A Ludonarrative Phenomenology of a Childhood
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
The Binding of Isaac, a philosophical(ish) review
The Binding of Isaac is unlike any other computer game. To begin, what in most games would be an incontrovertible vice, its extreme and random unfairness, is an asset. Other games deploy unfairness in ways that integrate the an inner logic, Pathologic and Pathologic 2 famously. But these tend to be straightforwardly and brutally unfair. Pathologic, which is a (debatably) survival horror pandemic simulator, has a tragic beauty. Not so Isaac, for whom lady luck can be excessively favourable, cruelly vindictive or conscientiously even-handed at whim.
Whereas for other ‘unfair’ games it becomes clear quickly that unfairness is a gimmick, here the unaware gamer might easily see it as a design flaw. Has nobody tested these dynamics? What’s the point of a run if I cannot win? A generous playthrough sets up the gamer for a harder fall when fortunes inevitably do turn, which gets to something else about this game: gambling is a dominant dynamic to its every aspect.
From slotmachines, blood banks, and cup tricks, to guessing what walls to bomb in search of hidden rooms, randomised treasures and monster configurations and deciding whether to use a limited number of expandable keys to access certain areas, it is an experience that will not so much draw on judicious contemplation, as encourage risk taking. This is a game of chance as much as skill. No matter how well you are doing, you can be brought low; no matter how badly you are doing, you can still be elevated.
The combination of gambling and unfairness produces not so much the sense of utter despair peculiar to games like Pathologic, but a feeling of being dependent on higher and unfathomable powers. In short, and I suspect deliberately, it gives you a vision of Isaac’s vantage on the world. A child victim of neglect and cruelty, the religious mania and abandonment of parental figures, every part of this game reflects his worldview.
The algorithms and constructions of its gameplay are there to build an unreliable narratology of being thrown out into an uncaring world that might bless or curse in equal measure, and where whatever meaning it takes on is one we might impose. There’s no real dialogue here, no linear progression of clear events; it is how Isaac navigates the game and the settings constituent elements that ‘tell’ the adventure. It is arguably an anti-story. It is also macabre and sad and deeply personal to the game’s creator.
The game’s two creators were Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl. McMillen was influenced by his family background, which included both Catholic and born-again Christian roots and exposed him to what he took to be the beauty of Catholic rituals as well as the authoritarian culture wars against such pastimes of his as heavy metal music and Dungeons and Dragons (another enormous influence on The Binding of Isaac, and especially its gambling mechanics). McMillen in particular was keen to convey how people creatively respond to the harmful feelings brought about by an oppressive religious upbringing.
The game is an indie roguelike directly inspired, as the title suggests, by the Biblical story. Attempting to flee his mother, who is in turn is attempting to murder him on behalf of God, the protagonist child flees into different basement levels, descending through procedurally generated dungeons using tears as a projectile weapon to fight various monsters, including boss encounters. Its opening clip, a short cartoon, lays out the narrative, and is the most extensive exposition you will encounter during the game:
Isaac and his mother lived alone in a small house on a hill. Isaac kept to himself, drawing pictures and playing with his toys as his mom watched Christian broadcasts on the television. Life was simple, and they were both happy. That was, until the day Isaac's mom heard a voice from above. ‘Your son has become corrupted by sin! He needs to be saved!’ ‘I will do my best to save him, my Lord,’ Isaac's mother replied, rushing into Isaac's room, removing all that was evil from his life. Again, the voice called to her: ‘Isaac's soul is still corrupt! He needs to be cut off from all that is evil in this world and confess his sins.’ ‘I will follow your instructions, Lord. I have faith in thee,’ Isaac's mother replied, as she locked Isaac away in his room, away from the evils of the world. One last time, Isaac's mom heard the voice of God calling to her: ‘You have done as I asked, but I still question your devotion to me. To prove your faith, I will ask one more thing of you.’ ‘Yes, Lord. Anything,’ Isaac's mother begged. ‘To prove your love and devotion, I require a sacrifice. Your son Isaac will be this sacrifice. Go into his room and end his life as an offering to me, to prove that you love me above all else!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, grabbing a butcher's knife from the kitchen. Isaac, watching through a crack in the door, trembled in fear. Scrambling around his room to find a hiding place, he noticed a trapdoor to the basement, hidden under his rug. Without hesitation, he flung open the hatch just as his mother burst through his door and threw himself down into the unknown depths below.
This is, then, a satire of the culture of the American religious right. And its subversion of the Biblical narrative suggests a Biblically sourced critique of that culture. Much of this game is subversive in that way, and much could be made of a Freudian style reading of a game about familial authority, replete with scatological humour and critiques of tradition.
But that stuff is the least interesting thing about The Binding of Isaac. What is more fascinating about it is the way it depicts the internal world of its troubled hero (or heroes, as there are unlockable characters, which I will ignore for my purposes here, but about which more could be written). And in particular, how it does so not through anything ancillary to the game, but through its various features.
