Looking for the Comedy in Child Abuse in The Binding of Isaac

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The Binding of Isaac is an incredibly strange game. Loosely based on the Bible story, The Binding of Isaac follows a little boy who escapes into a horrible fantasy world to escape being murdered by his crazed, religious mother.

The opening cinematic sets the Adult Swim-esque tone of the game. The music is too creepy and the drawing style is too tragic to let the audience take the story, well, too seriously. And it’s this balance that sets up the humor of the game. It’s a game about child abuse, and never wants you to forget how silly that is.

Obviously, this is a mixed blessing. At times, the interactive nature of the jokes can be amazing. When you realize the belt and wooden spoon items speed up Isaac because they represent being chased by an abusive parent, God, it’s a special moment.

But other bits, such as random pills that either heal or hurt Isaac, seem more cruel than funny. I guess there could be some message about kids and overmedication, but the humor seems to be more that a child on screen is suffering, haha, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Not to say that the game is too offensive. It does nothing that South Park hasn’t done a million times. I just wish that the jokes about child abuse were always clever rather than vacillating between commentary on religion’s negative role in a child’s growth and “Oh look, another aborted fetus.”

However, what saves the game (and its humor) is its random nature. The Binding of Isaac is rogue-like, meaning its levels, item payout, and enemy placement are randomized with each play. You never know what’s coming next; the sheer variety of items and enemies means there are always new jokes around the corner. And fans of the original The Legend of Zelda will recognize a lot of inside-baseball style jokes on video games.

In a lot of ways The Binding of Isaac is to Cracked magazine what Portal 2 is to The New Yorker. While the latter is smart and hip, the former is silly and gross. Another comparison might be to The Garbage Pail Kids: gross-out comedy that’s somehow at its best and worst.