By Dorian Grayson
When I started playing “The Binding of Isaac,” I didn’t anticipate I would spend 1,000 hours playing it, nor that it would teach me a valuable lesson about how to deal with my failures. It helped me learn that, in truth, failure isn’t something you deal with; it’s something you have to accomplish before you achieve success. That’s a lesson I’m able to keep with me in both digital space and in the physical world.
“The Binding of Isaac” is a video game, and its story is a take on the biblical narrative of Isaac. In the game, Isaac’s mother is told by God to kill him and Isaac flees under the house, descending deeper into psychological space that turns first into hell and then to the chest where Isaac has actually locked himself to escape his mother. The game isn’t much about the story, though.
“The Binding of Isaac” is really about failure. You are dropped into a dungeon as Isaac and must shoot monsters with your tears to survive, move through the first floor of the dungeon and down to the next. You will probably die on the first floor the first time you play Isaac. Each type of floor has different types of enemies, with attacks and movement patterns that you don’t know at first.
You also pick up items that can do any number of things, like summon spiders to attack your enemies for you or grow wings to fly over a broken floor. At first, you have no idea what each item does, so you don’t know how to maximize your effectiveness. You will die and will start again, in a similar but randomly generated dungeon.
After 1,000 hours of Isaac, I know most of the items and can finish a run without dying 33 percent of the time. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many deaths it took to get to this point, but I failed precalculus in high school because my teacher let me play the game in class instead of taking notes. From game to game, I tried to understand what mistake I made to die. I also made uncountable trips to the Isaac Wiki to find out what items did. I went from milestone to milestone until I could clear any hurdle that tripped me before.
Isaac taught me that skill — that indomitable persistence and improvement — and it has improved my life and outlook. Life isn’t as simple as crying at spiders in a basement, but the skills are transferable. I’m constantly failing. It feels like I fail at something every day. When it starts to get me down, I can remember that I’m learning not to fail the same way.
“Every failure is an opportunity for betterment. Every failure is another chance to get it right. Don’t give these away out of fear or shyness. Fail faster. Because failing is how we get it right,” said Daniel Floyd in a talk on failure in creative development.
I know you fail too, and that it’s hard to keep going afterwards. It can feel like you can’t do things right and you never will. It can feel like you’re drowning in a sea of failure. Remember that success can only come after failure, and that, if you learn from what you did to fail, you are eternally making progress. Whether that success is beating the devil in hell to avoid your mother’s wrath or acing that next paper, this lesson applies. Life isn’t about avoiding failure. It’s about failing faster so you can succeed faster.