Systems and theology in The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac is a retro-styled action game inspired by the Old Testament* story in which God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a demonstration of his faith. The game has prompted discussion about the relationship between its overt religious themes and the systems embedded in its design.

A “Holy Room” in the game’s expansion pack.

Systems-driven deism

John Teti began the conversation by arguing that Isaac‘s design is consistent with deism. Deism is an enlightenment-era theological philosophy which seeks to harmonize faith with reason. It offers the metaphor of god as absent craftsman: the Universe is a well-made watch, but it’s up to mankind to keep our own affairs in order.

Game designers will probably grasp Teti’s analogy immediately: systems-driven games are watches, and designers absent watchmakers. Teti’s plain English explanation:

Isaac, the video game, is built by a creator who doesn’t futz… Rather than sticking to a handcrafted template that plays the same every time, in Isaac, each dungeon is built on the fly, and at random.

In the sterile jargon of game design, this is called “procedural generation.” What this means is that instead of, say, hand-crafting a level, the designer will instead build some basic rules that a level should follow. For instance, they might program a rule stating that each room should be connected to other rooms, so that it’s possible to get from the beginning to the end…

If game creators are like little gods, then [game designer and artist Edmund] McMillen and Isaac programmer Florian Himsl are from the deist school. They only make the rules of their universe; the game’s program and the player do the rest. When Isaac strolls into a den of spiders and half-skulled zombies, it’s not because the creators pre-ordained that it would happen that way.

What Teti is describing here is something unique to software, as a procedural (process-based) form of representation [PDF link warning].

Tabletop games may rely on systems, but the situations encountered by players are not generally created by pre-programmed processes. Exceptions are possible, but these would be novelties or proofs of concept. Novelists, filmmakers and other artists can establish worlds with internal consistency, but the hand of the author is always present to move the narrative along. The only counterexamples I can think of rely on ambiguity, either deliberate or as a result of semiotic mediation between author and reader.

Protestantism and scripted events

Not all games are procedural in the manner of The Binding of Isaac.

As a counterpoint, Teti offers The Legend of Zelda, a classic game with visual and mechanical parallels to Isaac but a very different design philosophy. Nearly everything about Zelda is hard-coded into the game: you’ll see the same monsters in the same locations, the same items in the same dungeons, and so on. The only randomized elements are occasional games of chance, and minor items dropped by slain monsters.

In other words, the trials undergone by Zelda players are pre-ordained, and the player’s ability to overcome them relies on the quality of her efforts. Suddenly, the quasi-religious tenor of the debate over newer, supposedly easier games by Zelda developer Nintendo is cast in a new light. Is it predestination or good works which determine whether you get in to heaven beat the game?

The Binding of Isaac

The Legend of Zelda

Not all systems are created equal

In this week’s episode of the podcast Idle Thumbs, former games journalist Chris Remo identifies the main problem with Teti’s argument: It fails to consider the nature of the processes at work in procedurally-generated games, or the impact  of those processes on the player.

The things that happen in these games are random on the immediate level, but not in an absolute sense. The processes in question are carefully calibrated by the designer to determine what is possible and probable in games of this type. Remo or one of his co-hosts refer to this as the “possibility space” of such games, akin to the idea of probability space in mathematics.

Remo argues that the possibility space in Isaac is geared toward extreme outcomes, which create a subjective experience entirely consistent with the game’s theological setting:

[W]hat the game’s actually about is… an Old Testament God who is all up in your face. Who is very much arbitrarily deciding who should be bestowed with grace and who should be just completely condemned…

[T]he things that happen are so extreme that they go beyond the traditional, “here’s a system, let it just go,” and it ends up actually simulating the Job-like [situation where] “here is a God who is calling the shots in an extreme way.”*

I appreciate the simple elegance of Teti’s central analogy, but his analysis of Isaac focuses too much on the broad characteristics of the game as an object. Remo’s attention to player experience is a more sensible tack for a discussion about the game’s theological underpinnings.

*I took some “justs” and “kind ofs” out of that, just because it’s kind of easier to understand without, like, leaving them in.

Gameplay is not code

If the problem with Teti’s argument is that it doesn’t consider the nature of the processes at work, then why not look at those processes in detail, rather than heading down the path of subjective, humanities-style analysis? Thanks for asking, hypothetical reader.

