Binding of Isaac Review
The Binding of Isaac has put me in a decision loop I have never found myself in. Its game play is a wonderful mixture of rogue-like and Zelda that wholly satisfies my old-school gaming sensibilities. On the other hand, the themes and symbolism in the game genuinely makes me feel uncomfortable. I cannot decide whether to play it again.
During play I’m in heaven, while poor Isaac is wading his way through hell. The Zelda style dungeon, controls, and gameplay work perfectly; but the addition of the following elements make for a truly engaging and unique experience.
The dungeon is randomized in every way. The enemy and item placement, as well as the layout itself, is different every time you play. Sometimes a floor will have a miniboss, personifications of one of the seven deadly sins, and sometimes it won’t. Power- ups are random, and when using them for the first time, their effect I unknown. There might be three locked doors on your floor, but you’ve been given no keys. I don’t see the latter point as a flaw, but more of a fascinating addition to the game’s theme. Life is not fair to Isaac, and the game is not fair to the player. It’s this sort of unpredictability that makes me want to play the game hundreds of more times.
And yet, I am hesitant to boot the game up again. The game makes be uncomfortable. It begins with Isaac’s mother hearing the voice of God ordering her to kill Isaac. Isaac escapes in a trap door in his room, into a dungeon filled with feces, blood, and disturbing monsters. Isaac is naked, and armed only with his tears, that he shoots at enemies, as he must survive this hell and defeat his mother.
The power ups in the game are perhaps the most off-putting of all. Some power-ups provide ongoing benefits: Isaac can piece his skull with a coat hanger to make his tears more powerful. He can use a whipping branch to make him run faster. I won’t go over them all because I think you get the jist. Other power-ups are one time use, and these come in the form of pills. The first time using a pill, you have no idea what its effects will be. Perhaps you can see why I might be uncomfortable playing The Binding of Isaac.
Gamers have a keen ability to separate context from mechanics. This applies to me as well. While actually playing the Binding of Isaac, I can glaze over the context of my situation. I’m dodging bullets, and killing enemies; the fact that those bullets are tears of blood and that those enemies are aborted fetuses can be pushed away. Of course, I am not oblivious to this fact, or unsympathetic to it, but I can appreciate that there is more to this game than meets the eye. I feel that much of this game world may be metaphorical, or symbolic. I do not believe that the game creator is endorsing the killing of children, and that, for me, is the line between smut and art. I think an artist’s intent finds its way to shine through the medium, whether by conscience, or unconscious thought.
I don’t think that this game is being malevolent with its theme. I can see it as a biting satire, an examination on religious fanaticism, even an examination of disciplining a child. One message I got from the game that stood out was, that punishing a behavior excessively in a child could cause that child to act out the behavior once pushed too far, or once the fear of the punishment was gone. I do think that this game is a work of art. I have passed several hours in thought over the game’s theme, symbolism, and message, and whether or not it even has a message.
This is not the first time I have taken the time to think about these things for a game, and it is not the first time a game has made me uncomfortable. However, it is the first time I have done both. Usually when game makes me uncomfortable is when it is saying that despicable things like racism, murder, or rape is ok in game, and out in the world. Those games get know, and deserve no, deliberation on my part; I simply never play them again. However, in the case of art, just because I’m uncomfortable with it, doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to have experienced it, or have others experience it.
So, do I recommend this game? Not an easy question. The mix of familiar game play concepts is superb, and it provided an amazing amount of game play for its meager price tag. It’s a game I’m glad I experienced, but it is wholly unique, and not for everyone. I recommend at least trying the demo here. The full game is available on Steam.
Rick "Sn@ke" Martin