Yesterday, I killed my mother by shooting poisonous tears at her while she threw spiders, zombies, and bloody chunks of meat at me. In the final blow, I held up the decapitated head of my cat Tammy, shooting more tears all over the room. When she finally died, her agonized cries fading into the background, I crawled into her womb and tore out her heart.
Welcome to “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth,” one of the most bizarre, disturbing, and downright fun video games you will ever play.
“Rebirth,” an indie title developed and published by Nicalis, is the devilish brainchild of game designer Edmund McMillen. The game is a remake of his 2011 release “The Binding of Isaac.” “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth” is to the original “Isaac” what the more campy, purposefully funny film “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” is to “Evil Dead.”
In both games, you play as Isaac, the only child of a single mother. Isaac’s mother is very religious, and, one day, she hears the voice of God telling her that her son is impure. She tries her best to purify him, first by taking away his toys and then his clothes, then by locking him in his room away from the temptations of the world. In its last message, the voice of God commands Isaac’s mother to kill Isaac—to sacrifice him to show her devotion. Isaac sees her coming through a hole in the door and in his panic stumbles upon a secret trapdoor to the basement; he flees down the steps, and the game follows his attempts to escape from his mother.
Much like the original, “Rebirth” is by turns terrifying, comic, depressing, and absurd. The game deftly uses its mechanics to convey these feelings. For example, Isaac fends off his foes (which range from flies to floating heads that shoot blood to clones of himself) by using his tears as projectile weapons. Enemies “pop” satisfyingly once Isaac has cried on them enough.
The game’s visual style also contributes to these themes. The horrors and absurdities of the basement are rendered as nostalgic, almost cute 16-bit pixel art, and every item Isaac picks up modifies his physical appearance. For example, an item called Ipecac causes Isaac to vomit explosions rather than fire tears at enemies, turns him green, and changes his expression to one of queasy discomfort. These appearance changes stack up, and by the end of the game, Isaac can appear a completely different person. The lighting engine in the game is also a thing of beauty, as fires throw a warm orange glow over each squalid basement room.
Perhaps the most important aspect of “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth” is its membership in the “roguelike” genre. This label can mean a lot of things for a game. For “Rebirth,” each time you play the game, every room of every level is completely randomized.
The items you receive are randomized as well, along with the enemies you face, the collectibles you pick up, and the bosses you fight. This randomization keeps the game fresh. It also gives you a reason to keep playing after you complete the game. Or after you die. Because the other important piece of “roguelike” in “Rebirth” is what’s called “permadeath.” When you die, you die. You must restart the game from the beginning.
Thankfully, a game of “Rebirth” does not take very long to complete. All told, a single run can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. But in truth, the game doesn’t end when you kill Mom. The more you play, the more items, enemies, floors of basement, playable characters, and endings you can unlock and explore. This is a game that you can play forever, and you may want to. After all, I’ve played the original for more than 100 hours, and “Rebirth” for 30 so far. Every piece of content adds a new and interesting spin to the game, and it is worth it to replay the game over and over to experience it all.
Speaking of experience, there are two ways to experience the game. McMillen is infamous for inserting in his games incomplete item descriptions, as well as hiding the true effects of a given item. When playing the game, one can choose to go in blind, exploring it all for themselves for the first time. This can mean losing a lot of runs due to a terrible item you’ve never seen before, but it can also offer the thrill of new experiences in a fairly steady stream, as there is an almost obscene amount of hidden content to find.
The alternative is to use online guides to gain knowledge of each item before you pick it up. This is interesting in its own way, as it allows for better planning and, in all likelihood, a higher win rate. Both experiences are compelling, but if you were looking for the second, I would recommend waiting a little bit to play “Rebirth,” as the community around the game is still scrambling to figure it all out. Otherwise, there’s no better time to play than now.
“The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth” is a phenomenal game. It is easy to learn, difficult to master, and most of all, fun. How often can you say that about killing your mom?