‘The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth’: Our Ongoing Love Affair with the Twisted Mind of Edmund McMillen
Ah, yes, our ongoing love affair with the twisted mind of Edmund McMillen. However, maybe I’m projecting, maybe it’s just my own ongoing love affair with the twisted mind of Edmund McMillen that I should be speaking about.
Still though, given the sheer volume of players that still stream runs through a single player game that was published four years ago and the fact that McMillen could still profit from remaking that game only three years after its original release, it simply doesn’t seem to me that the idea that I am not alone in my obsession with The Binding of Isaac is without some merit.
I have been playing Isaac off and on for four years, I played it when its first DLC released, The Wrath of the Lamb, and I bought a remake of a game that I had put at least 120 hours into when that remake was released last year. There is something that continually draws me back to the basement of Isaac’s house over and over again, something about the way it plays, something about what it continues to show me as I wade through its layers of feces, urine, menstrual blood, and, most importantly, its tears.
I’ve written a lot about Isaac over the last four years about its tension, about how it teaches mastery through failure, and about its grotesqueries. The game is a roguelike (or rogue-lite, if you prefer) about a boy who becomes a monster, about a boy that has to become a monster if he ever hopes to succeed in resolving his own precarious situation.
I wrote an article late last year in which I observed that essentially the core theme of Isaac can best be understood through its simple formula: “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 Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and the Transformative Power of the Monstrous Body”, PopMatters, 26 November 2014). Isaac, with its randomly generated dungeons and randomly generated power-ups that twist and morph its title character as he collects them, is able to tell a story through the title character’s own body. The transformation of that body speaks to how vulnerability and fear can become something monstrous, but importantly, that that transformation matures a frightened little boy into someone that is unafraid and no longer vulnerable:
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.
None of my thoughts on what Isaac communicates through its grotesque settings, opponents, and bodily transformations have changed with the release of Rebirth‘s first expansion, Afterbirth. Like The Wrath of the Lamb before it, Afterbirth doesn’t change much about the core gameplay or core thematic concerns of what essentially is the same game, only bigger. Afterbirth merely introduces, once again, a plethora of new items, new monsters, new room configurations, the addition of some switch mechanics, and other such things. In essence, this is the same game that I’ve played for four years, just grown ever more monstrous, ever more grotesque, ever more bizarre.
What I’m most struck by about playing Afterbirth is simply the way that the evolution of the game, from the original Isaac to Wrath of the Lamb to Rebirth and now Afterbirth, corresponds to the core idea of Isaac himself, a steadily growing monstrosity that becomes continually more twisted and continually more interesting with each more gross addition.
Yes, there is a new gameplay mode here called Greed, in which the core mechanisms of each level of Isaac’s dungeon has been essentially boiled down to its most simple form. In each game played in Greed mode, Isaac appears in a room that is linked to one unlocked treasure chamber, one locked treasure chamber, one large shop to buy power ups and consumables in, and one room that you will need to sacrifice some life to enter. Stepping on a switch in the first room unleashes eight waves of monsters to defeat and some coins to collect. Each wave spawns on a short timer, so destroying each wave quickly is necessary to not get overwhelmed. Coins lead to keys, which lead to unlocking that sealed treasure room, and they, of course, also lead to the ability to buy power ups in the shop. Then, it’s back to that first room to spawn two bosses. If you survive, you can descend into the next level of the dungeon, which shares the same layout. Eventually, you will fight Ultra Greed if you survive enough of these levels.
As I said, this is just a game of The Binding of Isaac presented in a minimal form. On any of the first half dozen levels of an Isaac dungeon, you are always looking for the treasure room to get powered up, you always want to visit a shop if you can afford some additional power up, and you will always fight through a bunch of rooms to get to a boss, defeat it, and move on to the next level. Greed simply packs all that action into a smaller space and removes the need for exploration. It also provides some interesting ability to control the manner in which you will transform Isaac by providing a shop with a number of options to purchase power ups in. Basically, this allows you to strategize a bit about the monster that Isaac will eventually become, minimizing to a slight degree the random elements common to a standard Isaac playthrough.
Greed is a reasonably fun addition to the game, though I doubt it will ultimately be something that I will replay quite as much as I have and do play the standard game. Honestly, the allure of Afterbirth remains the allure that The Binding of Isaac has always had for me, constantly being surprised by new alterations and combinations that continually transform Isaac’s ultimate transformation into an impure but fearless monster. I continue to be fascinated in building my own monster on the foundations of Isaac’s body, and Afterbirth is yet another monstrous evolution emerging from the foundation of the original Isaac.
All that said, then, if you continue to play and enjoy Isaac after all this time, of course, you should get Afterbirth. It goes without saying. If you have never played Isaac, then, it also goes without saying that you should pick up a copy of Rebirth and Afterbirth. Monsters don’t make themselves, or at least they don’t without someone there to guide them.