The Binding of Isaac is a Roguelike/dungeon crawler by the creator of well-acclaimed Super Meat Boy, one that is heavily influenced by the first Legend of Zelda. It contains themes of abortion, child abuse, hell, and nauseating bodily fluids. It’s a disturbing, disgusting game, but also a very fun one. If you like the six o’clock news then you’ll love The Binding of Isaac.
The game begins when Isaac’s already abusive mother decides, as in the Biblical story of Abraham, that God has ordered her to murder her son. The player controls the naked pink baby as he escapes his mother’s insanity by fleeing into the basement, which is still full of horrifying stuff. “Mom” shows up as a truly disquieting couple of bosses later on, but in the meantime, you must go through levels consisting of dusty stone, excrement, bleeding walls, and the inside of a womb. The enemies are an equally sordid lot: flies, toothy worms, demons, hideous tumored meat blobs, the pop culture version of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the seven deadly sins, and what are implied to be Isaac’s aborted brothers and sisters.
The Binding of Isaac has a deliberately puke-worthy aesthetic. Every level is filled with blood, tears, urine, feces, vomit, corpses, and undead fetuses. It’s hard to tell where the extremely black comedy ends and the seriously genuine horror begins. The immature will likely laugh at the vile excretions and other toilet humor but probably not the rampant death of children. This whiplash of moods combined with the unsettling music makes for a harrowing and ugly experience.
The respect for the first Zelda is apparent. The one-room areas connected by doors; the interface; the hearts, bombs, and keys; an armored enemy that can only be hurt from behind; and bosses that show up later as mini-bosses. Yet the major differences are the fact that it is a shooter—short-range weapons are rare in Isaac—and the fact that the disturbing theme and appearance make it a much more interesting game than it would be as Generic Fantasy Guy fighting goblins and giant rats. The gross-out ultimately works in the game’s benefit.
I like the randomized nature of the rooms and items. The more you play the game, the more levels and items that get unlocked. There are over 200 items available, including dead pets (presumably killed by Mom for somehow corrupting her child), tarot cards (“The World” doesn’t stop time, unfortunately), several types of bombs, eye lasers taken from the Borg from Star Trek, upgrades to Isaac’s tears (his main weapon), prescription pills that give random effects like potions in most Roguelikes, and several weapons that reference irritating internet memes. Also, items change Isaac’s appearance after they are equipped. For example, the Bucket of Lard (Which gives increased maximum health) also turns Isaac fat. The Sad Onion Item (Increases the rate of fire) makes Isaac’s omnipresent tears gush harder. These combine, too; by the end of the game, Isaac’s appearance is more monstrous than many of the enemies he fights.
What’s more is that the regular enemies and bosses are randomized in their locations, too. This recreates the feeling of playing The Legend of Zelda for the first time; a feeling when the player doesn’t know if the next room is going to contain some awful beastie or a useful item or both. The more you beat the game, the more bosses are unlocked, too. I had a shock when I was expecting the same easy Duke of Flies or Monstro and I ended up fighting one of the Horsemen, who had a completely different shtick. Keeping the player on their toes, keeping them planning ahead aware of their surroundings (Do I get this item now or stick with my current one? What’s the best way to beat these erratic enemies that jump all over the place?) is what makes for an exciting Roguelike.
A note on the religious horror theme permeating the game: Unlike most media that criticize mainstream Protestantism, Isaac implies that God is both real and a good person; Isaac is simply the victim of the evil of humanity. The cruel and insane Mom is defeated by a Bible falling off a bookshelf onto her head, an especially ironic end to someone who obeys greedy televangelists rather than the God of the scripture she claims to follow. Perhaps this is intended to twistedly mirror the Biblical story of Abraham; God stops Mom at the last moment not because her faith is already proven but because she murders children without remorse. The game prominently displays evil but it also condemns it, though I find that the poop jokes somewhat detract from the message.
The Binding of Isaac is an exciting, challenging, and frightening game. And by “frightening” I don’t mean cheap jump scares, I mean this game is deeply weird and unsettling, and I like it that way. The learning curve isn’t as steep as it appears at first; after dying horrible your first few times playing, you’ll start to learn more of the game’s mechanics and idiosyncrasies and learn to love it.