Written by Jonathan Wojcik
DECEMBER 2: The Binding of Isaac Already
Since its release in September of 2011, one question has crossed my inbox more frequently than any other: whether or not I've played, seen, heard of or am in any way familiar with the hit indie horror game, The Binding of Isaac. One of the second most common questions is whether or not I plan to review any of its monsters here on Bogleech, and significantly less common but surprisingly persistent is the question of whether I personally had anything to do with the game. Today, at long last, I'm going to put all of these pressing questions to rest.
The Binding of Isaac is an intense dungeon crawl assembled by game designer Florian Himsl with a story, characters and creatures imagined by my fellow internet cartoony-drawer Edmund McMillen. While I'm not sure if I fall anywhere on McMillen's radar, I've been hearing comparisons between the two of us since at least 2003, when he designed a flash game about a bird fetus full of maggots that endlessly vomits blood. You can see where people might get us confused.
It's a fair and reasonable presumption that Isaac is the type of game I might come up with, but almost tragically so. The entire premise of a terrified child sobbing his way through a delusional, impossible labyrinth of rotting mutant babies - which may or may not be his/her siblings or personal doppelgangers - hits astonishingly close to game concepts I'd been fostering since nearly my teen years. Concepts I kept putting on the back burner, fleshing out here and there, always telling myself I'd either put a great pitch together or learn to code on my own. The few fragments I shared with the public can still be seen in embarrassingly crude, ancient doodles such as this one and this one from 2002. Little more than margin scribbles, but still bits and pieces to a greater ambition that I never quite dropped, even if by now, I really ought to.
From its visual style to its soundtrack, The Binding is so strikingly close to that dream game of mine that it would now be difficult to take my central ideas any further without looking like a copycat, forever in Isaac's cute, nubby little shadow. No hard feelings, of course; Edmund and I just coincidentally share a lot of the same tastes, he beat me fair and square to the cartoonishly-gruesome monster-fetus-maze adventure game pie, and I admire the mainstream success of something that so perfectly encapsulates my ideal brand of horror. Still, it's not without some small sense of regret that I share my picks for the thirteen coolest, most interesting monsters in BoI's bestiary! I really couldn't have done better myself.
#13: The Gaper
Gapers are one of the game's most straightforward and commonplace fiends, but I can think of few things worse for a frightened, crying child to encounter in a deep, dark dungeon than children just like him, smiling stupidly even as they leak blood and attempt to murder what may could very well be their own lost brother. Creepier still, they just stand there and stare if they don't have a direct path to Isaac, and sometimes, their heads come off...but they keep coming.
#12: Membrain/Mama Guts
These ambulatory organs are almost interchangeable, except that they eventually split into either two smaller brains or two smaller bundles of "guts," respectively. The former slither about like gigantic slugs, leaving a trail of dangerous ooze, while the latter float along walls like horrible, orbiting intestinal polyps. They're incredibly simple, but simple is sometimes all you need. A wad of intestines just drifting around like a wet party balloon is a pretty unnerving thought.
#11: The Vis
Though recycled as a body for certain other monsters, this tubby little weirdo is, like all things in life, at its most amusing without a head. Stretching open its inappropriate orifice like one particularly infamous internet meme, it gushes a killer gout of blood clear across the room. Perfection.
#10: The B. Licker
If you're not sure what the "B" stands for, these guys are typically encountered in chains, forming a sort of not-so-human centipede. That horrible, hilarious face lurching out of the dark would be traumatic enough on its own, but once you realize what it probably wants to do to you, you'll wish it was only another flesh eater.
#9: It Lives
One of the game's toughest bosses is your own mother's heart, because oh yeah, part of the game takes place inside your own mother. Defeat it enough times, and "Mom's Heart" upgrades into "It Lives," sprouting an immense mutant fetus from its unholy ventricles. In either form, the boss gives birth to a multitude of other monsters, and It Lives can even spawn other bosses. I also like that this boss starts out guarded by a couple of beam-firing eyeballs. They're just another standard enemy and easy to take out, but I can't help seeing them as part of one big "face." A face made of fetus. A faceetus.
