The Binding of Isaac is one of the most twisted video games I’ve ever played. It toys with the struggle between religious ideology and demonic fanaticism, while still managing to look like a child’s plaything. The latest DLC, Afterbirth+, builds on the story’s creepy reflection of Biblical mythology, with a new character, Apollyon, an adorable winged creature based on an angel of destruction. In fact, Apollyon might be the perfect representation of why this game has remained ingenious for six years now. The Binding of Isaac is a perfect balance of innocence and sin.
The Binding of Isaac is all about a naked little boy navigating a randomized basement of monsters while hiding from his mother, who believes she was called upon by God to sacrifice her child. The creatures Isaac fights are dark and insidious, and a lot of them are demented perversions of Biblical mythology. No surprise, considering the creator used the game as a way of expressing his complex feelings about growing up in a Christian household.
Heres a personal fact about me: I suffer from vasovagal syncope, which basically means I pass out from seeing too much blood or gore. For example, I fainted and had a mild seizure when watching Pan’s Labyrinth at a movie theater. It even happens with video games. When Clementine is forced to stitch her own wound in the second season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, oh man. I had to stop playing. On top of that, I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, so a lot of the symbolism relates to things I grew up with in my own life. I mean, my mom didn’t try to murder me, but my first boyfriend’s mother said I was a jezebel who was dragging her son to hell. I was 16.
The Binding of Isaac has everything that should make my blood run cold, for medical and historical reasons. Disgusting monsters, violent Biblical imagery, and lots and lots of blood. But here’s the thing: It never got to me, at least not negatively. If anything, it was extremely cathartic. The game is brilliant because it’s gross but never obscene. You never feel like what you’re experiencing is real because the gameplay is so cartoonish, even if it has roots in a story from the Bible. Plus, the blood explodes like something you’d make on MS Paint if you were bored. It’s real enough to be understandable, but not enough to provoke a visceral reaction. I wouldn’t recommend it for kids, but teens and adults should be able to play it just fine.
It’s also very good at expressing the complex relationship that some people have with their religious upbringing. It maintains a balance of respect and fear, showing that religion can be warm and inspiring while also dark and unpleasant. I first learned about the game through word of mouth from Christians, both current and former, who saw the game as a way to work through their complex feelings toward their faith.
Christianity praises love, faith, and compassion, but its Biblical and literal history is full of death and destruction. For example, The Binding of Isaac is based on a real story from the Old Testament, where God demanded Abraham kill his son to prove his faith. Christians revere the story because it’s part of the Bible, but it’s also something we would never do today. It’s inhumane and cruel. One struggles to find a happy medium between the horrors of the Old Testament with the peaceful love of Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament. That’s not to say the New Testament didn’t have its share of violence. Apollyon (Greek for Abaddon) was a dark angel from Revelation, who brought death and destruction in the Apocalypse. Lucky for us, in The Binding of Isaac, he’s less satanic and more cuddly.
That said, I will admit that The Binding of Isaac isn’t always my cup of tea. Dungeons are by far my least-favorite part of The Legend of Zelda, and permadeath games, frankly, terrify me. However, I respect the game for how it made me feel. Faith is a tricky thing, and sometimes it can contradict itself. Why would a just and loving God demand a human sacrifice? There are lots of different ways to come to terms with the good, bad, and ugly of our faith. In this case, it’s a video game with dried-up poop.