Pete Davison: The Hypocrisy of Isaac

Posted on October 9, 2011 by

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I’ve posed this question on a couple of social networks today, but I thought I’d discuss it here, too. I’m not sure what the “right” answer is, if any, but I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the subject.

This year, two games have come out that feature gross, puerile humour and content obviously deliberately intended to offend, shock or make people guiltily laugh. Those two games are the high-profile, legendarily-delayed Duke Nukem Forever, and independent developer Edmund McMillen’s latest opusThe Binding of Isaac, which I discussed a little here. Despite both featuring extreme gross-out humour, one of them was lambasted as being a smear against all that is good and pure, while the other has been praised and hailed as being daring, forthright and all manner of other superlatives expressing positivity towards its utterly shameless nature.

Those who are gamers will already know that Duke Nukem, the high-profile, well-known title, was the one which got seven shades of shit beaten out of it by the press, while McMillen’s more recent The Binding of Isaac has been hailed — by the same critics who ripped Duke a new one in some cases — as something excellent.

Those readers who are not gamers may not already be familiar with the content of both of these games, so permit me a moment to summarise both titles in an attempt to compare and contrast the type of material on display therein.

Duke Nukem Forever is the fourth in a very long-running series of games which stars the titular Duke — a parody of 80s action heroes with a flat top, an arsenal of bizarre weaponry and a fine line in one-liners. The first two Duke Nukem games were very simple and featured no offensive content whatsoever. From Duke Nukem 3D, the third in the series, the developers let loose and had Duke raising hell in all manner of locations that had not previously been seen in many games — strip clubs, porn theatres, dodgy “rent by the hour” hotels and, eventually, space stations, moon bases and strangely organic alien vessels. Dotted through the bloody carnage — which was all against alien villains — were women. These ranged from strippers in the strip club, who’d flash their pasties at you if you walked up to them and pressed the “Use” key, to women imprisoned by the aliens, who were all nude and typically tied down to something with plant-like tendrils snaking around them, conveniently covering their lady-parts.

The sequel, some 13-plus years in development, featured a lot of similar content, only with the vastly improved graphics that 13-plus years of development will give you. (Some would argue that the game’s visualsdon’t represent 13-plus years of progress, but that’s not the matter we’re discussing here.) The game, once again, features the grittier, seedier side of human existence, with one non-violent dream sequence taking place in a strip club. At various other intervals, numerous things happen: it’s implied that Duke is getting fellated by a pair of twins dressed as schoolgirls who may or may not be incestuous lesbians; Duke has the opportunity to pick up a piece of poo and fling it around; Duke can draw whatever he likes on a whiteboard and in the book of a fan who asks him to autograph it; there’s numerous groanworthy puns throughout; there’s a lot of swearing; and one level, dubbed “The Hive” and representing by far the most infamous piece of offensive content in the game, features women very much like those in Duke Nukem 3D tied to things with alien tentacly things wrapped around them, evidently being raped and impregnated with alien offspring. At one point during this level, Duke comes across the twins from earlier in the game, who are caught in this inescapable situation. There’s a wince-worthy joke about them losing pregnancy weight, then they explode as their alien offspring burst forth and attack Duke. (Later in the same level there’s also, inexplicably, a set of tits on the wall, which Duke can wander up to and slap to watch them wobble, giggling as he does so.)

Pretty offensive — or at least of questionable taste — I’m sure you’ll agree. Now, what about The Binding of Isaac?

McMillen’s game is a parody of the ’80s Nintendo Entertainment System gameThe Legend of Zelda. It features a top-down view of a randomly-generated dungeon which players have to explore, kill monsters, retrieve special items and make their way to the level’s boss and, subsequently, exit.

So far so good. Nothing to worry about here, right?

Wrong.

