An indie PC game from the creators of Super Meat Boy that confronts religious instability head on, The Binding of Isaac is a dark, funny and addictive game. It met with such great success in its initial PC launch that it has since been rolled out to OS X and Linux operating systems, as well as PlayStation 4, Xbox One and the Nintendo Switch in the form of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
The game draws on Christian iconography to tell the story of an abused boy named Isaac fleeing his fundamentally religious mother, who is attempting to sacrifice him to God.
The rogue-like format sees you, as Isaac, escaping through the basement floors in your house, defeating obstacles and enemies with your tears, and collecting household items, religious emblems and the corpses of your beloved pets as power-ups.
Grim ridiculousness aside, if you play enough of it, you can’t help but pick up some genuinely profound life lessons.
1. Just Because Someone Cares About You, it Doesn’t Mean They Know What’s Best for You
The entire game revolves around Isaac fleeing for his life from his own mother. At no point do you stop and think about whether or not Isaac, an abused child, should stop and attempt to reconcile with his mother. There are no moral qualms about whether or not Isaac should try to look past his mother’s abuse in order to maintain a relationship with his one remaining parent to keep what is left of his family intact.
Instead, the game unequivocally puts Isaac in the right to be doing everything he can to get out of an abusive situation and away from his abuser. It doesn’t matter that she is his mother. It doesn’t matter that she thinks she is doing what is best in the eyes of her God.
All that matters is that Isaac does whatever he needs to in order to find somewhere safe.
2. Religious Extremists Can Be Defeated by Their Own Scripture
One of the items Isaac can find in the game is the Bible itself. It gives you the power of flight until you pass into the next room, but also has the ability to KO your mother in her boss fight in a single hit.
In the end cutscene that you see the first time you complete the game, you see how Isaac managed to escape his murderous mother. As she advances on his with a knife, he climbs up onto a shelf, grabs her Bible and smashes it into her head, knocking her unconscious.
This is perhaps a blunt metaphor for this lesson – and of course no one would recommend that anyone bash religious zealots in the head with their own book, no matter how annoying or preachy or bigoted they get. But, as a metaphor for genuine religious debate, it works. Dig deep enough into someone’s own faith-based beliefs and you’ll find something somewhere that doesn’t make sense in the scripture they hold so sacred.
3. Puberty is Mostly Cosmetic and You Can Come Out of the Other End Stronger
Isaac’s age is ambiguous in the game, but in his escape, he comes across pills that can give him abilities, alter his stats and even fundamentally change him. One of these pills pushes him into puberty.
But while most of the pills Isaac can take have very significant and noticeable effects, puberty… doesn’t.
It causes him to grow some rather unattractive hairs on his head and zits on his face, but then he can just go about his day. It’s a subtle touch but actually an accurate one. Puberty hits you with some hair you probably won’t be too keen on when you first notice it and some potentially quite unpleasant spots, but that’s about it.
Perhaps most pertinent of all is that, if Isaac takes three puberty pills, he will achieve the Adult transformation, which makes his voice a little deeper and gives him some extra health. So he gets through it with a little boost.
4. Some Books Might Suck But it Can Be Worth Picking Them Up Anyway
Books can be some of the most valuable items you can find in The Binding of Isaac. They can give you extra health, random items and even give you new abilities. Some are better than others, and that’s only fair because it really does reflect reality.
But the fact is that if you pick up enough books, even if you only hang onto them for a moment, Isaac can take on the Bookworm transformation. This gives you the occasional double shot, which stacks with other items that increase the number of projectile tears you shoot to give you a boost no matter what level you’re already on.
Again, this is a subtle one, but books in the real world can be just as valuable. Even if you’ve picked up the worst book in the world, you can still learn from it if you take the time to spend some time with it, even if what you learn is how to write the worst book in the world.
5. Life is Easier When You’re Rich
There are a lot of coins to be found on your escape through the basement, and they can come in very handy. You can use them to fatten up coin-guzzling sidekicks, or you can use them to gamble in slot machines. You can save them in a money box that builds to offer the occasional stat bump, or you can simply buy things from the shop.
This is a lesson that is obvious in a lot of games and isn’t really a secret in real life. But the more money you have, the more you can do with it – and the more advantages you can buy for yourself. The quicker you get your money, the sooner you can start using it to pimp yourself out. You can buy yourself some fancy advantages, you can get into exclusive places and there are even some buddies who will do more for you.
