The best video game stories emerge out of gameplay. Without mechanics too divergent from its inspirations, The Binding of Isaac contains a narrative mood so disturbing and yet so interactable that it may qualify as self-harm. It is an abusive experience, oppressive, darksome and funny, all wound up in a perversion of religious nicety that demands with some self-importance to be experienced by everyone. It even guilts you for leaving (“Are You Sure You Want Me to Die?” the quit screen reads). It is a bible story petrified solid and converted into 8-bit by way of Smash T.V. It is no more or less than the quintessential Indie game.
It is no less because of its simple variety and perfectly enunciated mechanics: every level holds something new, but also something for which the player may count themselves prepared to face. It is no more because unlike Spelunky it lacks the ability to remain an epic quest forever. Isaac can be beaten in any sitting, repeatedly, and the accomplishment is real. But some of the power-ups have random effects: the positive or negative effect of taking pills for instance is randomly generated, despite each pill having a distinct color. Certain passive items, which may give the player a +10% chance to find a coin or heart, cannot be discerned without a helpful quest to the local Wiki page, which in my experience usually results in the game glitching out.
In Spelunky, a bomb is a bomb. There is almost no element of luck (though there is great misfortune). Isaac on the other hand features slot machines and randomized bosses and power-ups. It uses the frustration of chance to create a mood even where the gameplay suffers for it.
For example, there are two types of rooms in Isaac that involve self-immolation. One is a toothed door that requires one of Isaac’s three hearts to enter and exit, and behind which is always a chest. The chest could contain bombs, keys, coins, hearts, a coveted power-up, or could even troll the player with additional damage. Still another room has spikes in the center – you have to give one to three hearts to make it produce a chest, which could help or kill you. These rooms never received my patronage because you cannot increase your health by being better at the game: having enough hearts to take these chances is a matter of chance. If it’s true that Isaac can be played infinitely, these rooms are statistically never worth it.
Constancy is ironically more integral to a roguelike than to a normal game. The randomness has to be contained by the normal rhythms of expected rewards for repeated tasks. Treasure chests in Spelunky, for instance, always contain money. They will never troll you.
Isaac creates a mood of uncertainty even where that mood detracts from its playability. The story, concerning the beautiful and decent things in Isaac’s life becoming twisted by misplaced piety into a nightmare realm of violence, imparts the tone in words that the gameplay sanctifies. Random hurt and help in the claustrophobic dungeons straight from The Legend of Zelda at its most mean-spirited set the player on terrible edge.
The feeling stabs deeper with the implementation of the creators’ special imagination. While certain power-ups evoke a sense of dark humor – the head of your pet cat, toothpicks to hold open your eyes, stem-cells, cancer – others are infectious and cruel. I got the weapon power “Wiggle Worm” and didn’t remember at first that my mother has called me that in car rides long past.
Shock value has been video game currency since the beginning – see Smash T.V., Grand Theft Auto, Hatred – but it’s innocence in Isaac that sets its tone apart. The violent imagery provides a contrast that clarifies the view of the sentiments, like red on green. When you get the “tears up” power that lets Isaac pee on enemies instead of cry, when blood gushes from severed enemy limbs, you’re meant to giggle like a child. That child must then cope with powering up by trying on mom’s lipstick and bra, finding the body of your dead cat, and playfully self-medicating.
Violence in Isaac demystifies so much of the childhood on which it pledges its story, but humor sends it aloft beyond the other lost child narratives. The nihilistic uncertainty of the world of Limbo and Inside subjects childhood to the view of cynical adults, while Isaac is able to remain a child in the face of horror. Its special magic is that the roguelike, the symbolic frustrations of randomized trials in a shifting and confusing world, only elevates its tiny wanderer into a prophet of uncertainty. The game’s heart is a grotesquery of love but its spirit is a triumph of humor and tininess. I have never played a game so horrifying and yet with so little anger. Isaac doesn’t just denounce faith – it cures it with a smile.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org