Growing up in an overly religious household can really mess you up. It’s the kind of living situation that creates specific anxieties that can still have consequences years down the line, especially when mental illness is involved. After all, a childhood ruled by fear of sin can make a lot of seemingly innocuous things appear to be terrifying, and that’s why this hellish scenario is a perfect fit for horror fiction.
From Carrie to The Witch, religious horror is an established sub-genre in film, but it’s a lot less common in video games. However, there are a few exceptions, and one of the best just so happens to be Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl’s indie classic, The Binding of Isaac. With the game celebrating its 10th-anniversary last year, I’d like to take this opportunity to look back on how this infinitely replayable cutesy horror title is still so much fun even a decade later.
Originally developed during a week-long game-jam and inspired by faith-based conflict between the Evangelical and Catholic sides of McMillen’s family, The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike dungeon crawler with procedurally generated levels that sees the titular Isaac attempt to escape the horrors of his mother’s basement. Along the way, players use their tears to fight back against disgusting creatures as they upgrade Isaac with a bizarre arsenal of power-ups.
Appropriately enough, the game’s title is actually a reference to the biblical story of the same name, where Abraham was called upon by God to sacrifice his own son as a test of a faith. That being said, Mcmillen and Himsl’s eerie experiment isn’t exactly an adaptation, with the game using the religious setup as an excuse to explore the horrors of child abuse as Isaac attempts to survive his mother’s delusional beliefs.
Despite dealing with extremely grim subject matter, the influences here range from Gauntlet to The Legend of Zelda, with the addicting top-down shooter gameplay keeping things from getting too depressing. Simple controls and arcade-like thrills mean that The Binding of Isaac is easy to pick and play, but the insane amount of randomly generated variables make it difficult to master. This results in an extremely rewarding experience that has players repeatedly muttering “just one more run” as they head back inside the basement for more punishment.
The developing duo initially intended for the title to be a simple flash game, quickly programming the original release as a risky passion project after the success of Super Meat Boy, McMillen’s previous endeavor. When The Binding of Isaac was finally released on Steam in late 2011, no one really expected it to match the success of its predecessor. However, it wasn’t long before a legion of let’s players and passionate fans began to sing the title’s praises, with the game quickly becoming a hit through online word-of-mouth.
Not only was the game a massive success, but it also opened the door for other indie titles to experiment with randomly generated elements as a cost-saving measure. By establishing rules for games to generate unique experiences without the need to manually plan every level, programmers could craft more content without having to curate each and every bit of their creations. While the popularity of RNG elements in indie games is a contentious issue these days, there’s no denying the impact that The Binding of Isaac had on the industry.
While the game would see an expansion with 2012’s Wrath of the Lamb, the limitations of Adobe Flash would result in McMillen partnering with Nicalis to completely remake the title in a more advanced engine. This led to the release of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a complete reworking of the game with a boatload of new content. The gameplay itself remained mostly untouched, but the graphics received a much-needed overhaul and the extra content guaranteed surprises when revisiting the basement.
The game would see additional expansions in the following years, with the most recent one releasing in March of 2021, but these fresh coats of digital paint aren’t the only reason that the title has managed to maintain its popularity for so long. It’s really the highly addictive core of the experience that keeps fans coming back for more, with Isaac perpetually finding new and bizarre ways to survive his predicament in a perfect marriage of gameplay and story elements.
From the game’s many esoteric references to its disgusting monster designs based on real-life body horror (not to mention the genius addition of having Isaac defend himself using literal tears), there’s no shortage of clever little details that make The Binding of Isaac so much more than the sum of its parts. Regardless of how it ends, each run tells a unique story of players attempting to fight back against what lies in the dark, and there’s something oddly poetic about Isaac transforming himself into a monster through random pills, injections, and occult shenanigans.
It may not be a traditional horror game, but there’s no denying that the game’s mechanics are all about coping with trauma and facing fears. The title successfully manages to gamify the horrors of child abuse by presenting them from the exaggerated perspective of a terrified little boy, and that’s why I think it’s a shining example of videogames as an artform.
Tackling serious issues without getting preachy and paving the way for other procedurally generated experiences, there’s a lot to love about The Binding of Isaac. In fact, I originally meant to dive back into the basement for a single brief run in preparation for this article, but I soon found myself completely absorbed by the game’s ever-changing battle for survival as minutes soon turned into hours. That’s why I think the game is an indie gift that keeps on giving, with spooky thrills that are still worth revisiting even over a decade later.