Isaac, fortunately for the player, is able to upgrade himself as he goes about his adventures. There is no level up system, but there are items which alter Isaac’s character sprite (his appearance) and give him new abilities. These range from the game-breaking powerful ones to outright disadvantageous finds (you must learn to recognise them through trial and error, without the use of Google), and most of them come with synergies that can also go either way. Moreover, the alterations tend to be on the grotesque side of body horror (albeit not always, the halo for example giving him just that, a halo that floats above Isaac’s head).
There is a genuinely Kafkaesque quality about these metamorphoses. It’s an overused expression, but as Franz Kafka can easily be seen to have been exploring Jewish familial relationships with an absurdist trope of a salesman, Gregor Samsa, becoming a huge insect (Gergor's families underwhelmed reactions are played up in the book), the parallels are overt and likely authorial. Indeed, it’s possible for Isaac to become any number of insectoids himself, as well as a cyborg, flying dead cat (Guppy, his own deceased feline), top hat wearing bomber or permanently grinning horror, etc. etc.
(A twist of Nietzsche’s ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’—or perhaps DC Comic’s Joker and his ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger’—Isaac must become less and less human, and often more overtly demonic, to merely survive.)
Items can also be secured in devil and angel rooms, and there are silver and black hearts (which can add lives additional to the standard red hearts) as well as metrics for how angelic or demonic Isaac has become, which increases and decreases the likelihood of the aforementioned rooms. In a game without much of a conscience, morality becomes just another empty mechanic to be interpreted from Isaac’s limited perspective—something that feeds into the metatextual satire of this game’s take on evangelical and US Catholic society.
Besides items, there are various other consumables too. That is, keys, bombs, hearts, cards, runes, trinkets and pills. Keys, bombs and hearts are all explained above; cards are either numbered playing cards (which double one of the other consumables) or Tarots (more on that in a bit), runes have various generally positive consequences based on cultural meanings (these are rare, but work similarly to the Tarots), trinkets give specific effects but (usually) Isaac can only hold one and pills play with Isaac’s attributes or have a single effect (so there are health up and down pills, pills that spill substances over the ground and pills that speed up Isaac’s attacks, etc.).
The Tarots meanings (they are all major arcana) are delightfully in-line with a quite childish and literalist interpretation of the traditional symbology. The Fool returns Isaac to the first room of a level (a handy escape trick), while the Emperor transports him to the level’s boss room (which can help circumnavigate later levels were there are many dangers and few rewards). The Stars takes him to a treasure room while the moon to a secret one. The Chariot turns Isaac into a kind of invincible Pacman while the Wheel of Fortune summons a Fortune Telling/Slotmachine. The World reveals the entire map, secrets and all.
The enemies Isaac faces vary a lot. There are jumping blobs and spiders, headless zombies and flies, angels and leaches, ghosts and bats, mushrooms and hoppers. Chillingly, and again reinforcing that this is all a construction of Isaac’s troubled psychology, they often and notably mirror Isaac in appearance. Indeed, after a few transformations they might look less monstrous than Isaac! Unless, that is, Isaac uses one of the actual mirrors found in later levels to randomly reconfigure his appearance.
Amongst minor bosses (which can be found in random rooms) there are also the seven deadly sins, and again the perspective of Isaac is notable. Greed, gluttony and sloth are fairly obvious in design, but lust is fascinating: a pink version of Isaac that runs at high speed, it is not especially sexualised (nothing is in the game) and seems to rather imply a childish take on excessive, threatening need. This is an insight that comes from another fan of the game, horror writer and Let's Player George Daniel Lea, whose YouTube channel (replete with Binding of Isaac runs) can be found here. The point being that, over and over, the game’s creators stress Isaac’s point of view in this singular and integrated way.
The main monsters don’t deviate from this general pattern either, except that mother and father related enemies are especially enormous, often appearing only partially on the screen during attack sequences, and in fact seem to occupy a higher dimension (utterly inaccessible to Isaac) from the game. Isaac interestingly can gain access to various items that summon these forces, so they are not entirely adversarial (although they predominantly are). This gives these semi-enemies (alongside major bosses like Satan and Mega-Satan), a distinctly enigmatic quality.
It’s fair to say that I am relatively obsessed with The Binding of Isaac. There are many uninteresting reasons for that: it is an addictive game, for those not put off by many of the features I outline above; I can play it on my now quite old Mac (soon to be replaced by a proper gaming machine) and its absurdist humour appeals.
But, more interestingly, it is a game that belies its superficial amateur and vulgar appearance with a kind of memoir approach to the medium. There’s a lot of depth (intended) to this game about religious culture, which for all its gross outs and ugliness, often feels oddly sincere and thoughtful. It gives me a perspective on a world so different from my own (as an ex-Anglican, a faith with very different and lesser faults that the US religious right). Nobody could say that this is a profound game, but it is—as well as repulsive, disturbing, difficult—a strangely considered one.
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