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Review: The Binding of Isaac





Table of Contents

Quick Information

Rating: Pretty Fun
Gore & Brutality Magic Sex Civility Religion
3 3 0 0 4
Additional Notes
Linux version available!Permadeath is featured in this game
Age Rating Suitable for adults only
License: Commercial
System used: Martha

WARNING!

While the Binding of Isaac is a fun game, the way it treats Christianity is insulting at best, blasphemous at worst. In my opinion, it would be better for Christians to avoid this game, as this pushes things a little too far. See below for some additional comments about this.

For more information about this warning, see this page

General Notes

The Binding of Isaac is a popular Indie game, and for good reasons. The gameplay is simple yet challenging, there's a huge amount of content, multiple endings and nearly endless replayability. It's short enough to play through in one sitting, and no two games are going to send you through the same dungeon.

Unfortunately, what would otherwise be a quality roguelike is buried under a lot of questionable content. There's a lot of blood, feces and gore for such a simple game, and if you take everything at face value, much of the game's story is a mockery of Christianity.

The end result is that I feel this game crosses too many lines for it to be found in a Christian home.

Story Summary

Isaac and his mother lived alone in a small house on a hill. While his mother sat on the couch and watched Christian programming on the television, Isaac kept to himself and played with his toys or drew pictures. This had been his life for some time, and everyone was happy.

This idyllic scene change abruptly one day, when a voice from Heaven called down to his mother. It told her that her son had been corrupted by sin, and she must remedy this swiftly. Obeying without question, she took away Isaac's drawings, his toys, and even his clothing. Assuming all was well, she resumed her position on the couch.

The voice then called down again, affirming that Isaac was still corrupt, and must be removed from the evil influences of the world. Hurriedly, his mother locked poor Isaac away in his empty room, where he would presumably be safe from whatever evils could corrupt him.

As he watched from a crack in his door, the voice called down to his mother once again. This time it asked her to prove her devotion by offering Isaac's life as a sacrifice. Seeing his mother grab a large butcher's knife, he began to panic and scramble about his tiny room.

Finding a trap door, he escaped into the depths of the basement as his mother burst into the room.

Gameplay Summary

The gameplay of the Binding of Isaac is really quite simple. You move Isaac around using WASD, and you fire your primary weapon in one of four directions using the arrow keys. This allows you to move in one direction while shooting in another, which is often a good idea as you're going to be dodging a lot of attacks.

To advance to a new room, you must first kill every monster in the current room. Once a room has been cleared, you might be rewarded with keys, bombs, coins or even healing items or powerups. The keys can be used to unlock doors, or you can keep them around and use them to open treasure chests hidden throughout the levels.

Each of the floors are small mazes, but you can be certain that there's a shop, a treasure room and at least one boss per level. Once you've beaten the level's boss, you can explore further or just jump down another trap door to carry on to the next floor.

Pros

Huge amount of content
Since each level is fairly small and there aren't many levels, any one game will only show you a fraction of the game's total content in a single playthrough. There are a lot of bonus bosses, many treasures to discover and even unlockable characters. You'll need to play through the game a large number of times to actually see everything.


Designed to be played in one sitting
Isaac's trip through the basement (and the Hell beyond) isn't a long one. You'll probably beat it in a little under an hour. However, since each trip is different than the last, this makes it easier to replay the game and continue exploring.


Bosses are unique and challenging
Each boss has a unique pattern. Some are stationary, others chase Isaac around their lairs, and many fire projectiles of their own. This is a lot of variety for such a short game, and it's definitely welcomed.


Steam community features
Like many other Steam games, there are achievements to earn and Steam trading cards to collect. Most of the achievements are based on items you can find or bosses you've defeated, so earning them all requires more luck than skill.


Cons

No save feature
It's a good thing this game can be beaten in a short amount of time -- there's no way to save your progress and take a break from it!


Luck based difficulty
The Binding of Isaac's difficulty is based more on what items you find and how well you can use them than anything else. Many of the items hidden in the dungeon provide benefits, but quite a few make the game harder or have problematic side-effects. Fortunately, you can choose whether or not to collect a treasure; it's advised to pick them wisely.


Concerns and Issues

Isaac's main weapon...
In order to attack anything, Isaac fires projectiles like most video game characters. However, in this case, he's using his own tears as ammunition. Some of the powerups change his weapon to something else, like blood or mucus, but that's not any less disturbing.