Unfortunately, if you don’t already have money or a solid way of getting any, this isn’t the kind of life lesson you can apply to change your situation. And it’s probably something you already know. But if you can get the hang of making the most of it in the game, maybe you can trick your real life into following suit.
6. Babies are Gross
So, in the real world, you’re unlikely to come across a baby trying to grab you with its grubby dirty fingers that also happens to be on fire. But that doesn’t change the fact that they can still be pretty grim little creatures in reality.
In fleeing from his mother, Isaac comes across from genuinely terrifying babies. They cry, they bleed, they fart, they vomit, they poop – and you will regret it if you let it get on you. Some of it can be, quite literally, explosive.
For all that babies in the real world are cute and sweet and they make your heart grow a few sizes when they cling onto your hand with their teeny, tiny little fingers, they still do all the same gross things and produce all the same unpleasant fluids as any other living being. And if you have one, it’ll be your job to clean up after it.
7. Spiders are the Worst
Isaac comes across a lot of foes that get in his way as he tries to escape from his murderous mother, but none are quite so irritating as a player than the spiders.
The little ones can sneak through tiny little gaps that are too small for you to escape through (not matter how many One Makes You Smaller pills you take) and bite you before you even realise that they’re there. The big ones can jump and have enough leg power to launch themselves over all the obstacles that hold you back and land on top of you.
Perhaps worst of all, they breed. A lot. You can be half way through fighting a giant spider, when it’ll leap towards you and leave behind a sac of eggs that will squirt more miniature enemies at you as the fight goes on.
If that’s not enough to exacerbate your arachnophobia, then you are a brave Isaac.
8. There is No Substitute for a Solid Base State
You can find a lot of genuinely amazing things to skyrocket you from a plain little Isaac with nothing but your tears to get you through to the kind of mother-murdering machine that can take on Satan himself. But it can be painful having to drag your way up to a decent point if you start at a disadvantage.
Once you’ve completed the game as Isaac, you start to unlock more Biblical characters that you can play as. Each of these characters has their own strengths and weakness, with some starting with some of the most coveted abilities in the game and others barely having a stat boost over your bog standard Isaac.
Give the rogue-like format, you’ll notice it most clearly when you finish a game feeling more powerful than ever and have to restart with poor stats, but it’s evident across the board. If you play as one of the more challenging characters, it makes the feeling a hundred times worse when you pull poor items in the early floors.
Reality is no different. You can kit yourself out with all the best things, but if you’re not building on genuine skills, you’re still going to have a hard time.
9. Crying Helps
When his mother is hunting him down, or when he’s facing mutant babies and spiders and flies, or even demons, Isaac’s tears get him through it all. They break down obstacles and defeat enemies. Keys and bombs and money help, too – as they surely do in real life, to some extent – but even when you haven’t collected any yet, your tears are going to be what keeps you going. And that might not sound like great advice, but it actually marries up with reality pretty well.
When the whole world seems like it’s against you, sometimes the only thing that can make you feel better is crying. Sometimes you need to scream out all your angst and anguish until all the bad feelings go away. It helps. And it makes sense that Isaac can chase away his demons through crying.
10. Oh, So Many Helpful Things About Drugs
The Binding of Isaac has a surprisingly honest outlook on taking drugs. Isaac can find pills scattered around the basement labyrinth, most of which quite explicitly belong to his mother. Being a little boy, he doesn’t know what they do unless he’s taken the before or he finds a specific item.
Some pills have negative effects, some have positive effects. Some have purely cosmetic effects. As an ordinary kid, you won’t know what you’re going to get until you’ve already taken it – unless you’re a doctor, in which case you’re probably a bit more familiar with pills than the average small boy.
This is, broadly, the experience you’ll probably have taking pills in real life. If you’re experienced with medicine, you probably know what to expect. But if you’ve just found something on the floor, it could be anything. You could be in for the trip of your life, or you might die. Or both.
11. Everything is a Little Bit Easier When You Have Friends By Your Side
Of all the items that give you new abilities and boost your stats and generally give you the tools you need to defeat your mother, the ones that will always have your back are the buddies. When Isaac is surrounded by his friends – whether they’re any of a number of gifted or zombified babies, or even if they’re just a cloud of angry flies – he is almost always at his strongest.
Just like the real world, Isaac’s friends can have their moments when they’re not as helpful as you’d like them to be. And there are a few that it’s really not worth wasting your time getting to know, because they’ll just hang around taking up space.
But the fact is that you’re usually better off having them around than not. It’s a great comfort knowing that there’s something there who has got your back, and if you treat them right, they’re usually pretty good back to you.