Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wave of Mutilation

I find that when playing The Binding of Isaac, my rate of progress is inversely proportional to the unmolested appearance of my (digital) physical form. And for a game that starts me out as a naked crying child lying fetal in a shit-covered basement, that's really saying something. But it's true. The more unrecognizable I become, the better chance I have of beating the game.

To the uninitiated, The Binding of Isaac is an indie rouguelike dungeon crawler, created by Edmund McMillen (one half of the duo who brought us (the unassailable) Super Meat Boy) and Florian Himsl. The premise of the game takes a cue from the Biblical story of the same name—the one where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac on an altar and Abraham actually gets to the point where he raises his knife and then God intervenes, tells him to stop, and congratulates Abraham for passing the obedience test. In McMillen's modern retelling, Abraham is traded out for a psychotic Christian mother who gets a message from God to take the life of her son. In the moments before his slaughter by kitchen blade, Isaac discovers a hidden trapdoor in his bedroom and hops down into a hellish basement, which I'm pretty sure—if this were taken to be a real-world scenario—represents the moment of trauma-induced personality splitting. In other words, Isaac's mind makes a heroic getaway from reality.

The game itself is like a giant randomized Zelda dungeon with an ugly brown color palette and a penchant for grotesque monsters that fall everywhere along the spectrum of maggoty, larval, arachnoid, and demonic. Each new room presents a fiendish surprise. It could be as harmless as a couple of flies buzzing around some piles of feces or as sinister as a horseman or two of the apocalypse. You could say The Binding of Isaac is where the eschatological and scatological intersect. It's also a Freudian playground. Did I mention that your default starting weapon is projectile tears? Isaac literally cries his nightmares to death.

Of course that's just the beginning. For the player bent on actually beating the game, Isaac's starting condition simply isn't going to cut it. When not busy clearing a room of monsters, the player's secondary objective will be to scrounge around for access to items that will—hopefully, but not always—improve Isaac's chances of survival. Some items grant Isaac an extra heart of health. Others increase his speed, damage, or the distance and fire-rate of his tears. Some items function like a secondary weapon that can be used and recharged by defeating more monsters.

The game includes about 200 unique discoverable items, some of which were added as part of the Wrath of the Lamb downloadable expansion—and I must say, it is pure delight to stumble upon an item you've never before encountered, because its effects are never immediately obvious.

If the game's premise were not already gruesome enough, its use of items adds even further context. They're like the fragmentary narrative details that surface in the aftermath of a disturbing news story about a man discovered to have been living with a second family hidden in some underground bunker—maybe he dressed them up in clown wigs and had them sleep on piles of hay. Discoverable items in The Binding of Isaac paint a similar portrait of neglect and abuse. Isaac picks up a can of dog food, which the game labels “dinner,” and gains an extra heart piece. Or he finds and dresses himself up in mom's lipstick, heels, and underwear, each of which—when collected—add to his projectile range. These are some of the more brazen examples, the ones that make you chuckle painfully to yourself, because you realize this is comedy at its edgiest but comedy nonetheless. Many items derive from your everyday religious iconography—the halo, rosary, pentagram, and ouija board. Others are just plain bizarre, usually with a bent toward the grotesque.

I've already written about the joy of the rougelike experience in my review of Spelunky (where I also linked to an excellent essay regarding the refreshing unfairness of The Binding of Isaac), and I'm pleased to see many of that game's design philosophies carried over into this one. But I find myself even more interested in this idea of mutilation as the path to victory. I never quite know how my character is going to look by the time I finish a game—most likely in defeat—but I know it won't be pretty. Most of the passive items have some kind of disfiguring effect, which will stack up on prior disfigurements. I might end up bloated from lard, sickly green with a cold virus, shooting red beams from a cyborg laser eye, with an iron coat hanger protruding from my head. I may be the color of brimstone with devil horns and a bloodshot cyclops eye. I may be gliding like the cherubim over the pits and boulders. Who knows?

In another game, these items would be called powerups, and even in The Binding of Isaac, that's essentially what they are doing. They're making the player character more mathematically powerful against the hordes of enemies. But by their thematic subversion, they help to actually tell the game's story.

Now, I've done a lot of item scavenging in video games. Just this past weekend I was looting desks, trash cans, corpses, purses, and boxes of caramels (stuffed with hot dogs?) in Bioshock Infinite. Unfortunately, that game's narrative is so discordant with its bloated gameplay systems, it didn't end up meaning anything that my character was eating food pulled from the trash. In The Binding of Isaac, I am digging for spare change in excrement, and—what can I say?—there's just no getting around that I'm digging through excrement. My narrative situation has truly plummeted me to such lows.

I've tried to think of any other games that have similarly turned the tables on traditional protagonist empowerment. I couldn't come up with any concrete examples, aside from some vague, recurring game themes that have to do with the corrupting nature of violence, soul harvesting, etc. But what other game has rejoiced so profoundly in the suffering of its hero?

It's no secret McMillen has a complicated history with religion. He's basically gone on record to say The Binding of Isaac was informed by negative childhood experiences with Christianity, both his own and those of other family members. And yet, to this day, he remains fascinated with the notion of holy suffering.

“I grew up with a picture of a bloody dying man who is suffering for everybody, a martyr, and it's the whole idea of self-sacrifice,” McMillen said in an interview with Eurogamer. “Your exalted God, your God, rips his body to shreds for the good of the world. Violence becomes holy.”

It's often said that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I suppose that's true to a point. There are some types of trauma that, I'm sure, just aren't good for anyone. Still, who's to say what good might emerge or danger be averted for other people down the line when we are honest about our personal experiences, when we confront those dark themes and expose them to the light of day? Maybe there is power in shared suffering. Maybe we need more avatars to absorb that abuse so we don't have to. Maybe one person's psychological damage is another person's spiritual enlightenment.

Isaac is not your typical exalted hero. He's the sacrificial lamb, and this is his body—bloodied, cross-dressed, and genetically mutated for you.

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