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Behind Binding of Isaac's blasphemous success

Themes like child abuse and suicide should have relegated Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac to the niche, but it sold a million units anyway. In a Game Developer magazine postmortem, McMillen talks blasphemy and game design.

October 29, 2012

4 Min Read

Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac is an unlikely indie best-seller, and he knows it. "I knew Isaac was special, but if you asked me to bet on whether Isaac would sell over one million copies in less than a year, I would have bet against it," McMillen writes in the postmortem for the November 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, "It was designed to be a niche hit at best." He adds, "I had hoped it would gain some minor cult status in small circles, kind of like a midnight movie from the '70s. From any mainstream marketing perspective, I designed Isaac to fail -- and that was my goal from the start." Here are some choice extracts from McMillen's postmortem:

What went right: Uncensored, unique theme

A lot of the content in Isaac is extremely dark and adult. It touches on aspects of child abuse, gender identity, infanticide, neglect, suicide, abortion, and how religion might negatively affect a child, which are topics most games would avoid. I wanted to talk about them, and I wanted to talk about them in the way I was comfortable with, so that's what I did with Isaac. I'm not saying everyone who played Isaac did so because they cared about these themes, or that they even understood why they were in the game, but I strongly believe that this adult conversation I dove into with Isaac is what made the game stand out to people and kept them thinking.   I grew up in a religious family. My mom's side is Catholic, and my dad's side is born-again Christians. The Catholic side had this very ritualistic belief system: My grandma could essentially cast spells of safe passage if we went on trips, for example, and we would light candles and pray for loved ones to find their way out of purgatory, and drink and eat the body and blood of our savior to be abolished of mortal sin. As a child growing up with this, I honestly thought it was very neat - very creative and inspiring. It's not hard to look at my work and see that most of the themes of violence actually come from my Catholic upbringing, and in a lot of ways I loved that aspect of our religion. Sadly, the other side of my family was a bit more harsh in their views on the Bible; I was many times told I was going to hell for playing Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering (in fact, they took my MtG cards away from me), and generally condemned me for my sins.

What went wrong: "Blasphemy" and controversy

Not surprisingly, controversy made a few appearances in Isaac's release year, but not in the way you might think. During Isaac's German retail launch, the German ratings board gave Isaac a 16+ due to "blasphemy." That itself didn't cause controversy - instead, it was the idea that said blasphemy could affect the age rating on a video game. Blasphemy isn't something you can define for everyone (what's blasphemous for one religion isn't necessarily so for another), so how could one define something as containing blasphemy? It was a very interesting argument, and I'd be lying if I said that having the first game rated 16+ due to blasphemy didn't feel awesome, but sadly it was this controversy that I believe eventually led to Nintendo's decision not to port Isaac to the 3DS. I remember my wife being worried about Isaac release, worried that it might offend the wrong people and someone could end up being hurt. I can't say I didn't have some hesitation about this aspect of talking about religion in a satirical and possibly blasphemous way, but I couldn't help but avoid the simple logic that, well, most of those kind of people don't play games. And after over a year, I really believe that's true. (Thank God!)

More in the November issue

The November issue of Game Developer magazine is now available via subscription and digital purchase. This issue also features a "mid-mortem" for free-to-play Shoot Many Robots: Arena Kings by Demiurge Studios, and the annual Game Developer Power 50 list. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

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