When I put Isaac on my list, I really thought I was going to dislike it. The art style was all I really had to base my opinion on, but it reminded me of games like Alien Hominid, which were fine, but always too silly and chaotic for me to feel like I was actually developing. Maybe I was just bad at those games. And trying to get used to WASD is Isaac is no picnic either. I have never been a PC gamer, but with my recent purchase, I hope that will really change.
The Binding of Isaac doesn’t have to be as interesting as it is. It’s put a lot of work into its flavour and framing devices. Isaac is a young boy whose mother hears the voice of God tell her that her son is evil and must be killed. Isaac flees his murderous mother and drops down a trap door in his room, into a series of descending prisons filled with shit and horror. That’s not hyperbole; it’s all blood, shit, and tears.
The game plays from a top-down perspective, and reigns as maybe grand ruler of all Roguelike games. A Roguelike incoporates elements like permanent death, procedurally generated rooms and layouts, and generally builds itself on replayability. The number of items, secrets, enemies, and bosses is a impressive just in its scope`. I’m playing the Rebirth rerelease of Isaac, so there’s even more to be found than when the first release took the community by storm.
The Binding of Isaac walks a strange line between mindless fun and dark, upsetting ideas. As I understand it, the game’s subject matter comes largely from the experiences of its creator, and it’s hard not to see all the messed up parallels to what could be real life, and how a child might have to contextualize those events. There are upsetting items and upgrades like “Mom’s Coin Purse” which drops an assortment of pills around you, or a buddy character representative of your stillborn baby sister. Is it tasteless? I don’t know. The gameplay doesn’t really care. When I see a syringe item, I immediately jam it in my head, because it’s likely to give me a lot of great boosts. I down pills not knowing what they are, I’m excited when I get blood clots and torn skin, and I just think of that stillborn sister as a friend who gives me additional attacks.
Maybe I’m only now really stepping back and thinking about all the things these elements could mean. They’re probably not all part of the creators’ lives, but many of these things exist, and many people have to find ways to deal with them. I can have a great time playing Isaac, and I understand how upsetting the subject matter is. If Isaac is trying to make this point, then I worry about how well it’s understood through the addicting gameplay. But then, the point isn’t subtle. Blind devotion to anything is harmful and dangerous to you and anyone around you. Maybe even being blindly devoted to the play of a game without reminding yourself of the larger context in which that games takes place.