The Binding of Isaac is one of those games you wish you could stop playing.
It’s one of those games you play in a dream state and when you wake up you take a step back from it to start desperately applying your critical faculties. Even then, you cannot understand why this game is so addictive or what makes it good. Is it the disturbing aesthetic of unborn children? Is it the haunting industrial guitar music? Is it the simplicity of the game-play (move and shoot)? Or is it the sheer variety of enemies, items, abilities and rooms you can discover?
Well, some might argue it’s all of the above.
The story goes (don’t worry, no spoilers here folks) that Isaac, a baby, is chosen to be sacrificed by his insane and evangelical mother, who believes he is wracked with sin. His only escape: the basement of her house. But it is in this basement he finds strange creatures, lost souls like himself, discarded toys, a whole history of darkness…
Though the gameplay and story premise may seem simple, even one-dimensional at first, if we look a little closer we can see there is actually a compelling, if disturbing, dialogue going on with this game and its origin story. For those who aren’t familiar with the legendary biblical tale, Isaac is the son of Abraham who he sacrificed in order to appease God and pass the test of his faith. At the last moment before Abraham drives the knife into Isaac, an angel stops Abraham and tells him he has passed God’s test. The son is spared and Abraham is proved worthy.
How has this game changed and engaged with this story? For starters, Isaac’s mother is far from the noble tribe-leader we find in Abraham. She hears the voice of God, much like in the original story, calling her to sacrifice her son, only in this modern adaptation we question if she is schizophrenic. The story branches off: rather than accept his fate like a meek lamb, as in the biblical myth, Isaac seeks life, and in the process of escaping jumps down into the awful corridors, pits and shafts of his mother’s basement, filled with a sea of modern refuse: birth-control pills, condoms, tampons, drugs as well as the horrors of infants, like him and not like him, apparently warped into monsters. Despite playing like one, this is not a child’s game; that much is evident.
There is a worrying implication that Isaac has entered hell in hell trying to escape the fate of the Lord – an implication complicated by the idea that perhaps his mother has created her own hell with her manic obsession for obeying the Lord’s will. Are these other infants not children she has sacrificed to prove herself in the past? We must remember in the original bible story, though God appears to call for infanticide, he does, in fact, relent.
If this sounds harrowing, it’s because it is, and yet somehow The Binding of Isaac gets away with it. It certainly does not gloss over the visceral details. Deformed, presumably aborted, children explode into clouds of gore heavy with flies, which then attack you. Isaac fights off his attackers with his own tears and a host of unmentionable paraphernalia uncovered in the basement’s depths. Our plucky hero often resorts to injecting himself with unknown substances in the tips of discarded syringes to keep going, or else turning over a mysterious tarot card, the results of which are as difficult to determine as a fortune. Maybe it’s the low-res graphics which allow us to swallow the difficult pill of its dark aesthetic, perhaps the emoticon art-style; whatever it is, the horror is always veiled and yet unforgettable.
As a society, we have access to more. More flavours of tea. More types of beer. And now we want this from games. Very few linear games succeed in our next gen era – and if they do, it’s because they have done something unique with the linear story experience. The most celebrated and popular games are often open-world, or involve in a tree of infinite butterfly-effect choices, or even, in the case of the upcoming No Man’s Sky, are entirely procedurally generated and offer infinite possibilities.
The Binding of Isaac, despite its simplicity and 8-bit graphics, gives us that choice, that diversity, and the randomness too. No dungeon-run will ever be arranged the same way – giving the game the illusion of massive scope. The items are virtually endless and this is not procedural but down to an immense and impressive body of work from the developers. After over 60 hours of playing I’m still finding items which baffle me and I’ve certainly not seen before.
Not only that, it’s possible to unlock other playable characters by completing certain challenges, and these characters have unique and often surprising abilities which make their play-style radically different to Isaac’s. Their biblical names – Lazarus, Eve, Samson – marry with Isaac and the subversive spiritual undertones of the game; undertones concealed amidst the refuse of a deconstructed modern life.
If the biblical frame of reference wasn’t apparent before, encounters with the devil and his offer of silver-hearts will solidify it. These silver hearts can provide generous buffers of health, only, they cannot be replenished so easily. Short term gain – always the devil’s trick.
These encounters are not planned. No room has the same monsters or items. Hidden doorways can be located in any room wall and accidentally revealed by a bomb or powerful attack. These hidden chambers can lead to merchant teddy-bears, extra bosses, and the aforementioned devilish offers… There is a colossal array of monsters to fight: everything from razor-toothed maggots to smiling faeces. And the further you go into the dungeon, the more you’ll encounter.
I resisted The Binding of Isaac for a long time: partly because, despite being a lover of horror, I was unnerved by its strange aesthetic. I’m sure you could resist it for a long time too. But don’t. It’s worth every penny.
And speaking of which, hold on to them when you next go into your mother’s basement.