Slasher flicks aren’t exactly my cup of tea when it comes to looking for a scare, but sometimes the idea of being chased down by a killer is a good way to push towards other elements of horror. That’s exactly how The Binding of Isaac begins, as Isaac’s mother hears God tell her to sacrifice her son. Barging through the door with a knife in hand, Isaac just barely makes it out of his mother’s grasp. But now he must delve deeper into the dark and scary basement to find some sort of salvation. This is a great jumping off point to push into a much darker conversation about the game’s use of horror, in honor of Halloween.
You see, the conceit is that Isaac’s mom isn’t going to stop chasing after him. While the game eventually has you face Mom, she isn’t actually present much in your run through the basement. Instead, you’re faced with a series of rooms all completely unknown to you. As a roguelike, The Binding of Isaac also offers that same feeling of suspense and mystery as you try your luck in each new room. However, it’s on a bigger-than-usual scale with Isaac’s adventure. And it’s all frightening.
What Doesn’t Kill You…
Every now and then Isaac comes across pills that are unknown to him that can either help or hurt him. The only way to discover what they do in a run is to try them. This, in essence, is what makes Isaac a great character befitting of a horror film. The mantra “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” is in full force with this and is a common conceit for most horror films.
This year’s Green Room, a film about a punk band who stumble upon a murder in a neo-nazi club, is a recent example of this kind of character. Pat is the singer, but he’s also a very worried person. He is rational, but he gets hurt a lot throughout the film. Despite this, he powers through everything. This character exists in a lot of horror and thriller films. Isaac is the same type of character in The Binding of Isaac, exploring dangerous scenarios and pushing through adversity to become more than just dead meat to his Mom. Isaac is a coward pushed to the point of no return.
The same applies to the monsters he confronts in the basement. The first time I came across an enemy that exploded after being killed, I was shocked. It also hurt a lot. But when I encountered it again, I knew what not to do. Enemy patterns are one thing, but knowing that even after killing something you may not be safe, is a game changer when you’re already wrestling with so much more.
The Constant Unknown
Mom is always there. That’s a certainty. There will probably be enemies in the next room. The unknowns are the rogue-like elements, pills, enemy types and difficulty, hearts available in the dungeon, rooms between you and the boss, and where the enemies will spawn. These are all unknowns, and for some things like how many rooms are between you and the boss, there are items that will alleviate that. You still have to make it to the boss, and even then, what are the odds of you doing that successfully? And then beating the boss?
The Binding of Isaac is constantly working against you. Binding you, if you will. But the ways in which it binds you is unknown unless you’re looking at it with a magnifying glass. The room’s layout may not seem like a concern, but if there are no rocks around to blow up with a bomb, then where are you going to find hearts? You could go kill some enemies, but then you also risk losing hearts. You are also uncertain of the enemy types you will face until you are in that room. It’s a risk/reward system that sometimes leaves you with no reward. There’s no guarantee that enemies you kill will drop a heart, and even if they do, it might only be half of one.
One of the more sinister methods that make Isaac’s Mom become an unknown terror is when she laughs as you walk in to a room. The doors shut behind you, with enemies to take out, and you know what to do. But there’s something nagging you in the back of your head—why did Mom laugh? You quickly realize that she is in the room and reaching out for you. Her hands pound the ground and if you’re hit by them, she’ll take you back to the start of the floor you’re on, and also take away some health. Oh, and there is very little indication of where the hands will land. Just keep moving until all the enemies are dead and her hands are destroyed.
Isaac could suffer an entire game, and you might actually win somehow. What makes that effective is that you were being fought by some malevolent force that you could not possibly predict. And somehow you won! You lived! Mom is no more. Well, until you decide to go back in and take her on one more time, in which everything will be different, and the only thing you know for sure is that Mom will be waiting.
Embracing the Darkness
One of the key traits of a horror film is the acceptance of darkness. The “what doesn’t kill you” idea somewhat relates to this. But embracing the darkness tends to mean getting something in exchange for something. In the case of The Binding of Isaac, it means giving part of your humanity or your safety for something powerful. Both of which may not seem like a bad idea at first, but that’s how every deal with the devil seems.
My favorite example of this is a power-up called Bob’s Brain. It’s a brain that follows Isaac around and then shoots in the direction that Isaac is aiming. It fires automatically. Which is fine, except for the fact that Bob’s Brain explodes upon impact. It explodes regardless of where Isaac is in relation to it. So yes, you can hurt yourself when using the item. So if you’re someone like me who frequently runs around a level and there are a lot of enemies on screen, you may end up hurting yourself more than the item is worth. I have died from Bob’s Brain. I do not pick it up anymore, even if it’s the more powerful choice.
There are plenty of abilities like this in The Binding of Isaac. A noteworthy pick-up that players can find is Mom’s Toenail. This isn’t an item that gets you anything controllable. Instead, Mom will stomp on the ground every minute. Why would you pick this up? Maybe you’re low on bombs and don’t want to use them for anything other than secret rooms. Mom will gladly break some rocks for you with her foot and perhaps give you those hearts you need. It’s sort of a weird pick-up to carry around, but I did a run with it and enjoyed the added help it gave despite that little bit of danger.
Most notably though, is the literal embrace of darkness. There are four types of hearts that players can find (not including the Afterbirth DLC): Red, Soul, Black and Eternal. The Red ones are essentially representative of Isaac’s humanity. He can lose them and refill them. Soul Hearts can be picked up, but once lost, they’re gone forever unless picked up again. Eternal Hearts can be turned into Red Hearts, making them great to pick up.
It’s the Black Hearts that create the more interesting dynamic. As with anything demonic-seeming, Black Hearts are like Soul Hearts, except when you lose one, it damages everyone around you. In exchange for using up a space for Red Hearts, you get something a little bit more potent if you lose it. But when you lose it, you also don’t get it back unless you pick up another one. In the grand scheme of things, the safest play would be to get the most Red Hearts you can.
The embrace of darkness comes in more malicious forms as well. After beating a boss, sometimes a door opens to Satan’s realm. Go through it and you have the opportunity to get some power-ups and items that could potentially help you out. You can find Black Hearts there, but you can also sacrifice some Red Hearts for goodies. It’s another variant on a risk/reward system, but the appearance is a deal with the devil. And you’re not even necessarily getting something good every time. But sometimes the devil is tricky like that. He likes to hurt you, but he isn’t always cruel in his intent. You can look at the playable character Azazel to see just how helpful being one with evil can be.
Welcome to the Freakshow
Isaac isn’t going to look better as you progress through the game. No run will have Isaac appear the same as before. As you pick up pills and try them, or get new power-ups and abilities, Isaac will change. The Binding of Isaac has players learning to accept their appearance, no matter how horrific it is. You may even look worse than the enemies you’re facing, but at least you have a soul.
Of course, the grotesque and morbid elements are staples of horror. But they’re also strengths to certain characters. We immediately ostracize the unfortunate ones who appear disfigured and horrifying. Why do you think every major character in blockbuster series is handsome or beautiful? It’s rare to find someone that just looks like crap. Isaac doesn’t even begin the game being “ugly”. He’s adorable and cute, which makes his Mom’s pursuit of him all the more depressing. Take a look at Isaac after you finally get to the end of your run, though. He’s horrific. But he is that way, and it’s a physical manifestation of what helped him live through the terrifying ordeal. The Binding of Isaac does what any good piece of horror does: it reaffirms that good can exist even in the darkest corners of humanity.