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An Analysis of The Binding of Isaac Story and Imagery
Zackscottgames Plays Binding of Isaac Rebirth
Introduction to Isaac
For anyone who is not familiar with this game, its an odd little Indy game that has made it pretty big. It is hectic, often frenzied, bloody, gorey, offensive and absolutely insane how fun it can be while also frustrating to no end. As usual I will add someone playing the game for those of you who either do not want to ever play the game, or who at least want to know a bit about it before investing the money into buying it.
My first introduction to this game was when a favorite YouTube Let's Player of mine played it. I thought it was creepy-cute, which is an art style I kind of adore, but I also couldn't help but notice how gruesome the game gets with no build up or hedging at all. You cannot go through the option screen and turn the blood and gore off, its just there. I decided then and there that I was never going to be able to play the game myself, but I was going to follow Zach to the end of his playthrough, and he ended his series on "Platinum God." Soon after I found myself going through Isaac withdrawals. I looked around for other Isaac players, and eventually found myself buying it for my PS Vita to try out runs and combinations myself. Ever since then I have been hooked. It is difficult, often frustrating, offensive, gross, and not my typical game type at all, and I absolutely positively love it.
Cute? Yes. Deadly and often gross? Also yes.
One of the things I love about this game is the fact that no matter where you have been in your life you can identify with Isaac and his journey. He speaks about all the bad things children encounter on their journey through growing up. It is very heavy in the Christian symbolism but it can easily speak to anyone who has a very religious upbringing for really most religions, but doesn't really leave out those people who do not have that background. The imagery used is accessible to anyone with a television in their home, or really from many movies. Its use of symbolism is really very inclusive, rather than exclusive, as long as you can stomach what it is throwing at you. And really, its all drawn so cutely it is rather easy to get used to it distressingly quickly.
I've heard many people in many different life situations identify with this game in completely different ways. People who were abused by family members, or those who had basically normal childhoods where nothing really horrible ever happened can still find things that resonate with them. I had a fairly typical upbringing as these things go, but the scenes between floors that show little childhood scenes of situations Isaac has supposedly had to deal with through his life, even though most of them go by totally ignored by me, occasionally will have one pop up that will trigger a memory of something that has happened to me once upon a time. It is all funny and unrealistic and easily ignored until this happens to you, and it is just as unlikely to be a scene I identified with as it is to be one that triggered my memories.
Forget Jack, Here's MOMMA!!
Lets Get Down To Business
Really most of the time I've listened to people try to decipher Isaac and the meaning behind what is going on they talk about an abusive family and an abused little boy. Completely legitimate way to look at the game of course, and if that is what you see I probably will not change your mind here. And of course it looks as if they they mean to give that impression. After all, this is a game with the opening scene being one where Mom gets instructed by God to kill her son. It is, of course, a story right out of the Bible.
Instead of this being a story of an abusive mother and her son I think this story is actually a coming of age story. I believe the images and scenes in The Binding of Isaac all tell the tale of a little boy who is learning about the world and himself and growing up.
Mom and Isaac
It All Begins With Mom
From the very first scene this game pulls no punches on just how important Mom is both to the game, and to Isaac himself. Various separate parts of Mom can be found in the game as enemies, items, power-ups, and more. This makes sense because we all are very reliant on our mothers for quite a few years.
The problem is that even the most permissive mom can only stand to have their children simply mooching off of them for so long before it drives them to do something rash. And of course most parents realize their first responsibility to their children is to teach them to one day be able to fend for themselves.
The problem is that the child in these situations often has no idea why suddenly they are being required to do things they have only watched Mom do before, or why Mom is suddenly getting so angry when it isn't done as soon as she asks for it to be done! Why all of a sudden has Mom gotten so angry and rough with me, did I do something to make this happen?
