The Binding Of Isaac is the most successful video game ever made about a small child committing suicide by asphyxiating in a box.
Neither part of the above statement is hyperbole. Nearly a decade after its September 2011 launch, Isaac remains one of the most successful indie games of all time, spawning merch lines, a card game, and an entire sub-genre iterating on its ideas about player persistence and death. And it is, undeniably, a game about a very young child who feels so alienated by his hyper-religious mother that he crawls into a box and dies. You don’t have to take our word for it, either; here’s designer Edmund McMillen discussing the game’s story with us back in 2019:
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 mum finds him. That’s the Isaac story. I always thought it was pretty straightforward. [Laughs.] I guess it wasn’t.
Admittedly, the actual gameplay of The Binding Of Isaac is a bit more abstract, as Isaac fights his way through his home’s improbably vast basement and the system of caves below it. Armed only with his own traumatised tears (at least, before picking up a staggering array of items that fully flesh out his bodily fluid arsenal), Isaac faces down hordes of monsters, many of them made of, or shaped like, poop. (It is hard to over-state how much poop is in this game.) Things reach a Freudian climax as our young hero finally confronts his Mum, presented as a series of disembodied legs and arms, constantly grasping and smashing at her son with God-given killing intent. (It’s a bit like what you’d get if Nanny from The Muppet Babies tried to curb-stomp Baby Kermit.) Once she’s dispatched, things only get weirder, as… Well, there’s a reason that the next set of levels is explicitly titled “The Womb.”
If all of that sounds kind of puerile, childish, and gross — a Garbage Pail Kids spin on the Bible story for which the game is named — that’s fully intentional. Partly, it’s just McMillen’s taste for fart jokes. But it’s also because, as Isaac and its various expansions and spin-offs have made clear over the years, this is a story that Isaac, an actual child, is telling himself — a distracting, poo-filled fable keeping his mind occupied as it slowly dies in that suffocating box. Which is, itself, a metaphor for McMillen’s take on the overwhelming power of imagination and creativity, forces which can be liberating, but also addicting, for a kid who feels like the real world is too hard, cruel, or judgmental to survive. To wit:
Growing up in a religious household, it’s hard when you don’t fit in. Especially when you’re a creative kid. Receding into my imagination is what I did to get away from problems. Being creative really helped that, but it also made me feel more like an outcast.
The various additional endings added to Isaac via its numerous expansions over the last 10 years have only underscored the bleak nature of that view, seemingly seeking to outdo each other in how grim of a coda they can slap onto this silly farting-crying-baby game. When 2017’s Afterbirth+ — intended, at the time, to be the game’s final dose of content — ended with players killing an incarnation of Isaac’s fracturing mind in its final gasping moments, it felt like a fitting statement on the game’s view of, basically, everything. Imagination is a trap, death is inescapable. Game over, little guy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the downer ending: A group of fans stepped in to offer a reminder of what creativity could actually mean for this franchise’s future. Led by The Vinh Truong, this four-person team of modders released an unofficial Isaac expansion, Antibirth, back in 2016, which added new characters, items, and more to the game — and which was widely praised as superior to the subsequent, and official, Afterbirth+. Rather than get huffy, McMillen decided to hire Truong and his teammates, tasking them with helping him develop Repentance, the game’s final (final) expansion, a massive re-working of many of the ideas from Antibirth, and a love letter to the game’s dedicated fanbase. The end result, released last month, was absolutely bursting with new ideas and creativity run wild — which might explain why its ultimate ending takes a far less dire view of the power of the creative mind.
The requirements for reaching this final ending, like so many of Isaac’s secrets, are deliberately obscure. (This is a game where an in-game character was once unlocked by a player digging up a hidden figurine secreted away in a pile of dirt somewhere out in the real world.) But the key thing about the path to this final confrontation is that, for one of the only times in the franchise’s history, it’s accessed by going up. Climbing backwards through the levels he’d previously fought his way down (now filled with new enemies, and audio of his zealous mother and absent father having a series of bitter fights), Isaac steadily ascends, until he finally reaches the game’s opening level, the Basement — and then climbs up one last time, returning, against all odds, to his quiet and peaceful Home. Once there, Isaac fights, not his Mum, but a creature called Dogma, a static-filled, enigmatic incarnation of the evangelical TV brainwashing that’s turned her into a monster in his mind. It’s a hectic battle, as fire and brimstone speeches blast on the soundtrack, and the creature, tethered symbolically to the family television, unleashes heaven and hell on our young protagonist. When it’s over, Isaac lies, panting on the floor… And that’s when the really wild stuff, and the ultimate battle, kicks in.
The Beast, the final boss fight of Repentance — the final boss fight of The Binding Of Isaac, period, as it currently stands — is one of the most absurdly creative things McMillen and his various collaborators have ever done. That goes right down to scrambling the very DNA of the game’s genre: Rather than the typical top-down view from which the last 100s of hours of gameplay have been experienced, players are suddenly thrust into a side-scrolling shooter game, à la Gradius or R-Type, using a run’s worth of accumulated items to try to fend off four aggressive sub-bosses and their ominous master. (The fact that you can occasionally tell how this feat has been kludged together in the existing engine only makes its general seamlessness more impressive.) The end result is frenetic, beautiful, and jaw-droppingly ambitious. “You thought you knew what Isaac was,” this boss fight intimates. “So did we. But we hadn’t seen anything yet.”
And then, when the last tear has been shed, we’re granted that final ending. Presented with the same scribbles-on-paper aesthetic as the game’s opening sequence (and its very first ending, the only one where Isaac doesn’t have something terrible happen to him), this final epilogue depicts the young boy ascending into heaven, leaving behind memories of his life, his broken family, his beloved pet cat, and more. But, just as it reaches its climax — just as Isaac dies, again, albeit on better terms than usual — the narrator’s voice changes. “Are you sure this is how you want this story to end, Isaac?” his father asks, suddenly quizzical “You’re the one writing it. It doesn’t have to end this way.” With his son’s sleepy assent, the narrator’s story then restarts, now aimed at a far happier resolution.
How literal this shift is meant to be — whether we’ve really been playing through the most fucked-up bedtime story of the most morbid, shit-obsessed 5-year-old ever — is something that will probably remain permanently ambiguous. (“I don’t like hand-holding,” McMillen noted, in that same 2019 interview.) But the sentiment is clear: It’s your story, and you get to decide how it ends. Creativity can be a box, trapping you in your head. But it can also be a key.
Repentance’s final legacy, then, is an ending rewritten, reshaped by the creativity of every person who’s touched Isaac in the near-decade since a strange, Bible-and-crap-themed Flash game first caught the public’s eye. Rewritten by a designer, unable to stop tinkering with his masterpiece, for a decade now and counting. Rewritten by fans, inspired to take a beloved game, modify seven kinds of hell out of it, and make it something that’s inarguably their own. And rewritten by players, who have poured hundreds of hours of their lives into living and breathing through Isaac’s endlessly repeating loops, teasing out every secret and strange and beautiful joy, taking ownership of its surprisingly affecting story. It took The Binding Of Isaac 10 years to finally get its happy ending. But when it did, it earned it, through blood, sweat — and poop.