The Binding of Isaac

Here in Japan I have no game system (a brutal irony). I’ve only got my old PC and good ol’ Steam to sate my voracious apetite for not being productive. So I was pretty happy to hear that The Binding of Isaac had gotten another expansion. This one is appropriately subtitled Afterbirth. It’s an appropriate subtitle because the previous iteration was called Rebirth. And it’s appropriate because the game features lots of corrupt maternal imagery (a late-game area is even called “The Womb”) and visceral grossness like mummified children, disembodied anuses that produce aggressive insects, and blood-shooting vagina monsters. Gosh, remember Tetris?



If you aren’t familiar with the game, let me direct you to a neat interview with creator Edmund McMillen. That piece includes the best possible description of what it feels like to play Isaac, straight from the creator’s mouth: “a slot machine slash Zelda slash Troma movie.”

The game is a randomly-generated Zelda-esque dungeon-crawler (“roguelike,” to the sniffy gamer types) that is extremely different every time you play, boasting hundreds of items that drastically affect the gameplay.

It’s also, as the Troma reference might suggest, pretty gross. The monsters are undead babies, aborted fetuses, living poop–pretty much the most horrible things imaginable. Isaac fights by crying: he shoots tears, which I’m sure is a metaphor but I’m lazy. Power-ups are things like growth hormones (which make Isaac grow what look suspiciously like testicles on his face), a hanger through the head (the implication is it was a failed DIY abortion), and various dead baby “buddies” that follow you around and help you fight the badguys (at least one of which is a conjoined twin). But everything is rendered in cartoony pixel-art so as to be less horrendous than the previous sentences might suggest.

No caption necessary. NO. CAPTION. NECESSARY.

Less horrendous!

What really interests me about the game–beyond the fact that it’s fun to play–is its weird biblical content. The story runs thusly: Isaac’s mom is a born-again type who one day hears the voice of God commanding her to sacrifice her son (the title of the game, of course, is a reference to the biblical story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac under similar circumstances). Isaac escapes his mother’s kitchen knife by fleeing to the basement, where he encounters the aforementioned reanimated dead babies and poop/vagina monsters and what have you. He also encounters demons, Satan, God, the Krampus, and all kinds of other supernatural craziness. There’s lots of interesting commentary on fundamentalist Christianity, child neglect, and, I guess, poop?

While I’m normally not at all a fan of gratuitous grossness, something about Isaac’s perfect storm of good design, bible-ish story elements, and cartoony graphics really appeals to me. I’m terrible at it–I die dozens of times for every successful completion, which I think is McMillen’s intent–but it’s always a lot of fun to play, even after several iterations over the years (the first version was released in 2011).

If you’re looking for a good indie game that will give you potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay, Isaac‘s the way to go.


You can read Ed McMillen’s official Isaac blog here.

“The Folkloresque” officially released!

The FolkloresqueI’ve advertised it a couple of times now, but our book The Folkloresque has finally been officially released. You can order it here in both physical and digital editions, and right now if you use the code “50for50” you can get it for 50% off. (Online retailers like Amazon don’t have their copies in stock just yet, but will soon.)

The book is a collection of essays by different folklorists and other scholars which all examine the ways popular culture uses the stuff we normally call “folklore.” The basic premise is that popular culture creators often manufacture something that seems, for all intents and purposes, to be “real” folklore, and that this process reveals really interesting things about how people think about folklore and other aspects of culture.

In the past folklorists used negative terms like “fakelore” to describe this kind of material. We take the opposite approach, and suggest that folkloresque stuff is not only worth studying as a serious form of culture, but is also connected to “real” folklore (note the quotation marks) in really intricate ways, and can in fact become “real” folklore. We also argue that this stuff is really cool. (And we also implicitly argue that the whole concept of fakelore is dumb, and if you read the first paragraph of that Wiki I linked above, you’ll see why.)

Some of the topics covered in the volume include: Miyazaki Hayao’s film “Spirited Away”; Victorian fairylore; the works of Neil Gaiman; Superman comics; the Fatal Frame games; Penn State jokes; and Harry Potter. These, and all the other subjects considered by the contributors, make use of folklore or make up folklore in pretty creative and compelling ways.

This is an academic work, heavy on the analysis. If you’re interested in reading a collection of tales, I’m afraid you won’t find one here. But if you’re interested in seeing some of the ways folklorists (and other academics) think about this stuff, you could do worse than The Folkloresque.