Inspired by Jesper's take on Slender last month and the fact that Halloween is just around the corner, I took it upon myself to take a look at another horrific little indie title out there, The Binding of Isaac (available on Steam). The Binding of Isaac, from the luminaries behind the legendarily difficult Super Meat Boy, is a strange mixture of top-down shooter, dungeon-crawler and action-adventure wrapped in the trappings of religious imagery and body horror to make for an experience that, while not as obviously a horror game as Slender, delivers an extremely horrific narrative.
The Binding of Isaac, named after a biblical story of the same name, is about a young boy named Isaac, who lives in a small house with his religious mother. One day, his mother supposedly starts hearing the voice of God, telling her that Isaac has become corrupted and he must be saved. At first this takes the form of depriving Isaac of all of his games and toys and locking him in his room, but it shortly leads to Isaac's mother stripping her son naked, and eventually to her attempting to murder Isaac. Isaac flees his mother to the basement under their house, and this is where the game begins.
By its gameplay and mechanics, The Binding of Isaac is a mix of a top-down shooter, dungeon-crawler and action-adventure in the style of Legend of Zelda. The player controls Isaac through a dungeon, randomly generated for each game, fighting against monsters, most of which look like corrupted versions of Isaac himself, while others are generic flies, worms and other nasty things, and collecting power-ups that enhance Isaac's speed, health, and the strength of his weaponized tears. Each level also has a boss fight against a randomly picked monster and a number of mini-bosses, most of which follow the themes of the game's other monsters, while others are obviously biblically themed (for an example, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as well as seven doppelgangers of Isaac representing each of his seven deadly sins make appearances). The final battle is against none other than Isaac's mother in a particularly horrific womb-like dungeon. Add into this an unforgiving difficulty curve and only having one life to begin with, meaning that a single mistake can spell the end of the game and having to start all over again, and what you've got yourself is a nice old-school action title with a very gross aesthetic.
But that still doesn't spell horror, and this is where I get extremely verbose in explaining why The Binding of Isaac is actually a horror story wrapped in an action-adventure game. One of the important game mechanics in the game is the power-up system, where Isaac gains various new abilities and bonuses based on gear you pick up. However, in addition to just making Isaac more awesome, each power-up also comes with a minor aesthetic change to Isaac's character sprite. Isaac begins the game as a naked, scared little boy with tears flowing from his eyes. As you pick up power-ups, he becomes increasingly corrupted and demonic in appearance, gaining stuff like devil horns, a third eye in the middle of his head, various foreign objects jutting from his face, and even his tears replaced with blood. All of these add a very visceral quality to Isaac's appearance and make the power-ups work as an effective narrative tool in addition to a game mechanic.
You see, the entire premise of the story is that Isaac's mother in trying to protect her child from corruption decides that the only way to do that is to kill him before he is corrupted. While no one can blame Isaac for, you know, not wanting to get killed, there is a degree of delicious irony in the fact that in trying to avoid death at his mother's hands, Isaac actually becomes corrupted, the very thing that his mother was trying to protect him from. The very act of his mother trying to save him (admittedly, by killing him) is what leads him into becoming corrupted. It also eventually leads to Isaac killing his own mother.
So, we know the story of The Binding of Isaac, but what is the narrative that emerges from the game's mechanics? ”Overly protective parents will go to great ends to protect their children from the evils of the world, in the process only exposing their children to greater evils.” The religious trappings of the story are irrelevant, as they only serve as a framing devise and a means of juxtaposing Isaac's doting mother with Abraham, who in the original story of the binding of Isaac was also driven by God to slay his son Isaac, and the story of the game quickly diverts from the original tale by having Isaac actively in opposition with his mother. Isaac's predicament is the direct result of his overly protective mother's will to protect him, and even when his mother has Isaac's best interests in mind it exposes Isaac to a number of greater evils as a result. Isaac killing his mother can be seen on a symbolic level as an extremely Freudian will to rid oneself of the influences and traumas caused by an abusive parent, albeit one whose abuse is a result of thinking of the child's "best interests."
The Binding of Isaac is a story about child-abuse told by the way of only tangentially related biblical imagery, with an extra dose of visceral body-horror and womb imagery for an aesthetic that would make Sigmund Freud blush. The story of Isaac escaping the clutches of an overprotective mother and the symbolic killing of the mother drives in the point that Isaac's story is one of a struggle against a parent whose attempts to shield Isaac from the evils of the world are suffocating him. If that's not a horror story, I don't know what is. Do note that this is just one reading of the game's narrative and there are a number of other, equally valid readings, and while it doesn't necessarily add anything to the game (which is a damn fun game, mind you), neither does an analytic view of a game's narrative, especially when supported by the game's mechanics, divert from the enjoyment.