A game narrating a child’s death could have been a career killer, but the Binding of Isaac draws fans into its disturbing mystery

The game’s most recent expansion finally fills in the gaps in this dark story

[Warning: This article contains disturbing details about the mistreatment and death of a child video game character.]

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth came out in 2014. It was created by Edmund
McMillen who is also responsible for Super Meat Boy. The Binding of Issac is a game about a boy who has suffered throughout his life and now lives in his imaginary world. It is a dark story that intrigued players with a heavy but mysterious narrative.

Now, with the new expansion, “Repentance,” we have more information about what happened to the game’s tragic protagonist. “Repentance” adds new cutscenes, endings, and items, giving players more detail to decipher the lore and possibly come up with a conclusion.

The Binding of Isaac is a dark and depressing game. Its art style takes a cute yet gross look with many deformed monsters and other gorey enemies. Throughout the game Isaac travels through basements, catacombs, depths, and even sheol, which in Hebrew, is a place of darkness that holds the dead. 

The main story is told through a cutscene at the beginning of the game. Isaac is a 5 year old who lives alone with his mother in a small house. Isaac is a very creative boy who likes to draw. His mother is a devout Christian. One day Isaac’s mother hears the voice of God telling her that her son has become “corrupted by sin.” The voice commands her to take away his toys and clothing, then commands her to lock him away, then finally tells her to sacrifice the boy to her to prove her devotion.

The concept is directly borrowed from the Biblical story also referred to as “The Binding of Isaac,” in which Abraham is commanded by God to offer his son up as a sacrifice. Abraham obeys and is only stopped by God at the last minute.

In the game, when Isaac’s mother approaches his room with a butcher knife, Isaac looks for a way to escape, finding a trap door hidden under a rug. He jumps into it and falls into the unknown depths below, beginning the main action of the game.

However the narrative of the game is not consistent. In another cut scene, Isaac is still in his room, cowering from his approaching mother, when an act of an “angel” intervenes, knocking his mother out with a Bible that was sitting on a shelf. We are left to wonder whether the trapdoor was real or whether it is actually the case that Isaac is saved through divine intervention as in the Biblical story.

Throughout the game we are told more of the story visually through drawings that are later revealed to be signed by Isaac meaning that the story is told by Isaac. But Isaac is an unreliable narrator. He is a child, after all–one with a very creative mind, who seems to be facing traumatizing violence from his mother. The reality of this world is off balance, and the dark and disturbing imagery only adds to an overall effect of horror and unease.

The game is littered with items that are likely to make your skin crawl: that might make you question why this is in the game. For example, what other game would you want an item like blood clots, a head of a dead cat, a character that appears to be Isaac himself but suffocated to death, and worse.

There are power ups so disturbing that you regret collecting them. Picking up a stapler transforms Isaac so that now one of his eyes is stapled shut and bloody. Picking up a pentagram transforms Isaac into a demonic figure with horns. A syringe makes Isaac look all drugged up with one eye being bigger than the other and his pupils being really small. 

These items are represented from Isaac’s imagination which leads to the question: why would he imagine these things? 

Cut scenes showing details from Isaac’s personal life help to fill in gaps in the narrative, but the details are disjointed, leading to a lot of theories about Isaac’s true backstory and the nature of the game’s reality.

It seems that Isaac gets very scared and can’t deal with his life. After all that has happened, Isaac is the one who feels responsible. Isaac thinks he’s a sinner, a demon, a pure source of evil. Not wanting to cope with anything in life he decides to hide in his toy chest and stay in his own imagination to hide from all that is evil in his life. While in the chest Isaac has no way of getting oxygen.

Breathing hard and crying in the chest, he starts to suffocate. While Isaac accepts his fate he thinks about being a demon and being sinful. In a glimpse before he dies, Isaac accepts that he is a demon. 

Many days later, Isaac’s mother not being able to find Isaac starts putting up missing posters in order to find him, not realizing her son’s fate. After months or years have passed, Isaac’s mother decides to look in the toy chest and find Isaac’s remains. Isaac dies and is then sent to purgatory, where he stays for the rest of time. 

Some players wonder if . . .  the voice at the beginning telling the story is actually god, or if Isaac’s mother is actually evil or even if Isaac doesn’t die?

However, the most recent expansion, “Repentance,” finally gives players some definitive answers.

