In the previous installment of Hobby Horse Anatomy, I proposed The Binding of Isaac as a kind of repository for the repressed and excised content from The Legend of Zelda and other games. Isaac revels in the supposedly low genre conventions of video games and treads into the murky, phantasmagoric waters of abjection.
It’s late but necessary to mention: Isaac’s main weapon in the game is tears shot from his perpetually crying eyes. What causes Isaac to possess such a potent surplus of tears is not simply exposure to an excess of shit, but rather a fatal submersion in the abject. Again, Binding of Isaac’s chaotic dreamscape so wildly obscures the boundaries that the topic of abjection becomes complicated by the sheer availability of grotesque buzzwords. Among the menagerie haunting the phantasmagoric basement scenes are corpse fetuses, deformed or partially amputated Isaac twins, reanimated afterbirth, and laser-blasting vaginal cyclopes. Among Isaac’s upgrades, some objects that make his tear attacks stronger or his movements faster: Mom’s lipstick and heels, a Celtic cross, and stem cell injections.
Julia Kristeva explores the definition of the abject in her essay Powers of Horror: “[Abject] is death infecting life…something rejected from which one does not part. … Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us. It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4).
The setup of the game ostensibly stages the upgrades and enemies as dialectically opposed: Isaac’s mommy-drag and Christian trinkets against maternal expulsions and deformed demons. Yet there are jarring overlaps in the imagery of these apparent opponents. As Isaac consumes upgrades, the stacked effects warp his appearance. The drag elements mix with religious and medical—a combination of the upgrades mentioned above would result in a high-heeled Isaac with bad-Botox-lips, a saintly aureola, and a partially enveloped fetus in fetu growing from his forehead—and Isaac’s fate (here, actualized: a fatal sentence from God) expresses the entire temporal spectrum of itself upon his present identity. His potential for infanticide, incest, deformity, and queerness all surface through these upgrades (five to ten of which, from hundreds of possible trinkets, might appear in one play through), and more and more, Isaac embodies the figures of abjection he attempts to defend himself against.
Identity, particularly in terms of queerness and gender, has bizarre and fascinating mutant potential in The Binding of Isaac and makes apparent the revolutionary identity politics available and possibly inherent to video games as an artistic medium. Isaac’s memories of bullying and child abuse are made most explicit in the animated stick-figure dream sequences that occupy the time between basement floors. In one, Isaac is given a female wig as a gift and bullied relentlessly by his mother and friends upon wearing it. In another, Isaac is pantsed while approaching a female peer, who points at and mocks his penis relentlessly alongside Isaac’s friends. In a third, two friends take turns projectile defecating on Isaac’s head. Although these visions seem extraneous insofar as they operate as flashback reruns of what the basement’s intrinsic traumatic qualities already imply, the visions read as satirical confirmations of societal norms in light of the player’s ostensible goals of normalization and rejecting the abject.
Isaac’s humiliation becomes final in his escape. Upon defeating Mom and returning to the womb, then destroying it from the inside, Isaac finds a small chest overflowing with blinding light. When he opens the chest, his face seems, for the first time, momentarily happy as male, female, and gender-neutral haircuts flash over his head. His hair returns to normal, he enters the chest, and he closes the lid behind him, isolating himself again from all that he’s repressed, from the abnormal abject.
This satire of normalization, the total and impossible rejection of the abject, is trenchantly rendered as game victory, an end to the spastic horrors of the basement. “Christian humiliation is only an episode of the impure against the pure…it is as if society, conscious of its own intolerable splitting, had become for a time dead drunk in order to enjoy it sadistically” (Bataille 127).
Elsewhere in Georges Bataille’s The Notion of Expenditure, the author describes the inherent hypocrisy of the bourgeois culture, which delineates permissible forms of shameful expenditure. Video games, the assumption goes, are childish diversions of light¹ entertainment, and Mom’s efforts to purify Isaac by removing his toys, clothes, and playtime seem to follow from this thinking to the extent that this permission can be taken away. The player understands that Mom, a Christian caricature, must have declared Isaac’s entertainments to be the variety that safely skirt the issues she has worked carefully and brutally to suppress. The irony, then, of Isaac’s descent is that Isaac is able to confront his repressed thoughts, escape his fate, and still return to a “pure,” original state, one that is, in many ways, the assumed static state of video games in general: safe, familiar, normal.
¹ There always seems to be a lurking pun when movies, television, or video games are slapped with this descriptor