Roguelike-like: The Binding of Isaac

I’d heard quite a lot about The Binding of Isaac, but hadn’t had a chance to try it until recently. It’s a sort of mash-up of the dungeons from The Legend of Zelda with the independent moving and shooting controls of Robotron or Smash TV, spiced up with a lot of roguelike elements including procedurally generated levels and permadeath. And it’s made by Edmund McMillen, one half of Team Meat, the developers responsible for the rather excellent (and super-hard) platformer Super Meat Boy. So far, it sounds great to me.

The Binding of Isaac is also inspired by the biblical story of the same name, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. And this isn’t a vague inspiration; the opening animation of the game explicitly shows Issac’s mother (referred to as “Mom”) receiving commands from God to first imprison and then kill her son Isaac. Terrified, Isaac finds a trapdoor to the basement and flees through it, landing in a bizarre dungeon populated by monstrously deformed enemies that one presumes to be Isaac’s former siblings. It’s all quite gruesome, in fact. Isaac begins by attacking enemies with his tears, but they can be upgraded to… other bodily fluids, and the enemies present a sort of grotesque menagerie of biological horrors.

Many players will be turned off by the, shall we say, “unorthodox” religious references, or the disgusting imagery, or both. I admit that the latter diminished my interest somewhat. But it turns out that The Binding of Isaac is a surprisingly deep and polished game, and while its themes may be offensive to some, they’re not just there for shock value.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the actual game mechanics are rather brilliant. One could have built a game that played the same way, but with cute, wholesome characters, and it would still be great fun. The Zelda influence is immediately obvious, not just from the iconic dungeon rooms but also the familiar bombs, keys, and heart containers. Even details like merchant rooms with three items for sale and secret rooms that can only be reached by bombing through a wall are present. But it’s the addition of roguelike elements that makes the game so fun. Each play, the level layout is randomized, with random assortments of enemies and even a random boss (chosen from a pool of possibilities). The standouts, however, are the items, of which there is a huge number. These range from simple boosts to speed, health or firepower to more complicated abilities that completely change Isaac’s behavior, and they are all cumulative, further increasing Isaac’s effectiveness and altering his appearance in a manner unique to each item. Permadeath makes each game tense as one must fight to stay alive, but the huge variety of items is what will keep players coming back for another go, wondering what crazy combinations they’ll find this time. I’ve played The Binding of Isaac many times but still haven’t come close to finding all the items, or to the implied final showdown with Mom. In another nod to roguelikes, it seems there are secret places, game mechanics, and other things to discover as well, including some content that comes after the traditional ending.

All of this adds up to a very enjoyable game, but it’s actually the game’s imagery and themes that truly make it interesting. Sure, it simply seems disgusting and shocking at first, but on repeated plays I began to see that it goes deeper than that. The Binding of Isaac uses the basics of the biblical story to explore themes of abandonment and domestic abuse, by drawing a parallel between Isaac’s relationship with his mother and her relationship with God. For Isaac, the figure of authority and power in his life is his mother, and she has suddenly turned on him, forcing him to fend for himself in a terrifying place full of horrors. So far I haven’t survived long enough to face Mom again, but it seems likely she will still try to kill Isaac, or worse. I have managed to defeat a few bosses, though, and after each I was treated to a short cutscene depicting a cowering Isaac curled up in the fetal position, having a nightmare. The exact nightmare is (naturally) picked randomly each time, but the options mostly involve Isaac being embarrassed in front of his peers or having his attentions rejected by his mother. While there are certainly some overtly religious references in the game — some other biblical characters make an appearance, including the Devil — I sensed that the game was mostly about these fears, the fears of a young child who wants to be accepted, and protected. In fact, the whole game could easily be one of Isaac’s nightmares, where he is trapped in a scary basement full of horrible creatures who are all the more horrible because it seems they were once human. Incidentally, even these grew on me; the enemy design shows a lot of (gross, disgusting) imagination, and the consistent visual design conveys the perfect feeling of discomfort to go with the game’s dark themes.

Not a pleasant game, then, but a remarkably engaging one, and one that I’m sure to return to regularly in the future. And I’ve only played the base game; a recent expansion called Wrath of the Lamb apparently adds over 75% more content, including more than 100 new items as well as new enemies, levels, and secrets. Given how much stuff is already in the base game, this is sure to provide nearly endless entertainment. I recommend taking a look, if you can stomach it. The game is exclusive to Steam and there’s no demo, but at only $5 (plus another $3 for the expansion) it’s hardly a tragedy if it ends up not suiting your tastes. And you just might find yourself heading into that basement more often than you thought.

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3 Responses to Roguelike-like: The Binding of Isaac

  1. jefequeso says:

    I agree that Binding of Isaac is an unexpected little gem of a game. Not sure I’m as onboard with your interpretation of the story (I’m of the opinion that it’s just being offensive for the sake of it). Even if it is allegorical, it doesn’t really explore the themes in a way that would convince me it actually has something to say on the subject of fear and abandonment.

    But then again, I find that hunting for subtext ruins my enjoyment of the abstract wonder of literature. So I’m not very good at finding it. Good review, regardless.

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