Mockery of Christians and Christianity
At face value, the game's storyline is a straight up mockery of stereotypical fanatical Christians, right down to the way Isaac's mother is depicted as an obese couch potato that gets all of their "spiritual" nourishment from daytime television. The depiction of God and other holy beings as being vengeful monsters isn't much better. There is a theory that there's more going on under the surface, but I'd wager that this goes over the heads of most of the people playing this game.


Blood and feces are everywhere
Just about everything bleeds, and in many cases the blood sticks around. In rooms where there had been a lot of combat, there's often a thick coating of blood on the floor. As for poo, there are piles of it all over the place. Other fluids, such as bile and mucus, can also end up splattered about, but these are rarer and depend on which powerups you've collected and what monsters you're fighting.


Most powerups corrupt Isaac's appearance
Whenever Isaac equips a new item, his appearance changes to reflect it. For example, if he finds his mother's shoes, he'll be shown wearing them from then on. That is one of the mildest examples though, as other transformations include him becoming demonic, bleeding, carrying a still-beating heart around his neck or even having a coat hanger caught in his forehead.


Many powerups are quite unsettling
Aside from the coat hanger and beating heart, there are other disturbing items that Isaac can find. These include a dead cat, the common cold, a crown of bloody thorns, dog food (entitled "dinner" for that extra helping of child neglect), flies and what is either an aborted or miscarried fetus. For extra fun, there are unmarked pills scattered about, and you'll need to take them to find out what they do. Several of these pills are harmful, so it's not a good idea to just eat them.


References to suicide, injured or deformed children
The shopkeepers are frequently depicted as decapitated or hanging from the ceiling. Either way, their gray skin and crossed out eyes make it obvious that they aren't among the living.

As for the monsters Isaac encounters, many of them are graphically injured children (or just parts of children). The bosses take this up a notch by frequently having deformities like cleft palettes or an undeveloped twin.


References to bullying, unloving parents
Between levels, you see one of Isaac's dreams (or perhaps, memories). These often involve another child doing something bad to Isaac, but sometimes they show his mother pushing him away or otherwise being indifferent instead of being a loving parent.


Tarot cards are powerups
Throughout the levels, you may find tarot cards lying around. These have different effects and can often be pretty useful if used properly. For example, the Hanged Man allows Isaac to separate his head from his body and float around the room. While it looks weird, the main benefit of this is that you can pass over holes and other objects that would normally be blocking your way. That said, tarot cards are something Christians should be avoiding, and thus their inclusion is yet another strike against this game.


Some final thoughts

The Binding of Isaac provides a very distressing take on religion, to say the least. Most of us are probably content with calling it blasphemous and moving on, never giving it a second thought. However, there is a point behind this extremely graphic narrative that's worth considering for a moment.

Christianity is a big religion. There's a lot of things to take in, and it's not always easy for someone to understand everything presented to them. In scripture, there are instructions to give immature believers portions of spiritual "milk", while mature believers have grown the teeth to chew the "meat". The reason for this instruction is that people need to have a basic understanding of their religious beliefs before they can build on them with the more complex details. For example, immature believers are often stuck in a rut of figuring out how they are to obey various commandments. This tends to lead to legalistic rule making, and can rob a person of their freedom in Christ.

Aside from the details of his macabre adventure, Isaac is in a surprisingly common position when it comes to children living in strict Christian households. Children aren't capable of the same levels of abstract thinking as adults, and much of what happens in their lives seems random or arbitrary. The younger a child is, the more their world is restricted to how things impact them directly and the fewer details they can string together.

To a child, God can become a monstrous bogeyman; a being that stalks you, waiting to punish you with eternal damnation should you break any of the arbitrary rules it comes up with. Even accidentally breaking a rule is grounds for divine punishment, so the child must constantly be on guard or risk being sent to Hell. This can turn a simple act like having your lunch into a minefield: eating anything made with pork is sin, but it's okay to eat almost any other kind of meat unless it's Friday, then you can only eat fish -- but not just any fish, since shellfish are sin too! Sadly, in an attempt to ensure their children behave, some parents hold the threat of God's judgment over their children like a Sword of Damocles, reinforcing their child's fears.

It should be obvious by now what the problem is: the Good News isn't getting through. These children have only part of the message, and lack the hope and freedom given with the rest of the Truth. People who get trapped in fear like this don't have a working understanding of either sin or forgiveness, resulting in an immature faith that has become corrupted. This is why the Bible repeatedly urges us to study it and find mature Christians to guide us along. Left by themselves, immature Christians can't tell the shepherds from the wolves, and in turn they become a danger to other members of the flock.

Isaac has had a lot of problems in his life, but it's clear that one of the biggest problems is that, for him, God has become a terrible monster to be feared.