Gaming, Shame and Self-Reflection: My Adventures with ‘The Binding of Isaac’

by frangibility

As with so many things, my opinions on The Binding of Isaac are a little… conflicted. On one hand, I can’t help but concur with the (near) universal chorus of adulation that this little downloadable title has received. Trying to describe exactly what Isaac does right brings up a (slightly cliched) image: it’s like a video game bouillabaisse, flinging together a morass of different ingredients and somehow ending up with a whole that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. It features a darkly cartoonish aesthetic, well-designed boss encounters, the occasionally frenetic pace of a bullet-hell shooter, and, a robust set of [unlockable] items and character upgrades, many of which significantly alter the play experience. It’s also considerably indebted to the ROGUElike genre, incorporating many of its key features, such as procedurally generated maps, randomized items and boss encounters, and – the old-school standby – perma-death (i.e., the lack of any ability to save your progress). While the arcade-y, SmashTV-esque gameplay is compelling in its own right, the combination of those traits with the game’s unforgiving difficulty level and the promise of a consistently varied experience transforms Isaac into a particularly potent blend of gamer crack: knowing that those punishing, random levels hold a compelling challenge and a huge number of surprises (in terms of unlockable items, weapons, and hidden bosses) fuels the game’s seductive appeal. For one example, I’ve somehow spent a total of almost twenty-four hours playing it in the last two weeks, in spite of the fact that I’m nearing the busiest time of my academic semester.

If I had to compare it to anything, it would be Realm of the Mad God, a multiplayer pseudo-RPG that also features shooter mechanics and procedurally generated environments, but the latter game lacks much of the challenge, interest, and compelling progression that make Isaac such a success.

Now, I can hear you saying: “Hold up a minute, sir! I hear none of the ambivalence suggested in your topic sentence… In fact, this sounds much like the chorus of adulation I’ve come to expect in discussions of this game!” Fair enough. The reason that I can’t unabashedly take part in the critical love-in centered on this game is, simply, that I find its content is somewhat objectionable. While this makes me sound like either a curmudgeon or a prude, I still need to say it.

Here’s the skinny: You play as a young child games whose mother – twisted to insanity by the ravings of televangelists – has taken it upon herself to sacrifice her son to God. Escaping her murderous ministrations, you leap through a trapdoor into the cellar, where you are confronted by a slew of alternately weeping, shrieking, bleeding and exploding insects, pustules, fistulas, zombies and homunculi, as well as confronting the seven deadly sins and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which are sprinkled throughout the randomized levels described above. Being an avowed heathen, who, during my brash younger years,was occasionally purposefully offensive to Christians, I can’t say that the religious content bothered me too much. Even the fact that Satanism is blithely offered as a source of potential power-ups (e.g., a pact with the devil increases your character’s combat damage) wasn’t too galling, if only because giving players the ability to harness demonic power is seen in so many modern video games that it’s practically a cliché.

Instead, I was more put off by what I saw as a creeping misogyny, as well as the copious references to child abuse. In the first case, note that your primary objective in the game is to brave the dungeon in order to slay your (admittedly insane) mother and that the final set of dungeon levels is called “The Womb.” More insidious than this, however, is the fact that your character can pick up definitively gendered items and use them as weapons. For example, when you use “Mom’s Bra,” it brings up a grotesque, shuddering image of a middle-aged woman’s lumpen torso, which causes all of the enemies on the screen to briefly freeze (possibly in horror [?]). Likewise, other power-ups make explicit references to Isaac’s abuse at the hands of his mother, such as the “Wooden Spoon,” which covers your player character with little “spoon prints” and allows him to move more quickly, or “Max’s Head” (the decapitated head of a teddy-bear), which increases the rate at which Isaac fires tears… On that, I suppose it deserves mention here that your primary projectile in the game is your tears, which you fire at the various monsters closing in on you. There’s even what could be read as a veiled reference to abortion, whereby your character’s production of tears is increased by having a wire coat-hanger jammed through his head. It’s all quite objectionable.

If I were to come across a book, television program, comic strip or movie that made such cavalier use of emotionally charged imagery, I would almost certainly write it off as juvenile tripe. I certainly wouldn’t continue to invest time into it. In fact, I almost did delete Isaac after playing it a few times… The distinction between it and the hypothetical offensive material posited above, however, is that the video game can also be judged by a distinctive criterion: namely, whether it is fun to play. And on this measure, Isaac is definitely a “good” game, in the sense that it’s engaging, challenging, and enjoyable. That said, in many ways, I still felt like I was doing something wrong by playing and enjoying it. My response, however, which I’m somewhat loath to admit in a public forum, was not to quit. Instead, I searched around online to see if there was a way to hide my Steam history… In other words, my feelings of queasy uneasiness didn’t prompt me to give up on the game, but rather to attempt to hide the fact that I was playing it from others. As an aside, this is exactly what I did with the first violent game that I played and enjoyed (Wolfenstein 3D), whose floppy discs I hid inside of a book and which I only ever played when everyone else was out of the house. Then as now, I felt like I was doing something wrong, but it wasn’t enough to convince me to stop.

I suppose that leaves me with a critical question: what is “fun” in video games and how much problematic content am I willing to put up with in order to have that “fun” experience?