In playing The Binding of Isaac, the latest effort from Super Meat Boy mastermind Edmund McMillen, one can't help but wonder whether the award-winning game designer wasn't somehow using his creation to cathartically deal with some serious mommy and religion issues.
This inexpensive downloadable game, which is currently available for $5 for Macs and PCs through Steam, begins with a boy named Isaac and his mother enjoying their lives together in their home. Then the mom, a fan of "Christian broadcasts," begins hearing the voice of God, who commands her to strip Isaac of his possessions (including his GameBoy and pants), lock him in his room, and, eventually, to kill him. Isaac discovers his mom is coming to murder him and flees through a hatch into the cellar. This is where players take control.
The basement is a sprawling labyrinth filled with rectangular chambers clearly meant to bring to mind early Legend of Zelda games. The dungeon's horrific creatures – including enormous grubs, terrible flies, and deformed babies (making one wonder how many children came before Isaac) – chase after the boy with deadly obsession, forcing our constantly weeping hero to fling his tears at them in a style inspired by classic arcade games Smash TV and Robotron.
But it's not all terror and sadness. The cellar is also filled with scores of delightful surprises, including secret passages and useful objects like bombs (great for blowing up rocks to reveal more secrets), X-Ray glasses that reveal hidden areas, and a spider the bite of which leaves a giant red bump on Isaac's head but confers the ability to poison enemies.
Then there are the creepy artefacts left by his mother. In a Psycho-inspired twist, Isaac gradually finds and dons several items of feminine clothing, including red high heels and pink panties, all of which strangely improve his abilities, making him move faster or fling his tears further.
I confess I've yet to reach the end of the story, though it hasn't been for a lack of trying. When Isaac dies, it's game over. He loses all of his items and must start over from the very beginning. But it's not as frustrating as it sounds. The game is meant to be played in its entirety in a single session. I've made it to the fourth of what appears to be five dungeons several times now, and it's taken only 20 or 30 minutes each time.
What's more, the dungeons and the secrets they contain are randomly reconfigured with each new game, significantly reducing any sense of repetition the player may feel. And with scads of additional content – including new bosses, items, and dungeons – slated to be offered up for free later this month, replay value is high.
The Binding of Isaac is a creepy, gory, and challenging play that's as much an homage to games of years past as it is a distinctly modern experience. It's also an overt indictment of mindless religious zealotry (see: the story in the Hebrew Bible from which the game takes its name) and the impact it may have on children raised by those who practice it. Indeed, poor little Isaac turns one of the most sympathetic video game characters in recent years.
It is, in short, an essential play for fans of avant-garde interactive entertainment, and perhaps the best downloadable indie game of 2011. Don't miss it.
The Binding of Isaac
Developer: Edmund McMillen, Florian Himsl
Publisher: Valve Corp.
Platform: Windows PC (reviewed), Mac