A random ink blot generator found on the interwebs

The Binding of Isaac

October 14, 2012

Occupy Wall Street marchers

Mike —  I’ve noticed of late that I’ve devoted more than a few spare cycles of mental processing power to contemplating the increasing prevalence of the adjective “random” peppering our language. Of what is this trend the linguistic harbinger of? That in the throes of our reactions and non-reactions to the complexities and absurdities of the 21st century, we increasingly come to forsake our faith in societal mores, institutional truths, and the human-readable narrative? That, where rational human agency seems either impossible or undesirable to locate in the events that shape our lives, we instead feel compelled to offer up these little secular benedictions to chaos?

A random ink blot generator found on the interwebs

Rather than rigorously explore my existentialist strawman dilemma, however, I’d instead like to pivot to my Freudian foot. However one may feel about the legacy of Sigmund and his descendants, one of the great humanistic imports of the psychoanalytic revolution was a teaching that most of what passes for “random” in the more visible, tangible parts of the human condition is driven by forces and principles that are remarkably consistent and widely shared, if not universal. Despite our ability to shock each other with our confounding behaviour, we can all find common ground in the base needs and instincts at the heart of it all. The capricious, the unfathomable, the totally insane; all just tips of the stolidly proletarian iceberg of the human condition.

But neither am I really here to set about pondering what Freud would have to say about the apparent randomizing of the world. I came here to talk about Edmund McMillen and Florian Hims’ The Binding of Isaac. Though we might indeed wish we could have Freud review his own playthrough, similar to how Mingus had his psychotherapist pen the second half of the liner notes to The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady

The Binding of Isaac opens with what is, without a doubt, really one of the most disturbing and viscerally horrifying premises for a game — You are a child fleeing your mentally-ill mother’s divine-mandated murderous onslaught. Rendered in sketchy cartoon line drawings or not, this comes across as a much darker setup than your standard dystopic alien genocide riff, because it’s far less allegorical and far more domestic. It speaks of violence on an uncomfortably personal level, of a place where we would hardly ever expect an indie game to tread. Albeit, the game’s title makes it abundantly clear that it’s pulling from a fairly widely-read source text, but dual-wielding a +10 to Potential Blasphemy seems more intended to double-down on the effort to probe our vulnerabilities, rather than assuage them.

Aside from it’s thematically similar loading cut-scenes, however, The Binding of Isaac’s gameplay itself opts for more of a Wizard of Oz approach of sublimation and metaphor in its relation to the supposed narrative. And that’s where the psychoanalysis comes in, I suppose. There simply isn’t really much more to be provided in the way of narrative, with the result that one perhaps imagines the entire game experience takes place within a dissociative fugue experienced by our character. Or rather, our character’s playable avatar within our character’s mind. Did our juvenile protagonist actually find a hidden trapdoor in his bedroom, just in the nick of time, and a subterranean lair filled with unspeakable nasties standing between him and salvation? Or do we play through an endless cycle contained within one frozen moment, as Isaac’s mother performs her best Jack Torrance impression at his bedroom door?Jack

Every one of The Binding of Isaac’s myriad enemies, power-ups, enhancements, power-downs, and non-functional relic items seems intended to fill in both the game world and personal back story in a randomized, non linear, fragmentary process. Every play through is a trip to therapy, where a little more progress will be made, a little more horror uncovered, and more pieces will fall into place. These little pieces of Isaac’s life, absurd and irreverent, amass in our inventory like a hairball of hermeneutics.

On the one hand, I find this idea incredibly compelling. It’s a messy, gung-ho, all-in approach that seems well suited for messy, unstable times. And The Binding of Isaac is certainly messy; a real cavalcade of tears, piss, blood, pus, and more. It can be overwhelming on the first few trips, but the game does well initially to make you feel like you are progressing, despite starting afresh with nothing after each and every death.

But at some point I found myself asking the dreaded question — what’s the point? The fluke first-time encounters with newly revealed items and baddies still feel mildly interesting and expositional, the game still finds ways to shock and titillate me. But although the oneiric and oedipal list of odds and ends that I’ve accumulated through (a shocking number of) hours and hours of gameplay continues to pile up, nothing seems to stick. It’s just so, well, random.

Isaac with various ridiculous power-up combinations

There’s much to love about the gameplay, bleak “humour” in spades, and the frenetic, constant reconstitution of gaming references, pop-culture tropes, and probably some memes that were in the world for, like, all of one weekend last April. There’s a palpable intelligence and a determination evident that seems to want to run a thread through all this cultural and psychosocial debris, and make a bleedin’ quilt of it.

The Nothing from The Neverending Story approachesBut all these hours in, and it feels like the randomness is winning, that this is more pastiche than collage, and that no amount of counselling will make our Isaac whole again. Did I go in with far too-lofty expectations of grand and linear narratives? Am I but a naive dinosaur, still expecting a smidgen of catharsis or redemption in an age where I should know better than to expect to ever “finish” a game? Is The Binding of Isaac giving the ultimate finger to psychoanalysis, defying us to take a stand against the encroaching tide of The Nothing? Enlighten me please, Gentlemen.



