I’ll be honest, I really, really fucking suck at the Binding of Isaac. I’ve never beaten the Caves in the original flash game, and the closest I’ve gotten is to the Mom fight in Rebirth. At first glance, the game looks easy, simple controls, simple goals, things like that. As you look deeper, it gets more and more difficult. If you want everything, you need to go through
hell your mom’s womb and down into the depths of the Chest and the Dark Room. The game even warns you that things are going to get worse, as you beat Mom, then beat Mom’s Heart and unlock It Lives.
The setting is an odd one as well. Wandering around in a basement, running through caves, panicking through more and more hellish places. You’re playing a child, using your tears to kill freakish mutants of yourself. One of the best things in the game you can do is pick up pieces of your dead pets – three ‘Guppy’ items turns you into Guppy itself, a floating cat thing that unleashes flies as it continues to damage enemies with its tears.
Be warned, there are spoilers ahead.
It may seem silly claiming there are spoilers, but there are a LOT of secrets that ought to be discovered on your own, or, as I’ve done, by watching playthroughs at my own leisure.
But the weird thing is, there’s an underlying tale. The Binding of Isaac isn’t just some sick, twisted game, nor is it simply a knock against religious zeal. The game of the Binding of Isaac implies something more.
Throughout the game, as you unlock more, you learn bits about Isaac’s life. You get the opening credits, the little dream sequences, the cutscenes when you beat Mom, Mom’s Heart and the other bosses, they all give hints to a story.
While there are many theories, the closest that Edward McMillan (the head honcho of the Binding of Isaac) has confirmed is this Reddit thread in r/BindingofIsaac.
To sum up that thread, what you see as you play the Binding of Isaac is our main character going deeper and deeper into less and less realistic places, after having hidden himself away inside his toy chest. You start off in the basement, fighting spiders and flies mostly, and as Isaac loses his grip on reality, so does the world around him. The game ends with Isaac confronting some form of himself, whether it’s him in the Cathedral, or his dead body in the Chest, or the Lamb who represents his sin and guilt.
As for the whole Mom wants to kill Isaac thing, that might not actually be reality. The pictures that Isaac draws are his fantasies, dreams and nightmares, again done in a way he understands. His mom might not be trying to kill him, but that’s how Isaac tries to cope with everything. The cutscene after defeating Mom shows Isaac being saved by God in his pictures, only for it all to cut back to reality, with Mom standing in the doorway. You only ever see that ending once. Everything else revolves around that toy chest and Isaac’s own belief that he’s a sinner. After all, a normal child doesn’t imagine a world where they fight hideous monsters and pick up pieces of their dead pets.
It seems like a cop out to say “it’s all a giant dream!” but it’s a lot more than that. A lot has happened to Isaac. His father left, his sibling died, his mother is angry and hateful. Isaac is desperate and, being young, he can’t comprehend it all properly. So Isaac creates this imaginary world inside his head and inside his toy chest so he can start to understand.
The problem is that Isaac doesn’t know how to get out of his imaginary world. Or out of his toy chest. He ends up going deeper and deeper until he reaches the point where he can’t escape and doesn’t know better. If you take the Polaroid and defeat the Chest, you still remain inside the chest – killing yourself and your reality in the form of Isaac/Blue Baby. Inside that chest, Isaac dies. He suffocates.
Or you take the Negative, and go down to the Dark Room. You kill the Lamb, the scapegoat of your sin and guilt. When Isaac beats the Lamb, he runs away. And he probably dies, because he’s a child and doesn’t know how to look after himself.
That’s depressing, isn’t it?
Well, not always. You see, if beating the game means that Isaac dies, losing the game is a good thing. When you die, you need to start again, at the beginning of Isaac’s made up world, and go through all of it again. By losing, by dying in-game, you rudely wake Isaac up and bring him back to reality.
In reality, Isaac can try and accept his life, and try and make his life better. Perhaps one day he’ll escape that house, be able to go to school and eventually get over the loss of his loved ones. Maybe he’ll get to see his father again.
And if Mom really is trying to kill Isaac, at least his death will be swift.
Okay, I need to go and watch something cute. Here’s a picture of my cat.