Ginger Nuts of Horror
You may have heard of this one; a certain Mr. Kit Power has already detailed his own passion for this game hereabouts. Not only that, but it's certainly one of the biggest “Indy” hits in video gaming in recent memory.
The Binding of Isaac is a phenomenon; already having spawned a remake, myriad forms of DLC and a fan-community that could realistically form its own small nation, the game is one of the very few that has entirely transcended the limitations of its independent roots, becoming a genuine competitor for market space far, far beyond any intent or expectation on behalf of its creators.
Type the title into YouTube's search engine, you will be bombarded with more videos than you can realistically consume in a lifetime. The “Let's Play” community have been a key component in the game's marketing and popularity, the nature of the game itself making it ideal fodder for prolonged or on-going series.
Essentially an example of what has become known as “Rogue-like” video games, the premise and structure are ostensibly simple: As the eponymous Isaac, the player must progress through various rooms and levels, each of which has its own lay out of monsters, traps and items. Killing all of the enemies within a particular room will open the doors to other areas, each floor containing an item room, sometimes a shop (where Isaac can pick up or purchase upgrades), a boss and various other potential secrets and areas for exploration. Along the way, Isaac can pick up keys to open locked doors, money to purchase items from the shop, bombs for blowing up enemies or opening the sealed ways to secret rooms. Every floor has its own randomly determined lay out, ensuring that no two games are the same, and items often work in synergy with one another, unlocking odd effects or capabilities, meaning that there are numerous potential combinations. Every item picked up also transforms the player character, meaning that combinations of items can result in some truly wacky and bizarre sprites. Certain parameters unlock potential secrets, for example, if you succeed in completing a floor without taking damage, you may earn a “deal with the Devil” or a “deal with the angel;” rooms that spontaneously open after defeating the boss of any given floor, the former allowing you to sacrifice health for potentially devastating items (Brimstone, The Pact, The Mark and various others), the latter offering a much more limited pool of items for free.
Part of The Binding of Isaac's enduring appeal is that the end is not the end; every time you play, not only is the game different, but fulfilling certain parameters unlocks new floors, new items, new characters and bosses...the range of unlockable elements is enormous, ensuring an almost infinite replay value. Should you, for example, happen to beat two floors without taking damage, you will unlock the Sampson character; a player character that starts the game with different stats and abilities from the standard Isaac (most notably, the Rage capability, which enhances his damage every time he takes a hit). Should you reach the first “Mom” boss fight and defeat it within twenty minutes of starting the game, you will have the chance of partaking in “boss rush;” a gauntlet of almost all the game's bosses spawning one after the other, in return for a series of items. The game also has numerous modes, ranging from a truly fiendish “hard” mode (which is the only way to truly play it) to a recently created “Greed” mode, which changes the dynamic of the game profoundly and even boasts a unique end of game boss in the form of “Ultra Greed.”
But all of this; the game's mechanics, its design, its structure...they pale in comparison to what the aforementioned Mr. Kit Powers discussed in his original analysis of the game:
Rarely, for a game of its type, The Binding of Isaac has incredible metaphorical depth and resonance: at the game's opening, the player is treated to an intro animation that sets out the story, but also establishes the central tension between its art style and subject matter: whilst the style is cutesy, almost like a child's drawings, the subject matter ranges between the bleakly hilarious to the utterly disturbing.
As the intro cartoon makes overt, this is a game that touches on some rather thorny subjects, child abuse not least amongst them: His Father (mysteriously) absent, Isaac lives alone with his Mother, who is a religious fanatic, obsessed with televangelism and Christian broadcasting. Hearing what she believes to be the voice of God commanding her to “prepare” her son, she strips him naked, takes away all of his toys and books and “worldly” possessions and leaves him shivering in his room. But God, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, speaks to her again, commanding her to “purify” him of all wickedness. Brandishing as butcher's knife, she makes for her son's room, but Isaac hears her coming, escaping through a concealed trap door in his room, tumbling down, down into the basement.
And this is where the game begins. From this point, there is very little in the way of overt story-telling (none at all, in point of fact): everything, everything, everything is conveyed through visual symbolism: every enemy encountered, every item picked up, is symbolic of some aspect of Isaac's state of mind, leaving the player in some doubt as to how much he is experiencing is literally true and how much is the distorted creation of an imagination on the brink of fraying under parental abuse and sheer terror.
Almost all of the enemies bear some distorted or disfigured resemblance to Isaac himself, from almost-clones of the boy with bleeding, gouged out eyes, to others that are bloated beyond all measure and often conjoined to nascent versions of themselves...the metaphorical implications of this are various and horrific: on the one hand, you could interpret such enemies as perhaps Isaac's previous siblings, discarded into the cellar by their Mother and Father for being so hideous. Or perhaps they are projections of the boy himself; fragments of his psyche that assault him from within and require putting down. Or maybe they are reflections of the various abuses he has suffered, how he now sees himself.
