The Binding of Isaac and Escapism: A Multimodal Essay

This is how the game The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (henceforth referred to as BoI) begins. Before the main menu, before you can do anything else, you watch a short cutscene which briefly describes the storyline. After the former quote ends, the introduction goes on, explaining that Isaac’s mother hears the voice of God talking to her, and he tells her that her son has been corrupted by sin, and she must takes things away from him. He continues talking to her and she continues to take away, until Isaac is just a very young boy, locked in his room with nothing to do. Eventually, God tells his mother that he requires a sacrifice, to prove that she loves him above all else. She goes into Isaac’s room to kill him, but in a flurry to find somewhere to get away from her, he discovers a trap door under a rug in his room, and escapes, into the unknown depths below. The actual content of the game, and beating it, revolves around defeating bosses and at the end, jumping into a toy chest. After he jumps into the chest, a different cutscene, or ending, plays, depending on how you reached the end of the game. The toy chest is representative of escapism – or the concept of distracting yourself from the world around you, trapping yourself in a fantasy world.

For more information on this – visit this reddit post by user Jayborino, hailed by BoI creator/designer Edmund McMillen as “By far the most mind blowingly accurate break down of the over arching meaning behind the binding of isaacs ending”. Click Here

For further analysis and a different take on some theories, check out this video by Matthew Patrick – HERE

It’s up to debate whether Isaac’s mother is actually trying to kill him, the story is told through childlike drawings and therefore could be being told through Isaac’s eyes, however the concept stands. The world around Isaac is unpleasant and uncomfortable, he’s unhappy. So he escapes into his toy chest so he can be a part of a world he understands, and throughout the game and it’s endings, he learns a lot more about himself and the world he lives in. By looking at escapism within The Binding of Isaac, one can see that it’s an important way to get away from the stresses of the world and look at things from a new perspective, which most players don’t observe; this is important because any given player is using the game as an escape, showing that escapism can be important to understanding reality.

More detailed explanations about escapism and what it means can be found HERE.

Isaac’s stories about his mother may be somewhat fictional, but they have to come from a place set in reality. She mistreats him, and if at least some of the story is true, she’s not a good parent at all. If we function on the theory that this story is told through the mind of Isaac – a child – then we can understand things a lot better. One of the many endings of the game shows a series of polaroids, that tell a story in and of themselves. They show that Isaac used to have a sister, and a father. One way or another, the sister died, and eventually the father leaves his wife and son behind. Isaac is rationalizing his mother’s abuse with the thought that God has told her to. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that Isaac doesn’t have a good life. The world around him is terrible, and it confuses him. He doesn’t like it, and he wants to get away. Eventually, he does get away, one of the endings shows his mother opening the toy chest and finding a skeleton inside, implying that Isaac has died. This is mostly irrelevant to the analysis of the game, but shows this – “On the metaphorical level though, Isaac dying is representative of a child “getting in the box” and creating their own bizarre world of creativity in order to escape a reality which is cold, complex, and depressing.” (Jayborino, 2014) Isaac dying does seem to counteract the theory that escapism is a positive thing, that he denies reality to a point too far from return – however, I think that despite that fact, the game still presents many things that represent the idea that there is still hope to find new ways to look at things while within the box. The game wants to show that while “getting in the box” can be dangerous, it can also be a way to see the world from a different perspective and learn a lot of new things about you and everything around you.

 

Whichever way you look at it, people play games to get away. To get away from the responsibilities of school or life, to avoid thinking about whatever problems you’re having, or even to escape depression or another serious mental illness. Games take you to another world. A fantasy world where nothing that’s bothering you gets to you, and you can become whatever you want. Games can be therapy and a good way to improve your mental health. To deviate from the story of the game and discuss more of the game itself, the gameplay revolves around you playing as Isaac, shooting your tears at enemies. If you’re not paying attention, it’s just a silly cartoon game with some dark themes and that’s that, but when you really take a look at some of the items you can pick up in the game and how they affect you, you realize a lot of things. There are 200+ items throughout the game so it’s impossible to discuss all of them, but there are some examples that are especially prevalent. One such item is called “torn photo”, and just as it sounds, it’s a photo torn in half and all that is visible is Isaac and his mother, giving us the assumption that the father and his sister are the ones missing from the photo. Picking this item up makes Isaac fire a lot more tears (cry a lot harder).

It’s pretty easy to tell that Isaac is unhappy. One of the most important items in the game is called “The Polaroid”, and at an important moment in the game, you must choose it or its opposite, and they will take you down different paths.

