The Terror of Isaac

isaacWith All Hallow’s Eve (Samhain, if you wanna get technical), my favorite holiday, now come and gone, we’re left without a convenient seasonal excuse to fill our lodgings, our minds, and our hearts with all things ghoulish, nasty, and creepy.

It’s a special time of year during which we see our neighbors, friends, and acquaintances as fellow passengers to the grave, and attempt to do our level best to remind one another of that fact, usually in the spirit of morbid fun.  Many folks enjoy a good startle now and then, some others prefer pushing the limits of what they can “stand” to observe or experience, and still others like pretending to be part of a fictional horror: playing the role of either an innocent mortal with life and limb hanging desperately in the balance, or one of the freaks who go “bump” in the night.  Spirits, possession, ghosts, witchcraft, occult and pagan symbolism; these are all parts of the fun, signifiers of a largely invisible world of fear and mystery on display but this one night in the holy calendar.  Even some gore now and then, a grisly reminder of our own temporal vulnerabilities, is welcomed as a necessary part of our bracing encounters with the wrong sorts of supernatural or evil forces.

Is The Binding of Isaac, a roguelike usually placed squarely in the “dark comedy” category for its bizarre, twisted concepts and gruesome imagery, that kind of scary, disturbing fun?  The Halloween kind?

In the mainstream horror discussion, Binding has remained almost totally outside the sphere of topicality.  Not to say it’s entirely scare-free, or kid-friendly in the slightest; though in contrast to the more universally celebrated and well-known horror titles (your Resident Evils, your Silent Hill, and most recently your porcine Amnesias), it doesn’t evoke feelings of fear or surprise so much as unease and disgust.

There is a distinctly squirmy, dirty feeling many gamers experience when playing BoI (hoi-polloi, don’t be a killjoy) or even just watching the trailer for the upcoming remake.  From a certain sociological perspective (yep, I’m kicking that horse again), it turns out that that disgust fulfills whatever aspiration to horror Binding may harbor better than anxiety-inducing hallways or jump scares ever could.

According to one of the preeminent unifying theories of social behavior, Terror Management Theory, human action is motivated primarily by a pervasive fear of death.  We are uniquely “privileged” in the animal kingdom in that we are capable of being aware of our own imminent demise and of considering the implications of that sobering reality.  To mitigate the emotional impact of existential fact, we construct culture, an edifice whereby we can deny, minimalize, and escape the inevitable.

Disgust plays an important role in this theory; being one of the most common emotional reactions to having our death-denying framework threatened.  Excretions of any sort, for example, are sights generally deemed unfit for public consumption by most cultures.  Biological processes which remind our clothed, bipedal, poised selves that we’re animals (and therefore in danger of animal mortality) are stark phenomenological counterpoints to the culture which insists on enduring, comforting definitions such as symbols, heroisms, and concepts of the spirit and of (perhaps especially) personhood.

Disgust and discomfort are reactions aroused by seeing the cracks in culture, the seams in the defense against death, however futile.  In fact, seeing the strings of psychology through the lens of death anxiety quite easily gives way to doubt as regards “transcendent” ( escapist?) conceptualizations of subjective experience.

The Binding of Isaac takes it upon itself to show us as many of the “plot holes” as possible in one go (or actually, many goes, because Roguelike), and the result, as many, many critics and players have noted, is a major case of the jibblies.

Binding’s story is a hoarse, simplistic (I read “malicious,” though I could be wrong) retelling of the Biblical narrative of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son.  In the game, Isaac’s mother hears what she believes to be the voice of God during one of her habitual televangelist-watching marathons.  At first, the voice tells her that her son has become “corrupted” by evil and must be cleansed of all worldly things.  Obediently, mother dearest takes away Isaac’s toys and clothing and locks him in his room.  After some time she hears the voice again, compelling her to end the corruption once and for all by killing Isaac as a sacrifice.  Issac, overhearing this, descends a trapdoor into the basement, where the game begins.

The first thing to notice here is the nudity.  While nothing anatomically graphic is shown, the player is always distinctly aware, through color choices and the ways in which various items and power-ups interact with the avatar, that the player-character is naked.  One of the longstanding mysteries which TMT purports to solve is the taboo on nudity most cultures have, even (especially) those which underwent their mimetic evolutions in temperate environments wherein most clothing isn’t really necessary for health or comfort much of the time.

We modern human-types have some odd reactions to nudity in general, and not just because of the sexual connotations either.  Clothing plays a major role in the “fashion”-ing (ha!) of mystique, of personality; the “people” ideals we make of ourselves from the flesh-and-blood-and-brain factory model.  To see the hair, the genitals, the orifices, to even just imagine their constant presence and implications (which Binding asks us to do) is one of those string-showing experiences in our puppet-show of culture; they remind us we’re animals, and we will die as animals do.  The (even implied) presence of nudity is often enough to generate at least the impression of a work being “edgy,” “adult,” or other euphemistic terms meant to get at the idea of something alarming, unsettling or unnatural (imagine!).

Another curious habit of humans is a widespread insistence on keeping the tangible results of common biological functions from making appearances outside of the places from which they came; or, if they must be released, letting them go quietly, in private, to some unseen location, leaving not a trace.  In some cultures, it’s even considered deeply offense to blow one’s nose in public, and even when it is permissible, the entire affair had better be hidden behind a tissue, lest they arouse feelings of disgust in others!  Of course germs are a thing, but what about various kind of body hair, the smell of sweat, and public breastfeeding?

Keep in mind, disgust is the visceral reaction to having one’s internal death-defense threatened.  Seeing a fellow human creature’s excrement reduces him or her to the level of biology, the animal-chemical level; the level at which it becomes increasingly improbable to think that its residents float around as spirits and survive their own deaths.  It may not be the most outlandish thing in the world to imagine a dog going to some sort of afterlife, but what about a fish?  A spider?  Grass?

True to disturbing form, Binding gives our hero over to some *cough* really shitty circumstances.  Seriously, poop, one of the most psychologically problematic substances, is everywhere.  It’s the bushes from Zelda in this game, it’s the coin blocks from Mario, just sitting there in gross little coils waiting to be searched for coins, which will power up Isaac enough to let him…

Spit and pee on his enemies.  Great.

No matter where you and Isaac turn in Mom’s strangely spacious basement, the reminders of animal weakness will be strewn wherever you look.  When you play you can’t escape the unease, or sometimes the addictive adrenaline charge caused by being put into a state of “mortality salience.”

Perhaps that’s okay, though.  It may not always be the most cheery thing, considering one’s own mortality, but maybe there’s a good reason why we have games like Binding, or holidays like Halloween, to bring us back to, center us in that place of vulnerability, of awe and inconsequence.

Science now suggests that it’s healthy to be mindful of one’s state as a temporal creature; something the ancient Romans may have understood intuitively when they created the custom of memento mori.  Led by perspective, by an acceptance of facts (an important human need), we are enabled to live more productive, fuller, and (ironically) more meaningful lives by accepting their apparently objective meaninglessness.

So dig deep, Isaac, and face your fears of circumstance, of the world you once thought was simple.  Of your own mind and body.

May we learn to face ourselves too.

Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Paul Gotzon is a beguiling ne’er-do-well, prancing about the stage by night, and hawking shrimp and cheap alcohol by day. He’s about as qualified to write about games as the average squashed cockroach. He does, however, run an extremely successful male escort service and bait shop out of his grandmother’s basement. If you’d like to send him a message, put it on a piece of paper, and throw it away.