Blasphemous Gaming — The Binding of Isaac (2011)

28 Aug

When Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl released their independent video game The Binding of Isaac in 2011, they probably had some idea that their creation would be controversial. They didn’t expect it would sell a million copies, but they had high hopes for their unusual creation.

If you watched the embedded clip above, you’ll know now that the premise of the game is profoundly religious: Isaac is to be sacrificed to God by his devout mother, so he escapes to the basement where he fights monsters. We’re probably all aware that Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah (re-read Genesis 22 if you need a refresher). It’s commonly interpreted as a test of faith or loyalty, but it also has significant meaning in relation to the substitutive nature of sacrifice (animals for people). In this game, it’s an opportunity for the darkest religious themes to become power-ups for your character’s survival as Isaac.

If you want to get a sense of the gameplay, you can watch some of NorthernLion’s YouTube videos. You might want to briefly browse the game’s wiki of increasingly powerful items that help you survive. If you played the original NES The Legend of Zelda or the UNIX classic Rogue, you’ll find the game oddly familiar. If you’re not into games, a few minutes to get the gist of what the tone and mood of the gameplay is like is plenty.  (Warning: Northernlion’s language is NSFW right from the start, but he’s the most prolific Binding player on YouTube and his profane reactions emphasize the non-religious context of most gamer’s experience of the religious content.)

Naturally, what angered many observers when the game launched the profoundly dark and graphic presentation of religious elements. From the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to seemingly satanic imagery with pentagrams and the fictional grimoire Necronomicon, there is an abundance of provocative themes. Despite the cartoon style of the game, this is not for children. Nintendo, for instance, fearing the ease with which their young gamers could access the item in their online shops, removed the product from their stores. (This was mostly discussed as an instance of Nintendo failing to understand their own fleeting status as a gaming platform for serious gamers.)

The major issue surrounding the game became its designation as “blasphemous.” After all, this term is entirely relative. Blasphemy assumes discourses of truth and untruth, devout and disparaging speech. For retailers (and countries that assign ratings to game like Germany, Australia, and the United States), the issues of propriety, morality, and responsibility came headlong into discussions over religious norms and free speech. Who says the themes the game shows are blasphemous? Who has the right to decide the content is blasphemous for others? And so on.

This controversy has subsided–it’s 2013 and the game continues to produce additional content that has significantly expanded the range of religious endings gamers find when they win–but the issues have not gone away.

As you can see, even Bioshock Infinite, an A list game from multimillion dollar developer Irrational Games, had a spate of bad press among Christian gamers who felt unable to accept the false baptism the main character requires to enter the game. Valve, makers of a game-platform called Steam where players downloaded the game, may have even gone so far as to refund the money of an offended gamer (in violation of their stated refund policies).

As narrative games become increasingly more sophisticated, we can all expect more and more rough patches between fictional representations of religion and the religious beliefs of gamers. Bioshock is just the latest (and biggest) title to have stirred these waters. I imagine that Witcher 3 (a hack-and-slash game with strong religious elements) might have this problem.  Or Diablo 3‘s newest expansion Reaper of Souls, which has an obvious Grim Reaper character as the newest protagonist.

If you’re watching religion in popular culture and all you’ve got on your plate is cinema and television, you’re missing the massive enterprise that is modern gaming culture. Superheroes may have leapt from comics to the screen, but franchises like Resident Evil, Doom, Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter, Pokemon, Tomb Raider, Hitman, Prince of Persia, and Silent Hill show that games are increasingly sources of cinematic profits.

Look here in the future for more posts about the religious elements of Bioshock Infinite, Assassin’s Creed, Diablo, and The Witcher. It’s a big help if you let me know you’d like to see these. Let me know in the comments and I’ll make it happen sooner rather than later.


2 Responses to “Blasphemous Gaming — The Binding of Isaac (2011)”


  1. Reaper of Souls — Religion in Diablo 3′s Expansion | A Lively Experiment - October 2, 2013

    […] As I suggested in an earlier post on the rising religious elements of a-list video game releases, the Reaper of Souls expansion for Diablo 3 is likely to be thorougly saturated with religious content. Today I want to walk through two of ways that will happen: Narrative and Gameplay. […]

  2. Serious Game — Studying Religion in Video Games | A Lively Experiment - October 23, 2013

    […] more thorough than all but a few fictional worlds (say, Tolkien’s). [See my earlier post of The Binding of Isaac and blasphemous gaming for a bit more on this point.] The tepid religious elements of most science […]

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