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The Polaroid, an image of Isaac and his family, brings him a reminder of what’s happening in the real world – and he ascends through the chest, confronting himself as a boss. While being in the chest doesn’t solve his problems, he is reminded of what’s happening in his life and he confronts his issues. Being in the chest, while not necessarily solving his problems, gave him a new way to look at things. Anastasia Valens, in her article Escapism and Mental Health: The Double-Edged Psychology of Gaming (the rest of that article can be found HERE), discusses this – “Not just can games help fight mental illnesses, but they can also change the ways players think about everyday life. Escapism ends up being therapeutic.” (Valens, 2015) Isaac isn’t a direct example of what escapism is or how it should be – it is a game and parts of it are certainly darker than what escapism has to be. But the themes and ideas it presents are still relevant to the concept of escapism and how it can be used.

Escapism isn’t by definition, a good thing. In fact, many see it as a negative concept, that in the modern world people spend all of their time watching movies and playing video games to simply avoid responsibility. And it’s impossible to disagree with that. Many people do deal with high stress situations by simply ignoring them and playing games. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only form that escapism exists in. Look at it this way – The original BoI, released in 2011, has sold nearly three million copies. It’s revamp in 2014, Rebirth, has sold almost one and a quarter million. Many, probably a majority of these players, have played the game, beaten it several times, and thought absolutely nothing of it. It was a weird, crazy game where you’re being hunted down by your psychotic mother who’s trying to kill you based on the voice of God. But some people play the game, and they beat it, and they think about it. They think about what might be behind the story, that maybe this is more in Isaac’s head than this is in reality, that the other playable characters in the game are really just Isaac playing dress-up (even the female character Magdalene, who is theorized to be Isaac dressed up as his dead sister as his mother’s attempt to bring her back). And many people have spent hours and hours looking at every item and every cutscene and asking, “Why?” And that same concept can be applied to escapism. There might be a lot of people who simply look at games as a way to forget about the stresses of real life. But there’s also a lot of people who take video games and look at them as a different way of seeing their own problems. Isaac may be just a collection of pixels on the screen, and the way he’s dealing with his problems is certainly unusual, but he’s doing something about it. And maybe I, as the player, escaping my own problems right now, should go do something about them too. It’s not an exact science, but when you go into escaping from the world around you with the right mindset, using it as a way to rejuvenate yourself and take a new look at the things you need to take a look at, it helps.

A detailed analysis and discussion about video games and the positive effects they can have, written by Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green can be found HERE. It’s much more detailed and focuses on games in general, and not The Binding of Isaac. Very interesting read.

While playing a well-constructed game, you end up relating to the main character enough that you, in a way, become them. Feeling like you’re someone else gives you a different perspective on things, similar to being thrust into a new situation you’re unfamiliar with; you have to figure things out and partly use your past experience in your new situation, but also apply what you’re learning in the new situation to get you through it. Escapism can be just like that, taking everything you know and looking at your escape not only through that view, but also with the newfound view that your escape has given you. It’s a fine line between becoming lost in a different world and learning from new experiences. Even though many of these characters are in situations that we would never want to be in, we still fantasize about being them because we want to get through it in the same way they are. BoI isn’t exactly a game with a moral at the end of the story, but there are a lot of different things you can take away from it. You could take the game’s randomness and quick replayability as a metaphor for always being able to start something new and have no idea what to expect, you could put your own life and put it in perspective because no matter how bad it gets, you aren’t trying to escape your mother trying to kill you with a butcher’s knife or fighting Satan in your basement. Or you can play the game for a couple hours and get back to whatever you were doing before then and feel a lot better about it after having taken a break. Isaac and his escape from the dark and depressing world he exists in shows us that escapism can be a positive thing.

 

 

SOURCES:

 

Analysis: Escapism. (n.d.). Retrieved from TVTropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Analysis/Escapism

Jayborino. (2014, November). I am the author of the Isaac Endings Explained article that Ed said was “mind blowingly accurate”. Here is my Rebirth followup! Retrieved from Reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/bindingofisaac/comments/2m33ys/i_am_the_author_of_the_isaac_endings_explained/

McMillen, E. (2014, November 4). The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. United States of America: Nicalis.

Patrick, M. (2014). Game Theory: Does Isaac DIE?!? Binding of Isaac Rebirth’s Endings EXPLAINED. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avCB6HOjsG4

UnboundedCash99. (2014, November 6). The Binding of Isaac Rebirth: Opening Cutscene. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqMmJ_wvpoQ

Valens, A. (2015, October 10). Escapism & Mental Health: the Double-Edged Psychology of Gaming. Retrieved from The Ontological Geek: http://ontologicalgeek.com/escapism-mental-health-the-double-edged-psychology-of-gaming/

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