I’ve never been a video game person. My parents—whether by design or by chance, I can’t say—never had gaming consoles in the house. Being able to play a video game is not something one easily picks up past a certain age. I’ve always been content to watch other people play. That all changed a few weeks ago when my boyfriend set up his PlayStation 4 in my living room and downloaded a free game. It’s called “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth,” and it’s got all the components that would appeal to an uninitiated video game player—color graphics, basic gameplay, and hundreds of power-ups and bosses to keep you interested. I started playing one day on a whim and was immediately hooked. Not until a few weeks later did I really start to think about the premise of the game I’d been playing. In the story, a mother hears God tell her to sacrifice her son to save him from his impurity. The son, Isaac, overhears her consenting to kill him, and escapes down a trapdoor in his bedroom just in the nick of time. He finds himself in a labyrinth of basements, cellars, caves, and dungeons, fighting monsters and big bosses before moving to another level.
What’s really interesting about the game is the religious symbolism that permeates every aspect of the game. Aside from the fact that Isaac finds himself the object of his mother’s religious delusion, he uses tools like the Necronomicon, a goat’s head, rosary beads, the Bible, and other religiously-charged objects to gain power. As you approach the end of the game, your character is become virtually unrecognizable—different power-ups change your appearance. My most recent game found me transformed into a horned demon, weeping tears of blood followed by an entourage of familiars—mummified babies, floating heads made of tar, a swarm of spiders. Eventually, players fight their mothers and their mothers’ hearts, ascending either to a cathedral or descending to Sheol. In Sheol, players fight the devil; in the cathedral, they fight themselves. It’s a striking image—you start in the dungeons as a scared, weeping child, become transformed into a grotesque character disfigured by deals with the devil and the gruesome powers you need to survive. Your grim, newfound self fights your angelic past self in a cathedral, complete with monks chanting in the background. Or, instead, you fight Satan himself before going on to meet other bosses like The Lamb, a hellish creature with horns and fangs.
What I can’t decide about the game is what it says about the culture that produced it. Steven E. Jones, a professor of English at Loyola University in Chicago, says, “Video games are the most quintessential social texts of our present cultural moment,” and I tend to agree with him. But what does that mean? If one assumes that art reflects the culture that prompted it (which it does), and one accepts video games as an art form (which they are), The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth must have something to say about the perception of religion at least in one predominant part of society. But what?
There are myriad possibilities, but I’ve fixated on two thoughts. I’m struck by the fact that both Christ-figures and demonic figures are both antagonists—there is no concept of good and evil, only the concept of survival, despite interference from spiritual influences. One is just as easily killed by angels or the (admittedly demonic-looking) Lamb as they are to be killed by Satan or his legions of monsters. Tools like The Bible, Bible Tracts, and rosary beads are just as useful as Necronomicons, severed paws of animals, and pentagrams. What does it mean that the game designer conflates traditional symbols of good and evil in such a way that they’re both equally antagonistic? I don’t know.
Even more striking to me is the juxtaposition of muddled, ambiguous religious references with the style of the game. The game’s graphics recall the same bright, basic shapes and simple graphics today’s gaming community associates with nostalgic favorites like the early Zelda games. It’s decidedly unnerving, sometimes, to see such heavy-handed symbolism combined with decidedly nostalgic graphics. What does it mean?
Today’s art community struggles with the significance of video games as an art form. Peoples’ opinions seem to be split on a generational basis; most of my friends (and most academics!) don’t think twice about saying that games are an art form. Asking three ladies not of my generation the same question sparked almost-instantaneous exclamations of “Oh! No, of course not.” But, try as you might to deny it, video games—whether they be games with simple graphics like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth or beautifully-rendered social commentaries like Bioshock and its sequels—make intriguing and often uncomfortable commentary on today’s cultural and social climates.
I will never be good at video games. I am 27 years old, and it’s too late for me. But I am excited and intrigued by the video game world and the ever-blurring lines between video games and the arts community. I look forward to other games like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and what they’ll make me wonder about the world and the leading zeitgeists of our society. And I look forward, too, to the day we all agree that video games are a significant part of our culture, even if they make us uncomfortable.