(note, this post contains major spoilers for the game starting about 1/3 of the way in, take my advice and play it first).
I’ve long contended that it’s wrong to try and view video games as art, that those who insist on it are misdirecting their passion for gaining popular acceptance for video games are ignoring the cultural importance of games themselves in favor of trying to make them into bad movies.
Now that’s not to say that they can’t be art at all, just that, mostly, they aren’t. The more they try to be art, the worse they generally are as games - most of my favorite gaming experiences over the past decade are in games that have mostly or entirely discarded the goal of being an interactive narrative at all – Team Fortress 2, Minecraft, Battlefield 1942, Civilization IV and Plants vs. Zombies to name a few.
Of course, there’s room for giant exceptions in this view. The Binding of Isaac sits right in the middle of that room and threatens to knock the walls out altogether.
Ostensibly a Rogue-like Zelda knockoff, I got the game thinking it would be worth an hour or two of novelty, and for $4.49 it’s not like I was risking the rent money. It turned out to be a lot more than that, it’s probably the most affecting game I’ve played in my life, its haunted me ever since I started playing. What’s more, I find it hard to stop playing.
In Isaac, the introductory scenes recount a modern version of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. Isaac’s mother, a devout Christian, hears the voice of God command her to kill her unclean son as proof of her devotion. Isaac escapes through a trapdoor in his room and finds himself in the basement, surrounded by monsters and is forced to fight his way out.
The extra jab at those crazy fundie Christians aside, it all sounds pretty typical. Isaac goes from randomly generated room to randomly generated room, killing monsters, finding powerups and navigating his way through a maze. The whole thing is intended to look an awful lot like the Legend of Zelda.
As you play, however, it starts to become clear that there is a lot more going on than they first let on with poor Isaac. The enemies, which Isaac must dispatch with only his own tears, are cartoonish horrors that attack Isaac with flies, blood, feces, and urine. The rooms are littered with piles of excrement and fire. When Isaac picks up powerups, most of which are related to his mother (a bra, maxi-pad, shoes, lipstick), Christian/demonic imagery (a crown of thorns, an inverted cross, a rosary), or something unclean (piles of feces, dog food, a cat’s dismembered head) his appearance changes. Isaac himself grows more and more disturbing, perhaps no more so than if you find the Wooden Spoon, which increases his speed and covers his skin in small spoon-shaped welts.
In between levels, we see Isaac huddled on the floor shivering, his eyes closed with tears streaming down his face, surrounded by the grotesque monsters and small dream sequence of Isaac being humiliated, attacked or neglected as he falls deeper into the basement.
Now, before I get further, I should make a biographical note that I am the father of a two-year old. Some of my emotional reaction to this game comes squarely from dealing with a toddler who still occasionally wakes up crying in the middle of the night for no discernible reason. Several nights, I’ve had to pause the game to retrieve her from the crib and soothe her back to sleep, all the while that image burned in my mind of Isaac, naked, curled up and helpless before his demons. Though my daughter lives a life that is surely the envy of millions born to less fortuitous circumstances, I can’t help but transfer Isaac’s terror to her and cradler her even more closely. When I go back to the game, I see her tearful face, not Isaac’s.
(spoilers start here!)
It becomes clear that the conceit of The Binding of Isaac is not a modern re-telling of the biblical story at all. It’s the sad coping mechanism of an abused child. Beaten and terrorized by his mother, he retreats into his subconscious, where he confronts his fears and shame in the mode of the video games he finds as his solace, all infused with the perverted views of Christian theology held by his abuser.
Inevitably, the game leads to a confrontation with his mother, who calls his name throughout the battle, first sweetly, then menacingly, and then in a rage. The battle consists of her foot crashing down to crush Isaac, while from the locked doors on all sides, her eyes or nose poke in, sending monsters after Isaac. Occasionally, a hand bursts through a door to swat at Isaac.
When you defeat Mom, the game, of course, is not really over. When you play again, the game becomes longer. After you defeat Mom the second you continue deeper, into the womb (I never said the game was subtle) where the enemies get harder and health and powerups rarer. If you survive to the end you must destroy your Mom’s heart to win. But the game isn’t really over, still. You can keep playing over and over again, each time unlocking a new item and seeing a different, very short ending as Isaac joyfully pulls a relic from the chest that appears – some silly, some terrifying. I am still disturbed by the second complete playthrough where Isaac finds a noose, then hangs himself with it before we return again to the title screen for another attempt at the game.
At this point, I found myself conflicted. This game is definitely a work of art, but is it profound or merely exploitative? I found myself entranced by Isaac, but flummoxed for any possible meaning. Surely Florian Himsel and Edmund McMillen mean for us to take something from The Binding of Isaac, right? Yet, they’ve eschewed any outcome outside of despair, are they really making a work of art that posits abuse victims have nothing but pain and despair possible for them?
As a narrative frame, the game design itself integrates ingeniously into the narrative. The randomness of the world you explore, the frustration at not finding enough bombs, or not having a key or enough coins when you need them, the way fewer and fewer hearts drop as you get closer to the end, all work along the theme of powerlessness (and make the game a lot harder!). The presence of fire and blood and shit everywhere reflect the shames and fears of a small child, no more so in the way Isaac wets the floor when entering a room with low health. Most importantly he becomes more grotesque himself with each item pickup –becoming a monster himself.
But what’s the takeaway, what are we supposed to get from playing The Binding of Isaac, other than that being abused is pretty shitty?
It seems likely (and I’m not that far yet), that with the 10th successful playthrough, another final villain will be unveiled yet. I’ve tried to decide what I expect to happen there. Will the final boss be another incarnation of Isaac’s mother? His apparently absent father? Himself? Will Isaac escape or is he doomed forever to his nightmares? How the game resolves itself will go a long way for me to decide if the game is good art or bad art, but for certain, it’s a moving piece of interactive art that puts the vast majority of big narrative games to shame.