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Game critique

The Binding of Isaac

Occupy Wall Street marchers

Mike —  I’ve noticed of late that I’ve devoted more than a few spare cycles of mental processing power to contemplating the increasing prevalence of the adjective “random” peppering our language. Of what is this trend the linguistic harbinger of? That in the throes of our reactions and non-reactions to the complexities and absurdities of the 21st century, we increasingly come to forsake our faith in societal mores, institutional truths, and the human-readable narrative? That, where rational human agency seems either impossible or undesirable to locate in the events that shape our lives, we instead feel compelled to offer up these little secular benedictions to chaos?

A random ink blot generator found on the interwebs

Rather than rigorously explore my existentialist strawman dilemma, however, I’d instead like to pivot to my Freudian foot. However one may feel about the legacy of Sigmund and his descendants, one of the great humanistic imports of the psychoanalytic revolution was a teaching that most of what passes for “random” in the more visible, tangible parts of the human condition is driven by forces and principles that are remarkably consistent and widely shared, if not universal. Despite our ability to shock each other with our confounding behaviour, we can all find common ground in the base needs and instincts at the heart of it all. The capricious, the unfathomable, the totally insane; all just tips of the stolidly proletarian iceberg of the human condition.

But neither am I really here to set about pondering what Freud would have to say about the apparent randomizing of the world. I came here to talk about Edmund McMillen and Florian Hims’ The Binding of Isaac. Though we might indeed wish we could have Freud review his own playthrough, similar to how Mingus had his psychotherapist pen the second half of the liner notes to The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady

The Binding of Isaac opens with what is, without a doubt, really one of the most disturbing and viscerally horrifying premises for a game — You are a child fleeing your mentally-ill mother’s divine-mandated murderous onslaught. Rendered in sketchy cartoon line drawings or not, this comes across as a much darker setup than your standard dystopic alien genocide riff, because it’s far less allegorical and far more domestic. It speaks of violence on an uncomfortably personal level, of a place where we would hardly ever expect an indie game to tread. Albeit, the game’s title makes it abundantly clear that it’s pulling from a fairly widely-read source text, but dual-wielding a +10 to Potential Blasphemy seems more intended to double-down on the effort to probe our vulnerabilities, rather than assuage them.

Aside from it’s thematically similar loading cut-scenes, however, The Binding of Isaac’s gameplay itself opts for more of a Wizard of Oz approach of sublimation and metaphor in its relation to the supposed narrative. And that’s where the psychoanalysis comes in, I suppose. There simply isn’t really much more to be provided in the way of narrative, with the result that one perhaps imagines the entire game experience takes place within a dissociative fugue experienced by our character. Or rather, our character’s playable avatar within our character’s mind. Did our juvenile protagonist actually find a hidden trapdoor in his bedroom, just in the nick of time, and a subterranean lair filled with unspeakable nasties standing between him and salvation? Or do we play through an endless cycle contained within one frozen moment, as Isaac’s mother performs her best Jack Torrance impression at his bedroom door?Jack

Every one of The Binding of Isaac’s myriad enemies, power-ups, enhancements, power-downs, and non-functional relic items seems intended to fill in both the game world and personal back story in a randomized, non linear, fragmentary process. Every play through is a trip to therapy, where a little more progress will be made, a little more horror uncovered, and more pieces will fall into place. These little pieces of Isaac’s life, absurd and irreverent, amass in our inventory like a hairball of hermeneutics.

On the one hand, I find this idea incredibly compelling. It’s a messy, gung-ho, all-in approach that seems well suited for messy, unstable times. And The Binding of Isaac is certainly messy; a real cavalcade of tears, piss, blood, pus, and more. It can be overwhelming on the first few trips, but the game does well initially to make you feel like you are progressing, despite starting afresh with nothing after each and every death.

But at some point I found myself asking the dreaded question — what’s the point? The fluke first-time encounters with newly revealed items and baddies still feel mildly interesting and expositional, the game still finds ways to shock and titillate me. But although the oneiric and oedipal list of odds and ends that I’ve accumulated through (a shocking number of) hours and hours of gameplay continues to pile up, nothing seems to stick. It’s just so, well, random.

Isaac with various ridiculous power-up combinations

There’s much to love about the gameplay, bleak “humour” in spades, and the frenetic, constant reconstitution of gaming references, pop-culture tropes, and probably some memes that were in the world for, like, all of one weekend last April. There’s a palpable intelligence and a determination evident that seems to want to run a thread through all this cultural and psychosocial debris, and make a bleedin’ quilt of it.

The Nothing from The Neverending Story approachesBut all these hours in, and it feels like the randomness is winning, that this is more pastiche than collage, and that no amount of counselling will make our Isaac whole again. Did I go in with far too-lofty expectations of grand and linear narratives? Am I but a naive dinosaur, still expecting a smidgen of catharsis or redemption in an age where I should know better than to expect to ever “finish” a game? Is The Binding of Isaac giving the ultimate finger to psychoanalysis, defying us to take a stand against the encroaching tide of The Nothing? Enlighten me please, Gentlemen.

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