Mom's Heart Lives
A Mother's Love
We also have one more clue to consider in Isaac about the sudden change in how Mom here is treating Isaac, and it is a monster called "It Lives". After defeating Mom's Heart a few times it will suddenly change into a horrible looking heart-creature called It Lives. This is a monster that looks like a cross between a fetus and Mom's Heart, and I think it is a suggestion that Isaac is possibly going to become a brother, and that suddenly he is going from being a baby himself, maybe still in diapers, to potentially someone who will have to help Mom take care of a brother or sister. Suddenly Mom is not looking at Isaac as her baby boy, but as someone who will have to start taking far more responsibility for his own care.
If we look at this sudden change in Mom's treatment as Isaac he can be forgiven for thinking that maybe Mom suddenly has it out for him and potentially wishes he would disappear or die. He could not possibly have enough personal experience to understand what is going to happen, or why he now needs to do many more things on his own. All he knows is that Mom has changed.
Enemies of Ghoulish Proportions
Isaac's Own Vulnerability
Along with the changes he is being put through by the way Mom is now treating him, he is also going through a realization of his own vulnerability to harm and illness. Not only is this about (depending on Isaac's actual age) the time where any kid starts to notice illnesses and injuries on his own, but Mom pushing him to be more self-reliant would actually force the realization of just how vulnerable Isaac actually is. He would be noticing injuries and illnesses now, realizing that he could be injured or become ill, and with Mom pushing him away a natural fear might be that if he were to become ill or injured he would be on his own. Now several of you are probably having the knee-jerk reaction of "well of course that would never happen, that is totally ridiculous." You would be the ones most surprised to learn that in areas with fewer resources for families, or in the not-so-very distant past if a child was too much of a burden on his family to where there was just no way to support that child he just might be facing a situation where the family would just abandon him. So even in today's big cities this seems unreasonable, it really isn't too far into fantasy.
We see these fears in The Binding of Isaac in the enemies and upgrades based on illnesses, diseases, deformities, and random separated body parts. I'd also mention the spiders, flies, and such but I feel like that would be too obvious.
Sins For Everyone
Isaac's Potential Sin
This realization is incredibly relevant for an child in a very religious household. For many years of a child's life the idea of sin is relegated to something that happens in The Bible, but has no reality or connection to life. Then one day the child in question will realize that something he wants or does is actually sin, as described by The Bible or super religious busybodies. Or occasionally a friend or family member of some sort will clue you in. I very clearly remember the day that a neighbor gleefully informed me that I am a bastard. True by dictionary definition, but I'm still unclear what I was supposed to do with the information. Either way it happens, at some point you will realize that some of the nasty stuff The Bible is talking about is actually relevant to yourself, and you will have to deal with the repercussions of that knowledge.
Several of the Binding of Isaac enemies reveal the mental demons associated with the realization by Isaac that he is a creature that has the capability of sinning. That in fact he has sinful thoughts, and likely desires as well. Not the least of these enemies are the more subtle ones, such as the worm creatures that pop up from the floor and shoot things towards Isaac. Uh huh, I do actually think this represents what you are now thinking about.
Who Is Who?
Isaac's Search for His Own Identity
Finally the last realization is the realization that Isaac himself find out towards the end of the game. The realization that he has different personalities, and plays different parts in his own life sometimes. This realization comes at different times of the life for different people, some people in fact never do realize this. But it is true. We all play different roles within our own lives. We are the student in school, the supportive friend when a friend is going through a tough time, these are the obvious ones. The subtle ones are far more difficult to catch. I won't say too much about it.
So That Is That
I'd love to hear your own theories, and any and all challenges you might have to my own. I think this, despite being a very cartoonish looking game and developed by a very small team, is quite an adult them with many cool implications towards people in general. And despite having many religious themes and tones, I think any and all players can get something interesting from this game and enjoy it while they do so. I hope that it will serve as a lesson to other game developers that with the right attitude there is no topic that is truly taboo for games or media in general.
Thank you for your time.