Quest Updated: Spelunking With Isaac
It is a bloody pit down there. Headless… things… and maggots. Shudder. Maggots. There are fires and disembodied heads. Thank goodness for the simple graphics, otherwise The Binding of Isaac would probably have cost me thousands in shrink’s bills.
Not least because of the coat-hanger powerup. That’s just wrong.
Now for those not in the know (because you might be lucky number 10 000), The Binding of Isaac is the creepy exploration of the whole Abraham having to (almost) sacrifice his son in the Bible. The story has been revised, and the world’s most surreal and grotesque dungeon crawler was born.
It got me thinking about the fact that so many games include dungeons and dank places full of nasties in need of bashing. It’s probably one of the most prevalent tropes in (particularly adventure) gaming. I spend so much time underground in Skyrim I practically could be a dwemer. Isaac doesn’t even have above-ground gameplay. Hell, (if you’ll pardon the pun) we’ve been exploring the underworld and caves and dungeons since we could vaguely represent enemies as @ symbols.
There are a few reasons, I believe.
Darkness could be one of the few near-universal phobias. I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t at some point been scared of the dark. And where is it most dark?
Dungeons and other subterranean settings make for a great place to stick the player in confined areas (forcing us to go in specific directions without needing invisible walls), making us face up to nasty things with big teeth/weapons and homicidal tendencies, and all the while creating a brooding atmosphere that suits almost any adventure setting — from Zelda to Final Fantasy to Doom.
But it’s more than just that.
Existential crises abound
According to, well, lots of people from Freud to Joseph Campbell (who you can thank in many ways for Star Wars), caves = belly of the whale = subconscious mind where we learn stuff. It’s so underground you’ve probably never tapped into it before.
This is why underground settings work so well. Apart from practically forcing us to confront enemies, they provide a space for the symbolic side too. Isaac does this phenomenally. The enemies, both standard and boss fights, tend to bear some resemblance to Isaac himself. Naked, humanoid things that seem to have lost their minds — they could easily be other Isaacs trapped in the basement. Perhaps that’s what happens when you quit, or die — you become one of these…
I digress. Point is, the story isn’t just you beating your way through small enemies so you can clobber bigger ones until the universe turns happy and good triumphs and children play in the street. You’re going into your own mind, and clobbering the nasty effects of having a psychotic, perhaps schizophrenic, mother who abuses you and plans on gutting you. It is a story of epic proportions, Biblical ones in fact. And epic proportions is something adventure-ish games love to take on.
I don’t think we just play games because games. I think that the fact so many games take on this sort of mythic style speaks to the fact that we love being heroes of our own Iliad. While we may not always seek deep existential revelations, but rather intend on squashing monsters because it’s fun, we still respond to these patterns. It’s part of what makes it fun!
Now excuse me, I have a session with my shrink about my new-found fear of coat hangers.