The Dissection of Isaac
Last year, Edmund McMillen (the mind behind Super Meat Boy, Time Fcuk and Aether) released the twin-stick Bible-gore shooter The Binding of Isaac. If you haven’t played it then go and grab it off Steam. It’s only like $5 and well worth the price. My time counter has only just started working properly since the Christmas patch and it’s already at 36 hours, not to mention countless hours of gameplay beforehand. It really is an interesting mix of exploration, twitch-gameplay and randomness. With a major update coming soon, TBoI is a game that will give you far more bang for your buck. It also includes some very interesting themes…
The conceit of the game is that you play as a small child called Isaac who is trapped in a basement filled with deformities after running from his Mom who’s on a holy crusade due to a message received from God. Now, this fills the game with lots of Christian imagery and themes that have somehow managed to not cause that much of a stir. Not because it can’t be taken as offensive (there are numerous pokes at religion throughout) but because the story isn’t about the evil of religion. It’s about a small boy who’s imagination has run wild.
The story sets out simply enough and I fell for it on my first, second and tenth play-through. It was only once I managed to beat Sheol and get the final ‘true’ ending did it all seem to make sense. For those of you not wanting to know, go and play the game yourself and come back (if you can stop yourself from playing). Some people have been taken in by the story of Mom and all of the back-story to Isaac but I think it is far simpler than that. The introduction to the game is all shown to be drawn on paper and is narrated until it reaches its climax to show Isaac in his room (drawn in a different style) with a smile on his face and surrounded by drawings. It quickly pans round to some piles of paper and the menu is written upon it. The menus are all hand-written and include drawings alongside. We then select to start the game and are once again greeted by a third style of art and the game begins.
So we have three different Isaacs and three different styles. The first style is the one that Isaac has drawn himself and is why it all appears on paper. The narration is also composed of short and simple sentences which are the thoughts of Isaac in this story he has written himself. The second Isaac is the real Isaac and the third Isaac (the one we play as) is the one within the true Isaac’s imagination. This boy is not tortured or threatened by his Mom, but is a creative child who feels lonely having being raised by a single mother. The only father figure in his life has been delivered to him through religion (be it Satan or God) and feels that it is He who is responsible for his Mom’s loneliness and, thus, his neglect. The final ‘true’ ending shows Isaac locking himself in a chest in his room and shutting out the world. He is misunderstood and feels lonely. His drawings are his escape. Not the basement.
It was a surprise ending that had me welling up a little. It truly is sad. It’s a game about loneliness being dressed up with religion and antagonists, when really, it is about a world that has betrayed and left him. After watching some clips of the Indie Game Movie of Edmund McMillen did I realise how much more personal this game is to McMillen. He describes in this clip how he felt lonely as a child and this is how the game Aether came about. It was an exploration of his feelings as a child and how he used his drawings as an escape tool. It is a theme that is littered throughout Isaac. It is therefore not hard to assume that real name of this game should be The Binding of Edmund.
EDIT: Thanks to Edmund for the re-post, really appreciate it. If anyone has any thoughts on my interpretation, please do shoot a message in the comments and I’ll be happy to reply.