I have played every Legend of Zelda game, and as far as I know, Link doesn’t poop.¹ Link, the protagonist of the series, eats soup, drinks milk, and sleeps while the game is off; he never defecates. Where’s the excrement?
On first play, The Binding of Isaac (2014²) might seem like the repository for nearly 30 years of Nintendo’s feces. In this independently produced video game designed by Edmund McMillen, the player will stumble upon, expel, and be attacked by fecal enemies in absurd quantity. The game’s plot, inspired by the Biblical story of Isaac’s near-murder at the hands of his father Abraham, begins as the player character Isaac descends into his basement, fleeing from his mother, who intends to murder him as a sacrifice to God. (God talks to her through a Christian broadcasting channel.) Isaac descends into lower and lower levels of his basement through top-down dungeon levels reminiscent of the early 2D Zelda games, fighting off Satanic fetuses, deformed or aborted twins, and legions of enemies made of (or spewing) poop.
As art’s lowest form—Roger Ebert might have called this descriptor generous; he passed away maintaining that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form”—video games might be expected to be regular revelers in basement shit. Some do revel, though they are rare, and very few on a level as advanced as Isaac. Where past games emphasizing lower humours focused on weaponized farting (Wario, the Grinch) or urinatory objectives (Tony Hawk skating games, Rare’s Conker the squirrel), Isaac’s wealth of grotesque machinations is atmospheric as well as functional and points toward more complex ambitions.
The conscious overabundance of poop emphasizes Isaac’s basement’s status as a coterie of abjection, a phantasmic perpetual, recursive, and randomly generated confrontation with repressed trauma, which ultimately satirizes a hypocritical notion of safety and toxically exclusive political correctness in video games. Excrement and other lower-body humor functions on a heightened level in The Binding of Isaac in order to demonstrate its grotesque separation from The Legend of Zelda and other games of apparent influence. The grotesque imagery of the game evokes Bakhtin’s notions of “degrading” folk humor in his writing about Rabelais: “To degrade means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation” (Bakhtin 21). Bakhtin posits degradation as an essential principle of grotesque realism and traces its achievement in folk humor through exaggeration, which “has a positive, assertive character” (19).
Isaac is a punishingly difficult game in which the player must restart an entirely new randomly generated basement upon Isaac’s death (that means new enemies, new dungeon layouts, random bosses and rewards). It ties even its mechanical difficulty to a morbid attention to low or folk humor. The excessive littering of cartoonishly spiraled turds is not extraneous, since each turd potentially contains health-recovering hearts, currency, or powerful upgrades for the beleaguered Isaac. Grotesque and humorous excess becomes essential.
How does this gross excess work when the player encounters the random guardian boss battles? The potential boss enemies, which block entry to the trapdoor passages leading to the basement’s next level, include Dingle, the animated gigantic turd³ who spawns smaller, aggressive turds until his defeat. In this and similar battles, Isaac’s enemies are revealed as objects of his body issue repression, ostensibly having been sent below by Mom. (Before God ordered her to kill her son, He told her to remove “corruptions” from his environment.) Bakhtin says about the grotesque body, “It is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.” By understanding the phantasmagoria of the basement to be both Isaac’s emotional realization and literalization of his own body’s inside—he is, after all, shown to be an introvert—the player can see the irony of the Dingle fight as a confrontation with his repression, all the literal shit and bodily functions of which he was made to feel ashamed, as well as a representation of that shame.
But, strangely, the basement body is also that of his mother. It is a strange body, too, one that allows her large eye to peer in through holes in the wall, her grasping hands with painted nails to reach from the sides, and her high-heeled foot to stomp from above. The player slowly realizes that the walls represent the mother’s insides: her screams of “ISAAC!” are muffled, and after fending off her limbs in the penultimate battle, Isaac enters the final levels of the basement, the uterus. Bakhtin’s grotesque body has “tendencies…to show two bodies in one: one giving birth and dying, the other conceived, generated and born” (26). By understanding the phantasmagoric basement both as Isaac’s body, in the sense that it’s the transgressive and transgressed holder of his excrement, and as Mom’s body, the enactor and embodiment of his repression, one can see what all that poop was pointing to: video games’ missing abject.
¹ In Skyward Sword, if the player sits on the toilet in Link’s dormitory, Link will recover health points until the player stands up, at which point the toilet flushes. Link remains clothed and visible throughout this process.
² Originally released in 2011, the game was expanded and re-released in 2014 as The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. This is the version I played on PS4.
³ Although “turd” seems clumsy, there really is not better word to describe the stereotypical representation of poop. Stool, too clinical. Scat, too zoologistic.