Great Games You’ve Never Played: The Binding of Isaac

Never before have child neglect, abuse, and bodily fluids been this much fun.

Trust me. These are words I never thought I would say, and in looking deep into myself, I am glad to report that these words, in this particular order, have never even begun to occur to me to say. But that was before I started to play The Binding of Isaac.

TBoI is not a game for the easily offended or those squeamish about cartoon depictions of semi-sentient poop. Designed by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl, it sort of vaguely follows the biblical story of the same name, where the Hebrew God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a dutiful sacrifice to His greatness or compassion or whatever. At the last second before the knife goes in, YHWH is all “syke” and Isaac is all like “YOLO” and goes on to father the 12 tribes of Israel.

The game is a little different, in that Isaac’s Mom gets the order to carve her son up like a Christmas ham (a simile missing from the original story due to dietary restrictions), but doesn’t get the proverbial call from the governor at the last second.  So, the naked toddler has to flee his blade-wielding matriarch into the surprisingly roomy and malevolently occupied basement of his house, where he lays curled up on the floor, weeping.

A barrel of laughs so far, right?

The fun actually comes from the sheer depth of the misery and depravity this small child is forced into. Another one of those “did  I just say that sentence?” sentences, but it’s true. So this kid, naked and betrayed by the only person in his life he implicitly believes he can trust (I’m giggling already) is stuck in a filthy, excrement-filled, fly-infested basement. (Lol!)  He is surrounded by monsters that want to kill him for no reason (snort) and his only way of defending himself is… get this, by flinging his pathetic, tortured, salty child’s tears at them. (RotFLMAO!)

Isn’t that fantastic? Your protagonist is literally a crying baby.

And Isaac’s not going to be the only one who’s reduced to frustrated weeping by this game. The creators don’t pull any punches, and this roguelike, procedurally generated, one-life-only dungeon crawl  is challenging, unforgiving, and addictive in a fun but somehow unsavory way. Isaac will die nearly every time you play. It’s only a matter of time. There is no happy ending here, just hopelessness and isolation and despair. And that’s what makes it so great.

Each level of the basement, cellar, then caves, catacombs, depths, necropolis, the womb, utero, sheol, and cathedral (all under one small house) is a series of rooms with locked doors, barred doors that only open when all the bad guys are dead, and spiked doors (!) that injure you when you go through them.  Yeah, that’s right. Want to check out the room to the north? Gonna cost you a precious half-heart to get in, and another to get out. And there’s no guarantees that you’re gonna find anything in there to justify the loss! It’s like Legend of Zelda but if Link was wearing a leather gimp costume and Ganon peed on him as a boss power. It’s all about pain and degradation in this one, folks.

Speaking of boss battles, there’s one on every level and they are challenging and inventive. And by “challenging and inventive” I mean “hard as fuck and will happily kill a naked child in creative ways.” These include a rotting ambulatory fetus, a gas filled flesh balloon that belches flies, and a shambling mongoloid who swings his undeveloped parasitic twin at you by its umbilical cord. There’s also Mom, who is, not surprisingly, the end boss, and who, if you have the twitch reflexes I do, you will not see for a very, very long time.

But whatever! Getting there is the fun part. There are tons of power ups, unlockable characters, and just the sheer joy in playing a game that serves the dual purpose of being fun as hell and also vaguely sacrilegious.

So why’d Edmund McMillen make it? In a video interview available on, he talks about his religious family and its effect on him. “I wanted to like pull from that because it seemed to have some substance,” he explained. Not to pull away from the tear-blasting fun of the thing, but yeah, there’s some depth here: McMillen said he wanted to explore the “negative effects religion could have on a child.” Like, for example, having an undeveloped demon-fetus eat your face off.

He also addressed his creative approach: “Yeah, making it there were a lot of times when I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should put this in’ and whenever I hesitated I knew I should and I made sure I did put it in.”

But he also added: “The kind of people you don’t want to fuck with is the religious people.”

No doubt.

Nintendo decided not to carry it on the 3DS because it contained “questionable religious content,” which is a bit unfair because the only question I could come up with is: “Will this game make me laugh at the suffering of a 5-6 year old boy with a mentally ill caretaker and exceptionally low self esteem?”

I’m gonna go with “Yes” on that one, and I’m okay with that.

So Nintendo was all wusses and stuff, but you can find The Binding of Isaac on Steam, because Steam is not run by wusses and likes torturing babies. That last part is possibly untrue.

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