Friday, May 4, 2012

The Unfinished: The Binding of Isaac

WARNING: Not only is this post going to contain spoilers for The Binding of Isaac, it's also going to get into some personal religious and philosophical beliefs that I possess. If you're an atheist that's offended by professions of faith, this might be a post to skip. Similarly, if you're huge fan of a lot of the more famous and legalistic modern fundamentalist figures (Pat Robertson and John Hagee, for example) you might also want to give this a pass.

Before I get into any sort of content commentary on The Binding of Isaac, I should preface everything else by saying that it's a very, very well-executed game. The controls are responsive, there's plenty of variety in the items and maps. It plays like a seamless mix of a fast-paced all-ranged Zelda-like game crossed with a roguelike. There's steadily-increasing difficulty and permadeth, and lots of randomly generated loot and maps. The game plays very smoothly and I didn't see any bugs. The controls are responsive enough to translate intent into onscreen action almost perfectly, but the game does get very hard on later levels. (So much so that I finally gave up after about 11 hours of banging my head against it.)

However, the thing that makes this game interesting and difficult in a very non-gameplay way for me is the content, not the mechanics. The Binding of Isaac takes aim at the more fanatical and fundamentalist brands of Christianity. Isaac's mother first deprives him of everything (even clothes) and then decides to kill him because she thinks god wills it. Most of the items in the game are either based around fundamentalist Christian tropes for either good or evil things and the rest are based around child abuse or gross-out themes.

This put me in kind of a strange, unpleasant place. On the one hand, I think a lot of modern American Christianity is just plain wrong. The obsession with the end of days, the pharisaical legalism, the anti-intellectualism, the hatred and bigotry justified in the name of religion and the "prosperity gospel" seen all over the place in modern American Christian culture all make me deeply uncomfortable and angry. I don't see established scientific theories such as evolution and carbon dating as antithetical to my faith, and I certainly find nothing in the gospel that tells me that following Jesus should make me wealthy and comfortable on Earth, nor do I see anything that commands me to strike down and hate those who don't believe as I do. So poking fun at a branch of Christianity where a fat, lazy wellfare mom decides that she can abuse and murder her own child in God's name is perfectly fair.

On the other hand, while I see some of the criticisms as justified, I also think the game is almost utterly tasteless. It makes monsters out of child abuse victims and birth defects, blocks unexplored areas off with piles of feces, and generally fills itself with tasteless, disgusting references. Instead of being intelligent about its critique, it's juvenile and disgusting. However, then it wraps back around to the fact that this is a really well-executed, playable game. 

It's hard for me to say what to do about this game. I didn't purchase it alone; I instead got it as part of one of the Humble Bundles back some time ago and had heard some buzz and controversy around it, so I installed it to see what all the fuss was about since I had it anyway. That deserves a quick pause, by the way, because Humble Bundles are charitable ventures, and I've heard some interviews with the lead designer on podcasts and he seemed like an okay guy. This and Dungeons of Dredmor were responsible for teaching me about the roguelike genre, which I've found I can enjoy quite a bit. I can't really recommend it, but I really don't feel comfortable telling people to stay away, either.I suppose if it sounds or looks interesting, you'll get your money's worth, but it is a fairly offensive piece of IP, and that's by design.

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't surprise me.

    I've heard a couple of different interviews with the designer, Edmund McMillen. I think its fair to say that he's actively hostile toward evangelical Christianity.

    After hearing about the content that he'd put into the game in the Roguelike Radio interview linked below, I knew this game was not for me no matter how good everyone else thought it was.

    As I recall, this episode of Roguelike Radio went into a lot of detail about his upbringing and why The Binding of Isaac is the way it is.

    - Brian "harborpirate" Swift