Other enemies reflect certain boyish fears and obsessions; flies, spiders, worms...living dollops of excrement that speed across the screen, spawning smaller versions of themselves as they go. Such Freudian imagery abounds: as well as the overtly phallic entities such as “Chub” and the numerous worm-like enemies, there are also items and enemies that refer to morbid neuroses, such as “Mom's Bra,” an item which, when activated, causes an image of Isac's ogre-like Mother to flash across the screen, all enemies momentarily freezing in place as though paralysed with fear. More grotesque still is “Mom's Pad,” which causes enemies to flee in disgust. Certain enemies are symbolically vaginal or refer to menstruation, others redolent of common birth defects or deformities. Items euphemistically (or directly) refer to incontinence, disease or (contrastingly) to popular internet memes or popular fiction.
Bosses are invariably inventive in both their grotesquery and character, each of them encapsulating some consistent element of the game's themes and subjects and emphasising it to the Nth degree: from “Monstro's” hair-lip and characteristics that are more than a little redolent of mental disability to “Peep” and his splattering incontinence, each of the bosses, like their smaller kin, reflect some preoccupation, concern or neurosis of childhood; so universal as to be immediately recognisable, and make them immediately disturbing, despite their overtly simplistic and child-like design. Later encounters become deeper and darker; reflections of Isaac's own peculiar form of psychological and physical abuse: angels and demons and undead monstrosities; distorted reflections of the “sin” he has been conditioned to perceive in himself (each of the Seven Deadly Sins manifests as mini-bosses throughout the levels, as do the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse).
All of this conveyed in a distorted, cutesy style the source and nature of which becomes apparent if you take a step back from the game and look at how it's presented: everything, everything is a child's drawing, from the most grotesque horrors to the silliest absurdities: this is a the world of an abused child's sub-conscious, perhaps near death or in some strange limbo between it and life, maybe not yet even born; dreaming of the life it will live and the horrors it will face (all equally plausible, given the imagery the game presents).
The apparent end of the game in early play-throughs (but that fast becomes little more than a mid-way marker as more is unlocked and the game extends) sees Isaac finally facing his Mother; a grotesque ogre that is never seen in its entirety, but as a protruding collection of body parts (eyes, grasping hands, a descending, callused foot), defeating the very face of his own fears.
But her apparent death is only the beginning: after, Isaac descends into his Mother's womb, where he finds not only infesting entities such as parasitic worms et al, but also partial abortions, ectopic siblings...ultimately an encounter with his Mother's own vile heart, which, in later encounters, transforms into an immense foetus.
The symbolism of this is simultaneously rife with potential interpretations and entirely ambiguous: perhaps this represents Isaac's own suicidal tendencies; a despair so profound that he seeks to return to his own source and abort himself before he can be born. Or perhaps the “womb” levels are literally the diseased carcass of his fallen Mother, the enemies and the final foetus enemy (“It Grows”) that he encounters another like himself, that will only know suffering when it comes to wake.
From here, the player has a choice of two unlockable levels, each one representing a different aspect of his Mother's religious fanaticism:
Either a descent into Sheol, the first layer of Hell, in Talmudic mythology, or an ascent to The Cathedral; a Heavenly plain that is nonetheless lethal and filled to the brim with monstrosity. The former culminates in a battle with Satan himself; arguably the manifestation of fears conditioned into him by his Mother, representing his desire to be rid of his own temptation and spiritual filth (a state manifested in the character Azazel; a demonic form of Isaac that the player can utilise after meeting certain parameters). The latter, meanwhile, is most curious: coming to the final chamber of the Cathedral, Isaac is faced by none other than...himself. Or rather, an angelic version of himself; a weeping, trembling form that, after being pummelled to a particular point of health, sprouts wings and becomes angelic. This entity does not “die” as other enemies do if defeated; it ascends to some higher plain, leaving Isaac to crawl into a vast and archaic trunk that drops from the ceiling...
Did I mention that Isaac's principle form of attack comes from tears?; The character literally weeps his enemies to death, except for in the case of a few items or power-ups that transform his tears into bursts of blood, explosive gouts of vomit or streams of urine.
At its core, The Binding of Isaac is a metaphorical road-map of childhood and adolescent concerns, neuroses and obsessions; it symbolically refers to or explores near universal experiences; traumas that are part and parcel of growing, the death of childhood, the murder or abandonment of notions of innocence...
It's entirely feasible to write an entire dissertation or thesis on the symbolism of The Binding of Isaac; analysing the work as an example of visually and symbolically told mythology and video game narrative. I've barely scratched the surface here, and even this analysis is subject to profound question: the game is effectively a giant Rorschach ink-blot test: every player will have different interpretations of the experience; will inevitably express varying and idiosyncratic interpretations of its symbolism.
It therefore only remains to say: go and play it; uncover or create your own “truth,” but be wary: the roads to both Heaven and Hell are long, and fraught with familiar dangers...
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.