Consider the subtitle to this special edition of Backloggery Beatdown as a Content Warning, if not also the entirety of this first page, for this editorial is dedicated to almost everything The Binding of Isaac (BoI) has to offer in terms of potentially spiritually compromising content. For those who are simply interested in BoI in terms of its merit as a video game, you will have to look elsewhere. This piece will not be exhaustive in its analysis of the franchise’s lore; it will instead critically address the most crucial themes and icons pertaining to the relationship between The Binding of Isaac, Christianity, and the player. Spoilers, ahoy!
“The Binding of Isaac” by Lixuu
The Binding of Isaac begins with the titular character engaged in typical things that amuse children such as “draw pictures and play with toys” while his mother watches “Christian broadcasts on the television.” One day, his mother hears a “voice from above” which says, “YOUR SON HAS BECOME CORRUPTED BY SIN! HE NEEDS TO BE SAVED!” Isaac’s mother then removes “everything that was evil from his life,” which included his toys, his GameBoy, and even his clothes! The voice from above returns and tells his mother that Isaac’s soul is still corrupt! “HE MUST BE CUT OFF FROM ALL THAT IS EVIL IN THIS WORLD AND CONFESS HIS SINS!” His mother complies, and locks Isaac in his room. The voice from above returns once again, saying, “YOU HAVE DONE AS I’VE ASKED! BUT I STILL QUESTION YOUR DEVOTION TO ME! TO PROVE YOUR FAITH, I WILL ASK ONE MORE THING OF YOU. TO PROVE YOUR LOVE AND DEVOTION, I REQUIRE A SACRIFICE! YOUR SON, ISAAC, WILL BE THIS SACRIFICE! GO INTO HIS ROOM, AND END HIS LIFE AS AN OFFERING TO ME TO PROVE YOU LOVE ME ABOVE ALL ELSE!” She complies and grabs a knife, much to the terror of an innocent Isaac witnessing this process from the crack in the door of his room. He panics, looking for a place to escape, but cannot for the window is barred like a prison cell. He conveniently stumbles upon a trapdoor that he had never noticed before, hidden under his rug, which leads to the basement. As his mother bursts into his room, knife in hand, to confirm her allegiance to the voice from above, Isaac hurls himself “down into the unknown depths below.” At this point, the camera pans out, showing Isaac and his “pet” fly beaming at this imaginary narrative that he has just finished creating.
The interpretations of what exactly transpires as story beyond the intro of The Binding of Isaac through its dozen-plus endings are as bountiful as they are fascinating; I am particularly fond of those addressing the psychosis Isaac suffers as a result of residing in comprehensive dysfunction: divorced parents, absentee father, (mother’s) post abortion stress syndrome, and malnutrition. Unfortunately, one lens from which criticism is lacking is that from the perspective of Christianity, the “inspiration” of BoI’s plot. The majority of my efforts in researching the existence of Christian input on BoI often yields apologetics concerning a defense in favor of BoI’s imagery as benign, reviews that are more emotional than analytical, or they simply do not address the content concerns at all. Polygon even published an opinion piece written by a Arthur Chu, a former Christian, in the absence of an actual Christian, throwing in “fundamentalist” in the title for simultaneous validation and derision because actual fundamentalist Christians are apparently in short supply on the internet.
I outright disagree with the kinds of lukewarm sentiment concerning the content of The Binding of Isaac while also wondering if the individuals who found nothing alarming have even actually played the game(s). Do I even need to address Chu’s /r/atheism fedora-tipping? To his credit, the testimony is engaging, but the conclusion is incorrect.
I applaud Christ Centered Gamer for not shying away from BoI, but I would like to look at the game more critically: the closest I have seen in terms of what what I consider legitimate criticism of The Binding of Isaac is G. Christopher Williams’ February 2012 article from PopMatters, citing the dysfunctional relationship Edmund McMillen has with Christianity as a launching point for BoI, yet the author does not thoroughly expand upon this assertion in the context of the product of McMillen’s prior experience with religion, BoI itself. The purpose of this editorial is to build upon Williams’ observation but with concrete parallels demonstrated in the video game.
McMillen himself has gone on record several times to say that The Binding of Isaac is not anti-Christian, but it is merely inspired by religion. Verily, he or anyone who tries to tow the line of BoI being neutral toward “religion,” which is a euphemism for “Christianity,” is full of the stuff that frequently decorates the rooms throughout the earlier stages of the game.
Recalling the PopMatters publication, one of the few brief commentaries in circulation on The Binding of Isaac that attempts to draw some analysis of the game’s religious themes Williams says the following:
While some might interpret [BoI’s] re-imagining of the story of Isaac as a deliberate effort to challenge the rationality of blindly following God’s commands and thus, perhaps the rationality of the Christian faith itself, in an interview, the game’s designer Edmund McMillen suggests that that is not the underlying interest of the game’s message….
The interview referenced in Williams’ article is from IndieGames, January 2012. Williams shortens McMillen’s response to the question concerning how the mainstream would respond to The Binding of Isaac; again, I reproduce the majority of it here:
[Controversy] would be a blessing in disguise for sure, but I called this from the beginning. People were like “You don’t wanna f*** with Christians,” but the thing is, nothing in the game is really anti-Christian. It can be taken as that, but it really isn’t, [sic] a lot of the stuff in the game is by the book, literally. I think it’s more of a conversation about religion more so than me saying Christianity is bad. It’s more like “Hey, let’s talk about religion, let’s think about it. I’m gonna throw some things out there, give you some context here and there, and let you figure out how you feel about what I might or might not be talking about.” It’s not this literal slap in the face to Christianity in any way. The majority of what I’m drawing on is my experience with Catholicism, the pros and cons, I guess. It [is] honestly me having a conversation with myself about how I felt about religion growing up, and that’s how it came out. I have a strange relationship with it, [sic] I think it’s really interesting. The fairytale aspect of a lot the stories are really well done, it’s extremely creative, and stunning in lots of ways. The rituals are very interesting, and the reasons behind things are very interesting, and the history is very interesting. There’s a lot of things that are very interesting about religion, especially Christianity, although I don’t really know much about other religions. For me, growing up, it had big impact on me in both creative and negative ways.