When Games Matter: The Art of Story in The Binding of Isaac

When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.

Videogames’ interactive nature requires that they tell stories differently than any other medium. Of course given the medium’s short history there is no shortage of games that have tried to adopt the storytelling methods of longer standing mediums like books and movies. Before gameplay visuals reached high definition resolution, games were constantly setting aside interactivity for visual impact. This is why games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 2 invested so intently in their cut scenes. The result was that many games most significant narrative moments were taken out of the hands of players. This is unfortunate because what makes videogames unique is their tendency to invite the player to participate significantly in their story. We could hope that such tendencies are being phased out of videogames, but games like Uncharted 3 seem to indicate that many game developers are not yet comfortable letting games be games. This isn’t to say that cut scenes have no place in games but rather that sole reliance upon for the advance of a narrative represents neglect of videogames greatest asset–namely interactivity. This begs the question–how should games tell stories?

I won’t pretend to be intelligent or learned in game design enough to know games can best tell stories.  What I can share with you, however,  are some ways in which games are currently telling stories admirably. 2011 saw the release of number of excellent examples of smart, intuitive, and interactive stories, so in a short series of posts, I intend to highlight some examples of smart and meaningful storytelling in games.

The most obvious example of great storytelling in games from 2011 is The Binding of Isaac. While the basic premise of the story is laid out in the games opening video, it’s the world of the game that brings Isaac’s story home. The game is a loose modern retelling of the Biblical narrative of Abraham taking Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him per the Lord’s command (Genesis 22). In the game, Isaac’s deeply religious mother, who has an unholy fascination with charismatic christian television, receives a vision from the Lord telling her to sacrifice her son. Isaac discovers her plans and takes refuge in the basement of their house.

Isaac is a rogue-like, meaning the game is different every time you play it–every dungeon is randomly generated as are all the items you find as you progress. This is where Isaac’s story comes alive. The items you pick up tell the story of an abused and neglected little boy. “Brother Bobby” and “Sister Maggy” are ghost-like drones that follow you and mirror your actions doubling your abilities. Who are these drones? Perhaps Isaac isn’t the first of his family to be threatend by his mother. Find the “paddle” and Isaac will immeidately be able to run faster reminiscent of a child running from an abusive mother. When you find the “coat hanger” it lodges itself into Isaac’s head and allows him to shoot his weapon faster which happens to be his own projectile tears. If I am to survive I must pick up this coat hanger–I need an improved weapon but as I pick it up, I can’t help to consider what that coat hanger represents for Isaac.

Item pick ups are essential elements of rogue-like games and yet The Binding of Isaac manages to take this essential element and infuse it with significance.  At times, the game is deeply unsettling but this is appropriate. There is nothing pleasant about child abuse. The Binding of Isaac tells a powerful story, not by foisting cinematics or lengthy exposition onto the player but by simple letting the player explore Isaac’s basement and discover the various objects long discarded there. Isaac  respresents a stellar achievement in storytelling by taking something as simple as “powerups” and using them to shed light on the troubling world in which a young boy lives.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82


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