Great Games: The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac

Developers: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Platform: Pbinding of isaac rebirthC
Release Year: 2011

The basement should be a place of fear for a kid Isaac’s age, but when Mom pulls a knife on him in the name of the Lord, he’s willing to take his chances. Flies, poop, and deformed infant familiars are apt partners for he who is already accustomed to daily horror. There’s a deceptive quality to Isaac’s setting. The basement is a world of impressive number of items, enemies, and secrets.

If games are only supposed to be uncomplicated fun, how does one explain the dark catharsis that’s taking place in the game’s story? With each discovery, a twisted shadow casts itself onto Isaac’s home life, with implications of neglect and abuse. There’s an unsettling distance between the satisfaction of collecting power-ups and battling monsters, even when those power ups are represented by things such as dirty syringes and the monsters are giant pinworms.

My fascination with Isaac has yet to wear off; one run is never like any other. The combination of variables ensures that while each run follows the Biblical archetype of it’s story, the specifics will always align in a novel configuration. This is a game thrives on secrets both mechanical and meta; an endless string of brutal challenges and obscure unlockables that drags you through an unknowable nightmare.

However, Isaac is a game of the wiki era, where knowledge can be achieved through research and permutation. Thus, it becomes an experience not just in learning how to do the things required, but in teaching yourself patterns and rituals in order to ensure survival. It becomes less frustrating to die over and over when you’ve gained a sense of the game’s quirks. The game asks you to open your mind towards the unexpected. Winning is a larger thing than defeating Mom, not only in the literal sense, but in a figurative one, as well. To begin to play Isaac, you must first let go of the expectation of control over myriad soul-crushing challenges the game will present to you.

The God in the Old Testament is indifferent to effort. He asks for unwavering devotion in the face of extreme suffering, without the comfort of explanation or the promise of mercy at the end of this struggle. The Binding of Isaac is a rare portrayal of the intricacies specific to faith, a juvenile skewering of a sacred tale that manages to empathize with the great energy required to communicate with spirituality. Through poop.

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