Also known as "slug boy" and "pisser," the poor, pathetic Peep attacks primarily by squirting and dribbling his own toxic urine, leaving horrible puddles of yellow sadness in his wake. Funny, but not half as interesting as his back-up move; as Peep nears death, his eyeballs break free from his head and float around aimlessly, bouncing off the walls like I always dreamt my own would. Later, you face The Bloat, a reanimated Peep corpse whose eyes are always on the prowl.
#7: The Duke of Flies
One of the most basic boss monsters, the Duke is a swollen, balloon-like floating corpse packed full of murderous, oversized flies. The Duke is by far not the only thing in the game that spawns flies - which fill the basic one-shot enemy role other games reserve for bats - but he is their duke, and that has to count for something, even if the Hive is a similar yet significantly ghastlier looking monster. Sorry, hive, but you're just not "duke" material.
#6: The Carrion Queen
This lovely lady is really an undead version of of the giant maggot boss, Chub, but if there's one thing and only one thing in this world more fun than a giant maggot, it's a giant skeleton maggot. A giant skeleton maggot who poops everywhere. Red poop. Red poop that burns. Red poop that grows back when destroyed, which is by far one of the worst things poop could ever conceivably do. It isn't even funny. A creature like this could ruin the world.
#5: The Blastocyst
While hardly as dramatic as "It Lives," a little happy embryo swimming in a mobile blob of amniotic fluid is something I've drawn on more than one occasion, further demonstrating that McMillen has an eye for only the finest monsters.
#4: The Mask of Infamy
This wicked-as-hell boss consists of both a giant, floating heart and an invincible, blood-weeping mask. It's a fundamentally creepy concept in itself, but the indistinct entity peeking out from the back of the mask is even more intriguing. All we know about it is that, lacking a health bar, this unseen occupant is entirely non-living. So is this its "real" body, but only its immense, detached heart is still alive? Or is the heart itself the core of its being, and the thing in the mask is merely a puppet?
Little Isaac, if you didn't figure out by now, has mommy issues. They're the driving force behind the entire story, and it's quite a feat that she manages to be creepier on the outside. We never see her entire form, but her corpulent appendages, hideously bulging eyes and clots of sickly blubber poke their way into the boss chamber from all directions, as though she surrounds the entire room in one horrid, amoebic mass of pure, distilled Freudian metaphor. There are still fiercer bosses, but few come much ickier.
What can I say about Gurdy? She's an obliviously happy, half-formed mutant nestled in a slimy mountain of her own cancerous tissue, freely popping in and out of the huge cyst and spawning flies from its various tubes and pores. This is one of the ones people compare the most to my own creatures, and I take it as a compliment. Gurdy is precious.
A design swap with the equally charming Fistula, this faceless, floating clump of tissue isn't what most people might have chosen as their top favorite - or even included on a list at all - but like I said, simple really works for me. There's just something very pleasingly surreal about having to fight a huge, hovering ball of diseased flesh, especially one which breaks apart into smaller, faster chunks as it sustains damage, ala the classic Arcade game Asteroids. Yes, we've seen skull-faced maggots, killer fetuses and bleeding faces galore, but really think about being trapped in a room with nothing but a putrid, slimy, jittering wad drifting around, perhaps not as psychologically scarring as the Mom battle, but to me, considerably more unnerving than just another slavering, fanged beast.
I just think this thing is cool, and I still haven't even gotten to the best part: that fragments of it turn into live spiders. That's it. I officially know the one and only video game monster I ever need for a pet. I would give this thing a seat at the dinner table. I would push it around in a stroller, spiders tumbling to the sidewalk with every bump in the pavement. I would blanket the walls in framed portraits of it wearing different hats. I would never need anything else in the world. Just me and my flying teratoma and my infinity spiders. The American dream.
So, now I've satisfied your insatiable craving for my opinions on pretend stuff, but I have to admit that I haven't really played much of this title myself, having played few if any video games since practically the Gamecube generation. Other people playing video games, fortunately, ranks high among my favorite viewing experiences, so I've seen just about all of Isaac in action, and there's not a single creature I haven't found clever and memorable in some way. Isaac really is exactly my kind of game, even if it stands as a harsh reminder of my own procrastination. At least I've got Mortasheen, still growing nicely into an epic gaming universe of its own, and maybe some day, just as many people will know it by name.
OPTIONAL QUESTION: What was the greatest thing you can remember fearing as a small child, however absurd?
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