Returning to Isaac’s Body: The Metastasis of the Monstrous

In The Binding of Isaac, the monstrous body may be ugly and awful, but it is unique, free from established rules and stricture, free to continue to grow into something other than what others desire it to be.

In the morning he braved the sun. He needed to enrich his supply of Vitamin D and raise his arms sunward, petitioning gods, he said, even if it meant the stealthy genesis of abnormal tissue.

“It’s healthier to reject certain cautions than fall in line. I assume you know that,” he said.

— Don Delillo, Point Omega

It’s nearly Halloween again, a time to ponder monsters.

With that in mind, I have found myself returning once again to The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a game whose masochistic charms are nearly unmatched (nearly, that is, but also consider: Darkest Dungeon, a Masochist’s Dream”) in modern gaming. Isaac is a horror story of sorts, one in which a mother’s religious zealotry and compulsion to recreate the story of the binding of Isaac with her own son in the role of the boy who is to be sacrificed drives Isaac into the basement of his home in order to survive.

There amid refuse, excrement, and blood, Isaac finds horrors that represent the terrors of the body that he has been instilled with, its sexual organs, its propensity to illness and disease, its propensity to waste away, but also to metastasize and grow. He finds monsters, he battles monsters, and most importantly to truly survive he becomes a monster.

In an essay I wrote on Isaac last year, called The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and the Transformative Power of the Monstrous Body”, I began by observing that “Any game of The Binding of Isaac begins with a naked little boy whose eyes are streaming with tears.” Isaac’s vulnerability is easily recognized in his nakedness and his weakness, in his tears.

Any story told over the course of playing the Binding of Isaac is only understood through the transformation of that vulnerable body by the very things he fears, the profane, the obscene, the painful.

In the above image, we witness a slightly less vulnerable Isaac, curiously because he has experienced pain. He bears the scars of a wooden spoon, and he now runs faster. Terror has changed him, transformed him, made him uglier, and somehow better than the purely exposed boy that he began as. However, he is not as monstrous yet as he needs to be.

Having lost an eye, he has gained a weapon, as it floats disembodied beside him, protecting him despite its dislocation. An embedded piece of metal in his scalp provides additional strength. Experiencing such horrors and seeing them written into his flesh, I observed in my earlier essay, becomes a needful act in the context of the framing narrative of the game:

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.

As a result, this is what a capable warrior looks like in Isaac’s world, something strange and alien from what he began as, metastasized into something horrific, but something stronger and less fearful or vulnerable, or as I put it:

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.

I mentioned that I began last year’s essay by simply observing that “Any game of The Binding of Isaacbegins with a naked little boy whose eyes are streaming with tears.” Isaac’s vulnerability is easily recognized in his nakedness, his weakness in his tears.” However, I followed that observation with this additional one about how to know or understand success in the game: “Every successful ending to a game of The Binding of Isaac ends with a grotesque monstrosity whose eyes are streaming with tears.”

I concluded the essay with an explanation of why a monster so clearly speaks to success in the game, a game interested in pushing the bounds and limits of normality, tradition, and what is supposedly good for us:

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.

I realize that all that I have done in this essay is, in some sense, to have simply reiterated the positions and arguments that I have made about how meaning is conveyed in The Binding of Isaac before. However, on returning to the basement and to Isaac’s body once again, I felt the need to demonstrate that earlier essay in a visual form this time. For to reveal and watch the metastasis of monstrosity over time as it consumes but enlarges this tiny body is to understand the fearful power that becoming the monster, the thing men fear, is. And how unique one becomes in doing so.

Breaking boundaries and violating taboos makes few friends, but Edmund McMillen’s game champions the value of the ugly, the awful, the unclean, as something isolating, but also, perhaps, unconquerable.