The Binding of Isaac‘s protagonist is the titular Isaac who, as in the Biblical story, was about to be offered up to God as a sacrifice from his apparently insane and abusive mother. Isaac decided not to stick around to find out if God would stay his mother’s hand so instead escapes, naked and crying, into the basement of the house. Said basement is inexplicably filled with monsters, most of which resemble Isaac to one degree or another, all of which bleed copiously when attacked. Most of these monsters have a degree of “body horror” about them, with swollen heads, growths, body parts such as eyes missing, blood dribbling from places that it shouldn’t dribble from, and all manner of other things. One boss monster attacks you by pissing on you, while others bleed, vomit, bite and shit on you. Isaac attacks his enemies by firing his tears at them.

Isaac can upgrade his abilities by picking up special items which randomly appear on each level. Each one of these has an effect on Isaac’s appearance as well as his abilities. For example, taking growth hormones causes his head to swell up with tumorous growths, while finding a wire coat hanger (a possible reference to abortion) sees Isaac jam it through his head to make him cry more. He gains health by eating dog food, as he is obviously used to it from his abusive mother, and special weaponry on offer include a suicide bomber vest, a sanitary towel, the Anarchist’s Cookbook, a glass of lemonade which immediately causes him to piss himself and numerous other items.

The eventual aim of The Binding of Isaac is to kill Isaac’s mother. By the end of the game, the crying infant of the outset is usually unrecognisable, clad in the random combination of special items he has picked up on his quest — on one occasion he might be wearing his mother’s pants, have horns growing out of his head, be crying blood from his bleeding eye sockets and have a beating heart strapped to his chest. On another, he might have made a pact with the Devil and turned completely black. On yet another, he might have cybernetic implants and vampiric teeth.

The main point is, though, The Binding of Isaac is pretty consistently horrifying and amusing at the same time. Like Duke Nukem Forever, the offensive, horrifying content is in there quite deliberately to provoke a reaction — to attempt to provoke a guilty laugh, or if not, to offend and repulse. If anything, I’d argue that Isaac’s content is more repulsive than that of Duke Nukem Forever, but this fact seems to have been totally skimmed over in many critics’ appraisals of the game.

Note that I’m not arguing in favour of censorship of either game here. I have played and enjoyed both, and found both amusing in a very dark sort of way.Duke‘s humour was mostly lowbrow and silly, with the exception of the Hive level, while The Binding of Isaac consistently mixes the lowbrow poo and fart jokes with sadistic body horror elements.

So, then, given that these two games are arguably on a par with each other in terms of “offensive” content, why did Duke get his ass handed to him by critics? It can’t surely be because of the quality of the game, can it?

Well, perhaps it can. Duke’s gameplay was regarded as too little, too late by many critics, and roundly panned as a result. (I liked it precisely because itwas like old shooters, but you know me, ever contrary.) Smelling blood, said critics decided to denounce it as The Worst Thing Ever, drawing particular attention to the Hive level and declaring it morally bankrupt, seemingly losing their black senses of humour in the process.

Along comes The Binding of Isaac, meanwhile, and it can do no wrong. It’s a potent allegory, say the critics. It’s refreshingly brave. It’s up-front and honest. That’s as maybe, but those things you’re laughing at — poo, wee, farts and some gross bloody violence — are pretty similar to those you denounced Duke Nukem for. But The Binding of Isaac is a good game, they argue, meaning that the questionable content can be taken in your stride.

To that, I say simply this: one of the most common reasons Duke Nukem was panned was because it felt dated. However, as I said earlier, The Binding of Isaac takes inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, a game from 1986. It couples this inspiration with material from roguelikes (Rogue itself also appearing in the mid-80s) and Gauntlet (1985). Hmmmm.

As I said at the start, I’m not sure there’s a right answer to this, as your take on both games’ content will be largely subjective — and, like it or not, will seemingly depend on how much you like the game as well — but to me, it certainly smells like there’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy about the whole thing. Do indie developers get a free pass to be more gross and offensive/”daring” simply for being indie developers who aren’t tied to a big publisher?

Oh well. I shan’t worry too much. I have played and enjoyed both games and, for me, that’s the important thing. 

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Posted in: Pete Davison