Eric I think that psychoanalysis is a fascinating place to start with TBOI. And agree that there seems to be no possibility of catharsis in playing this game, nor redemption.  So though I love the idea of each successive round of this game being analogous to a sitting on Freud’s couch whereon new insights are revealed, I don’t think the therapy here is ours. The game will not do its work through us in order to produce new awareness. At least not on the order of the personal.

TBOI occupies now familiar territory: that of the ‘low’ arts taking a stab at tackling something human and complex. I got thinking of Robert Crumb—his use of the comic book, with all of its conventions, aesthetics and tropes, to do some deep personal probing (so to speak) and produce social commentary in the process. Though he wasn’t the first cartoonist to attempt this approach, it’s convenient historical shorthand to see his books as the beginning of what has become decades of self-confessional and painfully intimate works by the proceeding generations of small-press cartoonists.

I read comic books voraciously in the late-90’s and 2000s, long enough to see indie comics liberated (in part by publishing giants like Pantheon, in part by public and critical awareness ) from the dusky back shelves of comic book stores to new prominence in book stores, galleries, and full-circle back to improved speciality comic book shops. There is a lot about what is going on right now in videogaming that reminds me of the energy and anticipation of the comic book world a decade ago. Digital distribution is allowing indie games to find a wide audience, and the notion of the indie games as a genre is becoming solidified.

But more significantly, we seem to be firmly in a time when the people that make games are people that grew up playing games. Like Crumb, they’re coming to the medium with a deep familiarity with how it works, what its history is, and what its limitations are. And they’re asserting that deeply personal or uncomfortable content is not one of those limitations.

So it surprised me to learn in an interview with TBOI co-creator Edmund McMillan (Roguelike Radio podcast episode 11) that there is essentially nothing in the story and imagery of the game that is directly biographical. TBOI is not in the mode of the self-confessional. It is, as you said Mike, pastiche—in this case composed of the imagery of twenty-first century America—a time when religion is flourishing right alongside a media landscape full of the lurid imagery, by turns upsetting and banal.

I think that if we’re tempted to bring the weight of psychoanalysis (feather-light in this case, owing to our collective naiveté) to bear on this game, hoping to tease out some meaning from its cluttered images, it’s American culture that’s going to be reclining on our comfortable couch.

And lord there’s a lot of material to plumb. Freud’s theory of infant sexuality, or of the nature of trauma, or how about the so-called death instinct? Or psychoanalysis itself—I recently heard someone describe Freud’s theories as having being dismembered by the rigour of neuroscience, leaving those who still find value in his writing the job of reassembling its corpus from now disarticulated parts. A sort of Frankenstein-like reanimation. And how well does that fit as a description of TBOI?

But I think it’s his notion of metaphor and metonymy as core players in the experience of trauma that is most worth retrieving in this conversation. The premise, as I understand it, is that a person’s verbalization of the traumatic event—as opposed to the ‘blow’ of the event itself—is at the core of the experience of prolonged trauma. To take one of many such examples from Freud’s writing: a patient who experienced an acute pain in the middle of her forehead eventually traces this phenomenon back to an austere grandmother who, in conversation, stared at her with a ‘piercing gaze’. So, an experience is verbalized into metaphor and then re-literalized or re-enacted in a bodily symptom. Reality and fantasy are in a dialectical relationship, not in juxtaposition. The sort of verbalization that lends itself to metaphor has its roots in the visual, and the visuals of TBOI are rich in this sort of from-the-psyche material: injuries to the body, assaults on the senses, disfigurements and apparitions.

I was skimming Freud’s Wolfman case (a patient with infantile neurosis and a history of piety), and came across this passage: “Once, journeying to a German spa, he was tortured by a compulsion to think of the Holy Trinity when he saw three piles of horse dung or other excrement lying on the road. At this time he used also to adhere to a peculiar ritual if he saw people who inspired pity in him, beggars, cripples, and old men.”

We haven’t, over these first two posts, managed to say much about what playing the game is actually like as an experience. It harkens back games of the 1980’s like Zelda and Bomberman. It’s comprised of levels that are in turn comprised of many rooms; the rooms and level layout are randomised, different each time you play through. So are the myriad (over a hundred, I believe) possible power-ups one can collect while playing. These power-ups are actually at times debilitating, and also they conglomerate—by the end of an average game, Isaac is likely to have upwards of ten bodily mutations or trinkets piled on top of one another, usually to gruesome effect. And it’s a game of skill—reflex skills.

A couple parting questions, for whoever would like to pick them up:

Is there significance in the fact that most of the experiences in this game are gated off, accessible only to those with the time and skill to incrementally unlock them? It’s a far cry from Dear Esther, where everything the game had to offer was made available, demanding virtually no skill of the player. TBOI is a game that demands reflexes not hermeneutical analysis.

And what do we make of this pairing of theme and mechanics? Perversion of religion and religious icons, child abuse, room after room of blood and feces… all this in a game whose mechanics are virtually the same as games we played as kids. Is there something inappropriate or ill-fitted in this marriage?

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