I’ve never particularly understood a particular kind of humour I couldn’t find a classification with. I call it the “Ren and Stimpy Surprise” humour. It usually came at random times and would show things in a particularly…unpleasing? sight. Showing hairs, or disturbing alternate versions to contrast the cute cartoony style of most of the series. Some kids found it hilarious and I mostly found it disturbing.
Binding of Isaac seems to play to a similar humour though much much deeper. It’s a difficult game for me to talk about, because I myself am very two minded about it. The game mechanics and style are incredibly fun and addictive. A mostly fair shoot ’em up roguelike with a lot of random elements. It’s difficult to describe but incredibly entertaining.
Yet the subject matter is still extremely disturbing, an insane fundamentalist christian mother attempting to kill her child. Fighting fetus monsters, being beaten with spoons, fighting giant diseased vaginas. The game is gross and disturbing on many levels. If anybody were to see me playing it, as I travelled the womb fighting headless bloody jumping jack monsters, they’d think me a disturbed human being. To try to explain to them that the gameplay and feel of the game are incredibly interesting and fun, and I try not to think about the disturbing visuals or context of the game.
That was when it hit me, and the main reason I’m writing this. In many ways this game represents my own struggle with gaming. Many games hide a theme and tone that can be understandably disturbing as well. Few games I’ve played actually fit a setting where I can rightfully say there’s not something there I block primarily for the joy of the gameplay, or that I justify as a heroic power fantasy. The feelings with binding of Isaac cranked that up to 11 and made me face one of the uglier truths of our medium, how much of it is put off as fantasy.
I’ve always been of the opinion people should be able to create and enjoy what they want, particularly privately. That there -is- a key difference in watching something, playing out a violent fantasy and -living- a violent fantasy. Yet it’s rare that I can actually dislike myself for enjoying a game. I get some of that playing Binding of Isaac. having been abused as a child, some of the things illustrated there hit a particularly soft spot, and can make me almost physically ill. Seeing black eyes and bruising and harsh marks from a spoon. It all reminds me of a darker, sicker time I’d rather forget. Yet I’m not disturbed shooting Gluttony in the face with a laser beam, or killing countless hordes in Dynasty Warriors that each are supposed to be real human beings.
Perhaps it’s being able to personally relate to what’s being inflicted on Isaac, and having never had a one man army slaughter thousands of my people, or the likelihood of that is what makes the difference? When the game takes it to such an exaggerated extreme, perhaps it’s okay? But Binding of Isaac is also an exaggerated extreme, heads can’t float, kids can’t shoot tears like guns. Nearly every argument I can come up with as to why it’s not okay, I can come up with a similar counterpoint in games I have really enjoyed.
And I really enjoy the gameplay of Binding of Isaac. That’s the biggest kicker, it’s fluid, fair, a random chance element that makes it exciting, yet even if you got bad luck every step of the way it’s theoretically possible to still beat it with skill alone, dodging attacks, and firing at the right time. It’s fair even when it’s totally balanced against you.
I’ve heard it argued that zombie violence is so popular because it lets us de-humanize humans. By turning humans into monsters, and making it a fight for ‘survival,’ we can justify the violence of killing others, explore those dark, visceral desires in us to harm other humans, without the guilt of it actually being humans. To face the darkest part of ourselves, and perhaps how we dill with crisis. Is this similar? Have I learned to disassociate games so much, that they’re essentially zombies to me. And has Binding of Isaac pushed what I can justify in a manner that is is so borderline with where I personally draw the line, and who has made the core gameplay so enticing, that it’s making me face what I do?
Manhunt is an example of a game that went too far in my opinion, the point is to make snuff films, to try to ‘entertain’ while killing, and it does so in a way that pushes every moral fibre of my being in the wrong direction. The game made me physically ill to try to play. Binding of Isaac just takes disturbing imagery to an extreme, in a cartoony exaggerated way. I’m not sure if the game had it’s own message, or if they made it just because they enjoyed that kind of humour, I’m going to send out an e-mail to Edmund McMillan with a link to this post to see if I can get their own thoughts, and take on the game and how I’ve seen it, I’ll keep you updated if I get a response.