The Perversity of the Successes of The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac is a surreal mash-up of the original Legend of Zelda, a roguelike, and Smash TV, in roughly that order. It’s also a reflection of the collective fears of Christian fundamentalists, and of everyone else’s collective fears of Christian fundamentalism. And it’s also a shooter where the bullets are a child’s tears. In short, it’s an Edmund McMillen game.

McMillen is the designer of Super Meat Boy, Gish, and more than 20 other (mostly free) games, including Coil, Time Fcuk, Aether, and Grey-Matter. But nothing he’s done previously—no, not even 2008’s Cunt-—is quite as bonkers as The Binding of Isaac.

Visually, this latest game is preoccupied with a small number of disgusting things: blood, poo, and bodies that are falling apart, or that were never put together correctly in the first place. It’s gross, and it’s dark, and it’s stuff that kids shouldn’t have to confront—and yet at the same time, it’s exactly the kind of stuff that tends to fascinate kids, and particularly kids in bad situations.

Add to that the random generation, with its constant cycle of adaptation, learning, and skin-of-your-teeth near-failure (usually followed by actual failure, and getting booted back to the beginning), and it all starts to gel: Isaac’s world is morbid in the way that kids can be morbid, and cruel in the way that kids can be cruel.

And I know, bodily fluids and difficult video games are Edmund McMillen’s bread and butter. None of that is new to him, and so none of it is in this particular game purely for thematic effect. But McMillen’s obsessions are more cohesive than they might at first appear, and so accidentally or not, the terrifying world of The Binding of Isaac makes a sick kind of sense.

Surreal and Sacred Things

When I said that the game was surreal, by the way, I used the term advisedly. Blood, poo, and dead-or-messed-up bodies are not just obsessions that morbid children and Edmund McMillen have in common. They are also what surrealist painter Salvador Dali described as the three central themes of his work, and the three physical substances most closely tied to the sacred. Strange though it may seem, there’s an illustrious history in art of trying to process the sacred in a dreamlike way, and ending up with the piles of primal, indeterminate bodily stuff that define Isaac’s imaginary world.

The Binding of Isaac is nothing if not obsessed with the sacred, and with people’s batshit-crazy reactions to what they consider sacred. It would be a shame to spoil anything specific, but suffice to say that Issac plays on the (totally imagined) connection between Dungeons and Dragons and Satanic cults, and on the (unfortunately not-so-imagined) tendency of unbalanced people to hurt others on assumed instructions from God.

To understand how that relates to the action in The Binding of Isaac, you have to know the Biblical story from which the game takes its name: Abraham hears the voice of God, which demands a blood sacrifice in the form of his first-born son, Isaac. Abraham is both ready and willing to do as he’s told, until at the last possible moment, God informs him that he has been punk’d.

It’s a truly bizarre test of faith. Existentialists like Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre have spilled a whole lot of ink trying, and failing, to puzzle out just what Abraham’s actions meant, ethically and theologically. But whatever the story is supposed to teach us, we can certainly agree that, if someone were to follow in Abraham’s footsteps today, that person would very rightly be considered nuts.

So in McMillen’s version, it’s Isaac’s mother who hears (or thinks she hears) the voice of God, commanding her to kill her son. The game takes place in the imaginary world to which Isaac escapes while awaiting his fate. Like I said, people: dark stuff.

Escapism and Empowerment

Now, Isaac is hardly the first kid to escape into a videogame—I know I’ve done it once or twice—and the scenario makes me wonder: Why do we want to escape to worlds where everything is trying to kill us?  Is it that mastering that kind of danger against all odds makes us feel capable? I did feel pretty powerful when I (finally, finally) defeated Isaac’s final boss.

Indeed, the sick joke at the heart of the game is that even Isaac’s central tears-as-bullets ability, pathetic as it is, represents an empowerment fantasy. Little kids cry to make the monsters go away. Isaac’s tears actually do make the monsters go away. Especially once he’s found the laser tears upgrade.

Come to think of it, there’s a second sick joke in the way that, after a few hours of playing, you stop noticing the game’s pitch-black themes. You’re just playing to win, blood and poo be damned, and religion and child abuse are the furthest things from your mind. What’s on your mind is making your character über, and finding all the secret items, and unlocking the alternate characters. You know, video game stuff.

Videogames tend to dull our sensitivity to generic, photorealistic depictions of violence, and we might think that’s because intellectually undemanding kinds of killing—killing that makes the player feel like a badass, or the Chosen One, or both–are not all that affecting. But The Binding of Isaac shows that we can become equally numb to abstracted, deeply personal (frankly more interesting) depictions of violence. Even a damaged, traumatized protagonist is really just a ship for us to upgrade and take into battle.

That’s The Binding of Isaac in a nutshell. The fact that I can turn a blind eye to the game’s darkness, and just enjoy the mechanics and the design—that’s a big part of what compels me to keep playing. But ironically, it’s also the darkest thing about the game. What’s sick isn’t that Edmund McMillen made a game about religious fanatics, child abuse, and murder. What’s sick is that he made that game this much fun.

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