Thursday, 4 April 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: The Binding of Isaac

Okay, dissertation is over, a few more essays and exams to go, and then I'm finally finished with University. Which means my excuses to continue not updating this blog are now thinner than the evidence for Creationism (cheeky wee religion joke for you there, you're welcome), so I figure it's high time I got back on this horse.

So let's start with a subject that, as has previously been established, I'm a big fan of.

Let's talk about the discussion of religion in video games.

The idea for this post is owed in no small part to the awesome guys at Extra Credits, whose insightful analysis of video games and the video game industry is something I've been a fan of for a long while. A series of episodes they posted a while back covered a similar topic, and found that all too often religion is something video games shy away from covering or discussing.

Understandable, really, given how games tend to court controversy without attempting to ascend Mount Controversial by discussing faith and religion.

There are exceptions, however. And those exceptions are what I'd like to discuss here and in several other posts.

Before we get stuck in, I'd like to explain why I've selected the games I'm going to discuss. A lot of games have religion in them, gods and deities and their worshipers, all that shenanigans. That's been written about before, and whilst it is indeed an interesting topic it's not what I wish to cover here. In this series I'm hoping to discuss games that actually discuss religion and its many aspects, good or bad. Games that have something to say about religion, not just games that mention it.

Let me also flag up a spoiler warning; I'm going to try and avoid major, major spoilers but I will be discussing some aspects of these games that could reveal things you'd rather find out on your own. So yeah, just a heads up.


The Binding of Isaac

Edmund McMillen makes fucked up games. But with The Binding of Isaac, he really outdid himself.

Connoisseurs of Old Testament mythology might see where this is going already, but this game is a retelling of the biblical figure Isaac, who's father Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion. Good, clean biblical family fun, the sort of thing the Old Testament does so well.

The Binding of Isaac (TboI) embraces the rather messed up elements of this myth, telling the story of the titular young boy Isaac whose mother believes she's heard the voice of god ordering her to murder her son. Chased down into the basement, thinks take a further turn for the disturbing as Isaac has to fight his way through a variety of Biblical-inspired monsters to ultimately free himself from his mother's murderous wrath.

The Four Horsemen show up as boss characters riding toy horses and are out to ruin your day. The Seven Deadly Sins are in the basement somewhere too, and they really live up to that 'deadly' part. Isaac can find items and weapons to help him stay alive, which range from things like the Bible to a crown of thorns. There are other elements and references in amongst all of this, don't get me wrong, but religion and the Old Testament are big focuses of this game.

This is a game that's unafraid to shy away from the disturbing aspects of many religious myths, and McMillen's ostensibly cutesy, cartoony art-style masks some really, really fucked up designs. Gameplay lends itself well to the themes TBoI seeks to discuss as well (namely religion and child abuse), because this game is brutally hard. Rogue-like elements ensure that if Isaac should die during his descent into the depths below his house (and he will die, a whole fucking lot), there are no save-points and no extra lives. If you're killed, you're going right back to the start.

TBoI's punishing difficulty and gruesome aesthetic means that not everyone will enjoy it, but given that you can grab both the main game and it's expansion, the Wrath of the Lamb, for just £6 (and it'll be even cheaper during Steam sales), there's much worse things to spend your money on.

Stay tuned, friends. Next post we shall be talking about a favourite game of mine. Rather than waffle about how great it is, I'll let it's introduction speak for itself...


  1. When I saw the title, I wondered if it might be very biblical... and I was not disappointed.Sounds like a weird game lol.

    1. Weird is definitely one way to put it, yeah. Stupidly hard, as well, but when you finally manage to beat the game you feel like a total badass of epic proportions.

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