Mark Sample has written about the idea of close reading code as an essential component of new media criticism. Using the example of the original SimCity, Sample writes about the purpose of close reading the code which determines procedural experiences. In this section, he’s referencing the work of an earlier theorist, Sherry Turkle:

Turkle suggests that players can, on the one hand, surrender themselves totally to the simulation, openly accepting whatever processes are modeled within. On the other hand, players can reject the simulation entirely—what Turkle calls “simulation denial.” These are stark opposites, and our reaction to simulations obviously need not be entirely one or the other.

There’s a third alternative Turkle proposes: understanding the simulation, exploring its assumptions, both procedural and cultural (Turkle 71-72).

I’d argue that the close reading of code adds a fourth possibility, a fourth response to a simulation. Instead of surrendering to it, or rejecting it, or understanding it, we can deconstruct it. Take it apart. Open up the black box. See all the pieces and how they fit together. Even tweak the code ourselves and recompile it with our own algorithms inside.

Sample’s position is compatible with Remo’s, in that he’s concerned with the contents (rather than merely the presence) of the algorithms that underly a gameplay experience. Like Teti, however, Sample’s position assumes that the game is the sole and direct arbiter of the gameplay, as experienced by the player. It isn’t. Two reasons why:

  1. People perceive randomness as purposeful. We’re hard-wired to look for patterns.
  2. We interpret stimuli and construct “knowledge” based on experience, but the ways that we do so are mitigated by culture, previous experiences, and existing knowledge.
Remo knows that everything happening to him in The Binding of Isaac—a great power-up, an overwhelming horde—is the result of chained logic and weighted probabilities. Yet he is able to experience these windfalls and setbacks as the work of a capricious God. Why? Again, I offer two bullet points:
  • It’s despite his knowledge of what is really at work—one part of his brain is ascribing motive and agency where his conscious mind knows there is none.
  • It’s because he knows those processes are behind everything—he is choosing to conflate McMillen’s design decisions (which did lead to his trials and triumphs, albeit not directly) with the in-game antagonist.

Close reading code can contribute to our understanding of gameplay as experienced by players, if we consider the relationship between code and subjective experience as dialectic, rather than causal. The close reading approach can also contribute greatly to our historical and cultural understanding of software (or new media, the term he prefers).

Isaac’s mother, watching TV.

My take on the game itself

The Binding of Isaac is not a direct adaptation of the biblical story. Where the text places Abraham’s moral crisis at the center of the tale, Isaac is the protagonist of this game and its narrative. It is a modern woman—Isaac’s mother—rather than an ancient patriarch who is ordered to kill her son. And the God in this story doesn’t relent at the last minute.

The game is pervaded by a surreal tone. The monsters who attack Isaac include flies and variously dismembered corpses. Piles of poop litter the floor, holding occasional treasures. Items which help or hinder Isaac include Internet memes, demonic pacts, pills, severed pet heads, and items of his mother’s intimate wardrobe.

This is not a literal or sequential narrative. It’s a thematic exploration of child abuse, emotional and physical. Tonally, it has more in common with Jhonen Vasquez than with Phoebe Gloeckner. This is basically a game from the point of view of Jeremy.

McMillen does seem to intend some satire—the vacant cheerfulness of the mother as the opening narration proclaims her devotion to Christian television is hard to miss—but the precise target of that satire is unclear, due to the barrage of disturbing imagery which follows. Elements of that imagery are present in previous games by creator Edmund McMillen:

This does not mean that Isaac represents the culmination of a cathartic artistic journey. I know McMillen in exactly the way that I know Jimi Hendrix, David Lynch, or any other artist whose work seems personal and obsessive in an abstract way. I assume that the recurring motifs in McMillen’s work are there because he A) means something by it or B) can’t help himself. Perhaps that’s a leap. Still, why return to the well, otherwise? McMillen’s well is unpleasant, filled as it is with blood and excrement.

Just because. Classic JTHM, featuring the ever-traumatized Squee.

*The story of Abraham is in the Torah, but The Binding of Isaac explicitly references Christianity, and not Judaism. That’s why I’m using the Christian term here.



2 Comments

  1. [...] Systems and theology in The Binding of Isaac games religion [...]

  2. [...] Job, but, like game realism, that’s neither here nor there.)  Max Lieberman, over at Luderacy, evaluates both views, preferring Remo’s approach for its greater emphasis on the player’s interpretation.  He [...]