still, McMillen released a garbled screen shot meant to communicate a fix regarding the missing items was coming soon. That drove some people toward wilder conspiracy theories.
"That just caused more problems," he said. " [laughs] People thought that, somehow, the items were in the game now and they could get them somehow! It caused this huge thing of 'Oh, we gotta do this, we gotta do that.'"
The 109 references were meant as a joke, but made the whole event seem coldly orchestrated. Fans weren't impressed, and even McMillen seemed to understand his banter may have have gone a step too far.
@UnderwaySMW yeah we had the patch done a few mins earlier but then realized if we wait we can launch it at 109 thought it would be funny :/
— Edmund McMillen (@edmundmcmillen) November 4, 2015
"I wake up the next morning and it is the biggest shit storm I've ever seen," he said.
The missing items were a genuine mistake, but McMillen's tweets — driven by ignorance, his natural temperament, and a desire to keep the ARG a secret — left fans frustrated.
"We went seven days without realising items were missing!" he said. "Me! I made the game! [laughs]"
By November 4, the game was fixed, and though some fans seethed with contempt, others focused on playing the game or turning their attention to the secrets McMillen had been hinting at. The missing item problem had been a huge distraction during the game's late October launch. The community that was so good at digging up the game's real secrets had spun their wheels and lost their patience over hunts for things that weren't in the game. McMillen wanted to focus people on the actual mysteries he'd plotted for the game's fans. He wanted to shout "THERE IS AN ARG HAPPENING!"
But he didn't.
Then, on November 12, a little under two weeks from Afterbirth's release date, players finally noticed an achievement graphic changed, and the race was on.
The ARG was an expanding puzzle box kicked off by an achievement graphic changing in the game; counting image pixels; digging through The Bible; translating ASCII code; looking up scenes in The Lost Boys; visiting a bridge in Santa Cruz, California to find a flyer with a phone number; talking to Isaac's "dad" on the phone; digging up holes in another part of California to find a doll; using text on the doll to unlock a Twitter account; and watching as the game was patched to unlock The Keeper.
The ARG was exciting, fun, and weird. But the experience of getting there, as misunderstandings became conspiracy theories, left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
"I don't want to be this ego-driven person," McMillen said, "which is one of the things online that really pissed me off. 'Oh, his ego is really out of control.' That was a weird thing. That's the only thing about me that I don't want to happen. [...] Once a community starts viewing me as someone who has an ego go that's out of control, maybe I should be removing myself from the picture."
Image Credit: TehHolyPancake
He's not alone. Popular YouTube creator John "TotalBiscuit" Bain recently dropped away from social media. Though Bain's case is different — he's dealing with terminal cancer — Bain cited similar reasons for backing away. The Internet lets creatives get closer to their fans than ever, but we're still grappling with the complexities of that.
What stepping away means isn't clear. Stop reading the game's subreddit? Avoiding Twitter replies? McMillen hasn't updated his personal Tumblr in several months, but he continues to tweet. Like many others, he's currently obsessed with The Witness. For a long time, McMillen promised to write a postmortem about the ARG, but said he considered our interview to be his postmortem. (To be clear, McMillen had no control over what I wrote here.)
"I wasn't doing it [the ARG] for a financial reason," he said. "There was absolutely nothing that I gained from it. I'm only losing from it. [laughs] I'm losing time and effort. I'm doing it purely for the love of game design and the excitement of doing something that I know will be exciting for other people."
Work on The Binding of Isaac presses on, though. There's a version coming for iPhone and iPad. Another expansion, Afterbirth+, will add mod support, a bestiary, and more. Chances are, there'll be some new secrets, too.