A new boss fight can be accessed if the item “Dad’s note.” is acquired. When grabbing it you can hear Isaac’s parents fighting. It flashes through four different voice lines in order, them fighting over his father spending their savings (assumed to be from gambling), Issac’s mother telling Isaac’s father how he’s a bad influence on Isaac, Isaac’s mother becoming obsessed with religion, and Isaac’s dad leaving them. As you ascend through previous floors the voice lines play.

Afterwards you eventually make it to Isaac’s home where you must fight “Dogma” which is a representation of Christian broadcasting. During the fight several voice lines of preachers are heard. After beating it shows a cutscene where Isaac sees a cross that is manifested by the broadcasts which then falls and crushes Isaac. Then we see Isaac breathing heavily while The broadcasts get absorbed into Isaac, then we see flashes of Isaac decaying till he’s gone. The flashes being Isaac suffocated, a skeleton, then a ghost, then nothing. Then we see Isaac as an angel as he looks behind him to see a giant demon in an area that looks like hell.

Once Isaac then kills the demon known as “The Beast” he starts to ascend to above the clouds. but as he ascends he remembers things from the past. He saw his father taking money from his mother’s purse, he heard the late night fights they had that kept him up at night, he felt the pain in his stomach during those nights he couldn’t sleep well, he saw his shadow in the closet waiting for him. As Isaac rose higher he started to feel his fears drop from his body, his shame left him, and he started to see happy thoughts. He saw his Cat alive and well, he saw his parents together again being happy, he saw his mother kissing him on the forehead and wishing him goodnight, he saw his own birth seeing his mother and father filled with joy as they looked at him. And then he saw nothing.

Finally, we learn that this was a story being told by his father and Isaac writing it. As his father reaches this end point he says “Are you sure this is how you want this story to end, Isaac? You’re the one writing it, it doesn’t have to end this way. Here, how about we tell it a different way – maybe a happy ending?” 

Isaac then replies “Okay, daddy” then his father starts from the beginning. 

I have never played a game where a story like that was told. It truly is a game about a 5 year old’s death, which is dark and it makes it worse when the subject is child. Children happen to be a sensitive topic when it comes to death since they aren’t fully developed and haven’t lived long and they are quite helpless for being very young. 

So exactly what happens? There are many interpretations about this. 

Some people believe that all of this is fabricated and this is just Isaac reimaging his story while he is in hell. And it’s interesting to see all these theories people can come up with the information provided. Another theory suggests Isaac is in purgatory and is reliving a story he made up fighting monsters and deformed creatures represented as his feelings until he could understand that he was not at fault. After conquering his fears Isaac can rest and he leaves his characters and monsters he made up behind him and imagines a final happy ending, where he is with his parents.

This other theory says the old ending could be still relevant and could be still possibly true. This new ending could be interpreted as being the “good ending” while the other one could be the “bad ending.” This makes a bit more sense when you realize how to get these endings. The old ending requires you to go deeper into Isaac’s nightmares, toward Isaac’s doom, ending with Isaac suffocating and dying. This new ending however asks of you to turn back. After a bit of time Isaac turns into an angel to fight “The Beast” which could possibly take place in hell. And after beating him Isaac goes to heaven and the story starts from the beginning for a “happy ending”. 

Most of this is just speculation to try to form something that could make sense with the context provided. There really might not even be a deep story here. The creator of the game, Edmund McMillen based the game’s story off of his own past when he was younger living in a religious household. 

The story could just be a way of Edmund telling his story in an interesting way. In an interview with Avclub Edmund McMillen said “I think Isaac’s story is pretty straightforward. A kid feels like an outcast due to what happened in his life, as well as his mother becoming a religious zealot who is constantly telling him that he’s bad because of X, Y, Z, and that he’s evil, etc., etc. And then Isaac essentially gives up. He recedes into his imagination and suffocates in a box, and then his mom finds him.” 

“That’s the Isaac story. I always thought it was pretty straightforward,” McMillen says, and laughs. “ guess it wasn’t.”

Cover Image: Nicalis, Edmund McMillen

1 comment on “A game narrating a child’s death could have been a career killer, but the Binding of Isaac draws fans into its disturbing mystery

  1. Pingback: The skills I have demonstrated through my work in New Media Lab – Epic blogs with ya boy, Gilbert!

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