Since it’s that time of year again – the pumpkin-spice lattes are being guzzled and the supermarkets are flogging their fake bats and foam scythes – I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at one of the most genuinely horrifying and monstrous aesthetics in the video game industry, The Binding of Isaac.
Edmund McMillen hit the spotlight in 2010 with the release of his wildly successful indie game Super Meat Boy, which drew praise for its tight platforming and playful, yet gory art style. Continuing on this path, McMillen released The Binding of Isaac the following year, a game which at the time of writing has gone through a number of transformations with the release of the Rebirth, Afterbirth, and Afterbirth + expansions, the very existence of which shows exactly how popular the game has become. In fact, it wouldn’t be an understatement to call The Binding of Isaac a cult indie classic.
So, why are we looking at a game released, at the time of writing, an entire six years ago, and on Halloween no less? Well, McMillen’s own brand of cartoonish grotesquery undoubtedly played a huge part in the great success of his games, which whilst not explicitly categorised as horror titles, certainly display enough of the monstrous and horrifying to deserve a Halloween homage.
The origin of McMillan’s career can perhaps be traced back to a wildly provocative flash game, produced as an affront to anyone who dared try to tell its developer what he could or couldn’t create. This game’s snappy title is Cunt, a game which sees the player take control of a penis which rotates about the screen, shooting some rather suspect projectiles at a ginormous cartoon vagina in the centre. As puerile and misogynistic as Cunt might seem, it certainly bears all the hallmarks of a McMillen game, as well as the McMillen sense of humour. The art style is at once both impressively refined in its attention to detail, and yet also utterly horrifying. It is this keen eye for detail that makes McMillen such a talented artist of the monstrous. The bulging veins, the spatters of blood, the loose skin – he is an absolute master of the flesh.
In The Binding of Isaac, McMillen moved away from quite such an overtly offensive subject matter, and instead pursues the path of the monstrous. The basic premise of the game is that Isaac, our protagonist, heads down into his basement in an attempt to escape his mother, who is attempting to make of him a religious sacrifice, of the Abrahamic variety. This basement however, is no ordinary basement, and is populated by hundreds of unique enemies, all of which are mutilated, dismembered, deformed, or distorted – in other words, largely unpleasant in some way or other. Displayed in McMillen’s work are all the cleft-pallets, empty eye-sockets and ghostly fetuses of our most abstract nightmares, as well as every monstrous creature ever doodled in the corners of our school notebooks.
In answer to accusations of childish vulgarity or lewd sense of humour, it must be remembered that McMillen’s work should not and cannot be judged by the same criteria as titles that take themselves seriously – too seriously one could argue. McMillen’s art-style is a very deliberate and considered celebration of juvenilia, as is very explicitly demonstrated in every Binding of Isaac loading screen, pictured below. The player attuned to the sense of humour of McMillen’s games understands from the get go that grotesquery and satirical parody are nothing to be offended about, but instead something to be lauded as an affront to both censorship and squeamish political correctness, as well as celebrated as a testament to the human imagination.
What truly sets McMillen’s game apart, though, is not just the undeniable draw of his artwork, which is a source of hilarity and horror in equal measure, but the addictiveness of Isaac’s twin-stick shooter, rouge-like gameplay. No two run-throughs of Isaac’s basement are ever the same due to the myriad power-ups, stat-boosts and projectile-modifiers the player encounters, all of which alter Isaac’s own appearance too, so that neither do any two Isaacs look the same either. The items picked up on the increasingly challenging floors, either from item rooms and shops or after a successful boss-battle, also have the potential to alter the very gameplay itself, at the level of how the player controls Isaac or one of his playable supporting cast. The “Ludovico Technique”, for instance, allows the player to control a single projectile tear with one stick whilst controlling Isaac’s movement with the other, and “Brimstone” changes Isaac’s normal stream of tear-bullets into a stream of hell-fire which cuts across any room with unlimited range, damaging all enemies within it.
The player new to the Binding of Isaac experience, then, is consumed with learning all the intricacies of the game’s control scheme, understanding the move-set and patterns of each individual enemy, and mastering the minutiae of each item and power-up. Meanwhile, the Isaac veteran spends his or her time obsessively attempting to manipulate the various gameplay parameters, searching for the most powerful arsenal or the zaniest (to borrow a turn of phrase from perhaps the most popular Isaac YouTuber, Northernlion) combination of items. So too does Edmund McMillen drip-feed his players, who by now are slaves to the experience, new content as various gameplay milestones unlock new items and more challenging levels.
It is this variety and immense replayability that is the key to The Binding of Isaac’s great success. It is this, along with McMillen’s signature artwork, which has elevated the game to cult status, and means that it remains relevant and popular to this day, six years after its initial release.