Any game of The Binding of Isaac begins with a naked little boy whose eyes are streaming with tears. Every successful ending to a game of The Binding of Isaac ends with a grotesque monstrosity whose eyes are streaming with tears.
The titular protagonist of The Binding of Isaac is like many video game characters, a kind of paperdoll. In this game, though, the bare canvas that the player begins the game with, this naked little boy, perhaps, makes that function of the video game character as a form of dress up doll that much clearer.
Indeed, though, many games begin with a character in some basic kind of apparel with the ability to transform that characters appearance by donning new armor, procuring new weapons, and generally just dressing up to either make a statement on how the player sees that character or as a reflection of that character’s power. You can mix and match outfits for practical play (boosting stats or adding abilities to the character and the like) or for more character building or aesthetically inclined types of play. In other words, you sometimes transform yourself simply in order to express your own sense of style within the context of the game’s world.
Isaac’s body in The Binding of Isaac does not merely serve a clothes hangar in his game, though. Instead, it is his body itself that transforms as he gains new stats and abilities, transforming the helpless, little boy into something more grotesque and typically by mid to end game something pretty horrific and monstrous.
The narrative context of this roguelike is an updated take on the biblical story of the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac to God as told in the book of Genesis. Isaac’s mother, a rabid watcher of religious television, hears the voice of God, a voice that instructs her initially to purify her son by stripping him (and “stripping” seems an apt metaphor here given that Isaac always begins a game with nothing that identifies him at all, only his own naked vulnerability) of anything in his life that is “impure,” which, of course, involves taking away most of the playthings that he has that might be considered by his mother to be morally questionable.
This annhilation of a psychic and symbolic identity is followed by an even more literal and physical request for annihilation from above. The Almighty then requests that Isaac’s mom sacrifice Isaac as a sign of her commitment to Him, a request which the mother proceeds to attempt to fulfill. This, of course, leads to the naked Isaac’s escape through a trapdoor in his room into a surreal vision of a basement that is infested with human excrement, blood, vomit, and horrific monstrosities.
Players attempting to lead Isaac deeper into the basement to confront and defeat his mother will find that this initially symbolically bare Isaac will frequently not be strong enough to survive in this hellish landscape. Gathering treasures that he can use and that alter and refine his body is the only way of defeating the terrors within the basement of his once safe home. Again, though, Isaac doesn’t so much don armor and procure weapons, as he does collect items that transform his body itself. For instance, he might locate some stem cells. When these cells are collected, a fetus attaches itself to Isaac’s face, and he gains more health. The game’s semiotics become quite literal and quite disturbing. The idea that a fetus must be sacrificed in order for Isaac to grow healthier is written on Isaac’s body itself.
The connection between bodily transformation of a horrific sort as a means of defying Isaac’s mother’s faith becomes clearer and clearer as the simple form of a normal boy becomes something ever more disturbing to look at and to understand. Isaac’s body has to ally itself with monstrosity in order to combat its seeming opposite, faithfulness, commitment, and purity.
Isaac’s body begins to grow more and more impure as the game goes on. It might, for instance, be distorted by devilish horns, grow grotesquely fat, or even sever its own head, so that the head can fly off on its own wreaking havoc separate from the body itself. The Binding of Isaac almost worships impurity as it embraces anything scatological (searching through excrement for coins, bombs and keys, using urine, vomit, or menstrual blood as weaponry, etc.) as a form of power, a power that speaks in contrast to the idea of a clean body and a clean mind. The flesh represents and then becomes the means of combating the spirit and that which is presumed to be “right,” playing as the game does on the dichotomy of spirit as clean and flesh as unclean in a theological sense. The body is wrecked and made ugly for the sake of freedom from fear. Instead, it becomes something fearful.
Isaac‘s original developer, Edmund McmMillen, seems to see the body as a means of protesting order, routine, and regulation. This is probably not surprising in an era when if the religious are not trying to maintain the sanctity of the body, the “temple of the Holy Ghost,” then secular progressives pick up the slack with regulations on soda and caffeine intake, smoking bans, and other health related legislation (shades of The Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles”‘s “zen fascists” and their demands that “you will jog for the master race / And always wear the happy face).
McMillen, a Gen Xer, seems to share with other Gen X artists a disdain for dictating a doctrine of communal health and happiness as Isaac’s body becomes a protest against religious strictures on hygiene and bodily purity. In fellow Gen Xer Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Invisible Monsters, his characters who all subject themselves to body modification of one sort or another explain their decisions as purposeful efforts at making the worst mistakes with their own bodies possible: “‘[W]e’re so trained to do life the right way. To not make mistakes,’ Brandy says, ‘I figure, the bigger the mistake looks, the better chance I’ll have to break out and live a real life.’” McMillen’s game and its worship of the random transformation of the body seems of a piece with an observation that Palahniuk’s novel makes (and that he also similarly suggests in his novel Fight Club and nonfiction essays like “Frontiers”): “Our real discoveries come from chaos.”
Indeed the universal form of Isaac’s body that begins every game becomes a product of discovery through chaos. Dungeons in the game are procedurally generated. As a result, power ups and bodily transformations vary from one playthrough to another. Isaac’s development as a monster never occurs in any regulated or routine way, but that seems appropriate to a game that protests regulation, routine, rules, and ultimately a commitment to a rigid sense of tradition and a communal sense of what is good and what is evil. The void of Isaac’s identity is filled with the monstrous transformations possible only when you explore outside the boundaries of what is considered “normal.”
The monstrous body may be ugly and awful, but is one that is identifiable as a unique thing, free from established rules and stricture, free to continue to grow into something other than what others desire it to be.