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 Gotzon was a contributor to the Ontological Geek from 2010-2013, and had more fun with it than Super Smash Bros. (most of the time) and the entire Halo series (all of the time). He can be still be found occasionally sharing Dungeons and Dragons memes on Twitter @AP_Gotzon.