So I bet you thought that the first ITD video game review would be some next-gen survival horror. Perhaps Amnesia, or a Resident Evil/Silent Hill installment. But to honest, none of those games interest me right now. What interests me, at the moment is a little indie game called The Binding of Isaac. The set-up story is a loose reference to the Biblical story of god commanding Abraham to sacrifice his own son…
The Binding of Isaac, developed by Edmund McMillen, is a lovely shoot-em up, top-down dungeon crawl. It’s influence from the elder Legend of Zelda, Rogue-like, and the numerous “bullet hell” type games are heavily apparent. Players navigate Isaac through randomly arranged maps, shooting his tears at monsters, collecting power-ups, items, bombs, keys, and money along the way. At the end of each map, Isaac throws down with one of the many morbidly grotesque Boss characters. There are no lives; if you die, you must restart from the beginning. But don’t let it’s simplicity fool you into thinking the game hasn’t depth. The main draw of The Binding of Isaac is it’s infinite replay value. You will never play the same maps twice and as you progress, you unlock more and more characters, items, enemies, etc to enhance the experience. One play-through may have you completely helpless, dropping you in front of a boss character with no upgrades and no hearts while in the next play-through your luck will pull a complete 180.
Now, in addition to the simple but deep gameplay, what really draws me in is this juxtaposition of the cute and funny graphics with the dark, gross, and sadistic ideas presented in the game. First of all, almost each power-up manifests itself as a physiological change to Isaac. You can acquire a clothes hanger that grants you additional rate of fire, and said clothes hanger will find itself punctured through poor Isaac’s head. Or, you can find a syringe that boosts all of your stats, dubbed “Roid Rage” and Isaac with have a derpy-mad look on his face. This brings me to another interesting aspect of the game…
With the exception of the flies, maggots, and gelatnous blobs, many of the hostile characters in the game resemble Isaac in some way, shape, or form. You will encounter zombie like forms of Isaac, blood flowing from their eyes, that will chase you faster upon direct line of sight. Or, you will encounter disembodied heads (again, resembling Isaac) that will hiss and shoot bloody tears upon line of sight. Another good example is the variations of swollen headed creatures that will sob and run away from Isaac as he tries to combat him, and as he defeats them, the contents of their heads will be expose, be they flies or activated bombs.
Then you have the monstrous boss fights against truly abominations of nature and anatomy. Such as the “Duke of Flies”, who is a floating head who coughs up satellites of flies to shield himself from your attacks, or Monstro who resembles Jabba the Hutt with a cleft pallet and vomits blood as an attack. As you progress into the caverns, you encounter “Mom” who is a grotesque collection of anatomy. Eyes and appendages that pop out of holes in the walls, and a large veiny foot that stomps down with it’s red stiletto. And after that, you descend back into the womb, where you eventually combat Mom’s heart… which is just as grotesque as it gets.
And as you manage to beat the game, you unlock a more sinister plot, involving the devil and more “revelations” themed bosses, namely, the four horsemen, and the chance to progress past mom’s womb into hell to hopefully defeat Satan himself.
What these and the weird power-ups say to me is that Isaac is not the first to be dropped into these depths and that Isaac is just as likely to become one of the monsters that he encounters within the subterranean dwellings he explores. This makes the game much more dark and disturbing, to me, than any Capcom developed horror video game, because the rewards are more macabre than the costs of losing (when you die, you just die and leave all your belongings to your cat, “Guppy”)
In short, The Binding of Isaac is a terrific mash-up of cute cartoonish graphics, violent gameplay, and the dark macabre. It is a game that invites countless hours of replay and is entirely addicting. Considering that it is available on both Mac and PCs on Steam for around the price of a pack of cigarettes, I would highly encourage anyone with an interest in shoot’em ups (aka shmups) and the grotesque to give it a whirl, you really haven’t much to lose but a couple days of nicotine.
James Stroman studied digital art at Indiana University and is a graphic designer, video artist, and all around visual tinkerer. He is the graphic designer for Atomic Age Cinema!, and assistant designer for Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)