The Binding Of Isaac tricked me, its opening cinematic (well, sketches with a voiceover) hinting at a straightforward anti-religious fable, the kind of smug deconstruction that the equally smug atheist in me could easily enjoy. As the young, terrified Isaac flees into a secret basement to escape his kitchen-knife wielding mother, it can only be madness, and not the voice of God, whispering in her ear.
But as you work your way deeper into the putrid depths of Isaac’s dungeons, the game shifts focus towards darker, less parodic and more disturbing themes. This is a game about child abuse, a picture of juvenile mental breakdown painted in blood, faeces and slime. A first, it just seemed silly, a sort of toilet humour Zelda with crusty turds rather than pots waiting to be busted open in the corner of rooms, but Isaac’s deeper meanings made themselves known with time.
Isaac’s a top-down shooter with a randomised roguelike structure – the level and room layouts as well enemy encounters change every time. It’s a game made for multiple playthroughs, in other words, the sheer variety of enemies and items ensuring a compulsive uniqueness to each run. Just now, I fired up the game and soon picked up The Tick, a passive item that leached a small amount of health from each boss as I entered their chambers. I’ve never seen it before, I don’t know when I will again. I died all the same, however, and even now I’m fighting the urge to discover exactly what another playthrough might reveal.
It’s a structure that lets the game’s creator, Edmund McMillen, slowly drip-feed his themes, gradually building a picture of childhood neglect and despair. Loading screens chronicle childhood humiliations and indignities; the fleshy, bodily function obsessed world becomes harder to ignore; even much-needed items carry with them unpleasant meanings and overtones. Almost all of Isaac’s pick-ups are macabre – an animated bird corpse that attacks enemies threatening Isaac, for instance – but some resonate a little more strongly with the game’s opening scenes. Exactly when you pick up on the disturbing thematic work being done here may vary, but if the cans of dog-food marked as “dinner” don’t clue you in, stumbling across foetus-like corpses known as Brother Bobby and Sister Maggy should make the subtext more clear.
To begin with, whether or not these fluid-spattered caves and grotty basements filled with grotesque enemies were supposed to be the product of Isaac’s imagination or stops along some kind of magical realist odyssey didn’t seem important. What mattered to me was the disturbing nature of the world they reflected. I’ve never truly liked McMillen’s art style, which is to say I’ve never felt wholly comfortable with it. There’s a soiled, degraded quality to his creations, as if children’s cartoon characters have been wrung through life’s meat grinder, become substance abusers and watched far too much porn. Those cute eyes coupled with the salivating mouths and the putrefying stumps of missing limbs make me unnerved in way that Dead Space’s necromorphs could never achieve. And these images, coupled the bleak implications they had for Isaac’s home life, left me disturbed.
Despite the sheer abundance of Isaac’s themes – Judeo-Chrtisian myths, child abuse, poo – they never quite seemed to cohere, to come together in form of an easy allegory or digestible whole. If Isaac’s mother’s religious mania is so bad, then why is the Bible such an effective weapon in the game? And besides echoing Hieronymus Bosch’s grotesqueries, exactly what are enemies made out of blood clots, or babies with the back of their skulls missing supposed to mean?
But if Isaac’s imagery is unsettling and its meaning elusive, its rhythms are hypnotic. The shooter mechanics couple with the randomised content ensured that I always want to play more. This compulsion left me conflicted – I was put off by the themes and the art yet compelled by the game, the roguelike chromosomes in Isaac’s mutant DNA teasing items I hadn’t used and things I hadn’t seen. This tension between game and theme runs through many titles: I ignore the dudebro heorics in Gears of War for the shooting; I tolerate Bayonetta’s objectification for the combat; I try to look away from spiteful politics in Call Of Duty in order to enjoy its rollercoaster ride. But it was harder with Isaac. Its themes seemed more worthy for a start (McMillen has gone on record about the influences from his own childhood), and the intention to genuinely explore them more sincere. I didn’t want to ignore them, in other words, I just wanted to feel less disturbed.
Endings usually provide answers, but Isaac is by no means an easy game to reach the end of. Its multiple endings, brutal randomisation and increasing difficulty (the game gets harder after a few successful runs, while expansion Wrath Of The Lamb adds a load of vicious content) ensure more sessions end in failure than victory. Possible readings were online of course, but I didn’t want to Google to provide a gloss on this game. After sinking many hours into The Binding Of Isaac I think I finally have a handle on the nature of its world. My reading isn’t happy one, and it’s an unstable one too, subject to change. Who knows what the next playthrough will reveal.
The Binding Of Isaac isn’t a top-down shooter after all, it’s a thematically rich puzzle game, a story told by item drops and near-impossible to achieve endings in foul, dank world. It is unpleasant but compulsive with it, slot-machine randomisation keeping me playing even as the difficulty and the aesthetics leave me repelled. I think I have some minor insight into what a life of fear and repression can do to a child now, but I enjoyed the process of learning so even as it offended my more refined tastes. And fittingly for a game kicked off by Biblical judgement, that leaves me feeling ashamed.