The Binding of Isaac Endings Explained! (Maybe)

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I’ve been playing through The Basement Collection recently and it contains several exclusive Q&As with Edmund McMillen about some of his older games.  First off, The Basement Collection is only $4 and it contains nine of McMillen’s earlier flash games.  Also included in the Collection are drawings and comics from McMillen’s younger life; it is as if he wants to be very open with his acknowledgment that his childhood was troubled.  There is a comic strip he wrote depicting unfeeling adults and very dark themes based on his childhood. And yet somehow, he manages to make it all comical…like his games.

McMillen inserts many deep themes in his work, but I’ve noticed one particularly overarching theme after viewing all of this new media: it tends to involve a person retracting into themselves when their home and social lives become too much for their view of reality to handle.  Now, let’s look at three games that are incredibly dissimilar, but that I still see as chronological in a bizarre, thematic way.  The Binding of Isaac endings have always been the most mysterious so I will work towards that one at the end.

Heavy spoilers follow, and I’ll try to mark them as best I can, but you have been warned….

Start with Aether – a game that McMillen says he feels stayed true to the meaning he meant for it.  The game begins with a poem about a boy who, for the sake of being brief, is overwhelmed with life.  He imagines a world where he rides a giant monster that can swing through clouds and through space to visit new planets.  It’s a blast to play and pretty short, so be sure check it out.  The game ends (**SPOILERS**) with returning to Earth and destroying it because it has become so small.  McMillen describes this as similar to when one creates their own elaborate world just to escape reality. It eventually cuts them off i.e. making Earth (reality) smaller and smaller until it is completely gone. (**End Spoilers**)

Let’s look at the other game McMillen claims to have delivered on its theme: Time Fcuk.  In this game, Steven (your character) is visibly depressed with life.  His future self arrives and urges him to “GET IN THE DAMN BOX”.  Once in the box, your future self consistently sends you morbid messages about how you two will never escape the box.  Each level is a puzzle with no apparent exit, but you can switch dimensions to reveal new paths. McMillen has described this box as the alternate, creative place one uses to escape reality, yet another return to this escapist theme.

Unlike Aether’s sad, underlying ending of being warped forever from reality, Time Fcuk has different endings that (**SPOILERS**) either allow to you give up and stay in the box forever, kill yourself, or reconcile with future Steven to finally set your future free.  McMillen describes the defining gameplay mechanic of switching dimensions to solve otherwise unseeable solutions as being able to escape the metaphorical box by seeing things from different perspectives; this, he says, he did in his own life.  McMillen has also said that there is a bigger connection between Time Fcuk and Isaac than one might believe.

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The resident Let's Player, TSFT cast member, and occassional Featurama contributor! My real home is our YouTube channel, which you can visit for some real wet n' wild fun. Regular episode uploads are the name of my game, but you can also keep an eye out for my roundups every week right here on Twinfinite!

  • Anon

    Wow, that explains it all better than I could ever even attempt to explain it. Fantastic article, I really enjoyed reading it.

  • jayborino

    Thanks a lot! I know overly explained theories tend to just sound crazy, but I spent all that damn time listening to his QA’s and this idea just seemed to make it all come together more.

  • Jackson

    Excellent analysis. Thank you for this great read. I’ve sunk over 50 hours into BoI but never stopped to really think about it.

  • http://www.beeserker.com Kyatt

    So, in Killer7 terms, Isaac is Harman Smith, and ??? is Garcian Smith. Interesting.

  • jayborino

    Wow! Edmund McMillen has read it and says it’s at least more accurate than other crazy ramblings! I feel like a superstar or something right now, he is such an incredible game maker who actually takes the time to say something with his games!

    Proof: http://edmundm.com/post/32717083908/the-chest-is-open

  • http://lovesubverts.com M. Joshua

    Really solid exposition. It sounds like the theme is almost identical to Papo & Yo. Though Isaac is obviously much more subtle (and replayable).

    As someone who might be called a Christian, I’ve found the Isaac narrative deeply curious and thoroughly fascinating. The root? How it handles the concept of “hearing from God” and the subject of “sin” and the Bible (especially from something akin to an “outsider” perspective).

    For me, the religious posture of Isaac seems to be more of a criticism of abuse, especially that of religious abuse. Any religion that tells somebody that they’re “beyond redemption” is corrupt and abusive regardless of its name. When things get called “Christian” in Isaac’s story, in my mind that’s a contradiction. Maybe I’m an over-literalist, but Christian means “like Christ.” And if something is “like Christ,” then it can’t be abusive. Because Christ is the opposite. He’s the liberator of the oppressed, abused and neglected. But that’s kind of the core of the point, isn’t it? If something is called “good” and it’s evil, then it’s extraordinarily evil. Isn’t it?

    So in the end, I praise the resolve of your exposition and of the Binding of Isaac’s intent. For one to call something “Christian” and to be the opposite of loving and forgiving? A valid definition of abuse.

  • jayborino

    Thanks for your response! I do agree with you for the most part and I think, in our imperfect world, being Christian and being Christ-like are not near the same. Maybe Edmund wanted to make this point, but I don’t want to try and press my luck by putting more words in his mouth! What is true about Christianity, more specifically Catholicism (which is what Edmunds family practiced), mankind is emphasized to be helplessly sinful and only through Jesus is there redemption. Children do not necessarily have the emotional maturity to understand this entire concept and can be damaged from it by focusing too much on the idea that they are bad, they don’t understand why, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I think this idea was the best way to emphasize how much acceptance Isaac lacked in himself and in reality. It could even be interpreted that it was too counter-intuitive to see how a Christian, like his Mom, could carry out such awful deeds just like you talked about. Much of these specifics are definitely up for interpretation, but it still fits into my “box” idea that McMillen seemed to confirm on his blog last night!

  • Jayborino

    Dear Reddit,

    I am mrbutlertron09! KafeKafe also dwells here at TwinfiniteLand and posted for me.

  • http://squiddy3000.wordpress.com squiddy3000

    Hey. Good article and I’m so glad that I wasn’t the only one without those stupid hypotheses about abortions, his father blah blah blah. I wrote two pieces similar to this a while ago which also talk about the different art-styles represent different “realities” in Isaac’s world.

    http://squiddy3000.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/the-dissection-of-isaac-part-two/

    That’s part two but part one is linked there.

  • gab

    Good interpretation, but the game showing the photographs at the end makes me think the last ending in another way. ??? is a symbol of reality, but he can also be seen as the state of denial itself, and destroying it can mean to overcome the chest world and to see reality again, thus the memories of his old real life appearing. Though this is hard to see as a “happy” ending of reconciliation with reality because he clearly is not happy of the reality he faces, since the photos get sadder and sadder. An interpretation like this would still leave the story unfinished, as it is hard to believe that Isaac would exit the chest and confront the world and his mother after he sees it. Unless of course we consider the game restarting as a sign that he still decides to get back in his box after his glance as the real world, but to be honest I’ve never looked at such an obvious game element as something relevant to the story O_o

  • Awesomeworkdude

    That’s deep.

  • Someone132

    So Edmund Mcmillen said that this is it? He just stays in
    the Chest until he dies? (even if we take your idea about ??? being
    metaphorical death, it won’t take long for it to become a real one) I guess
    that with his endorsal my ideas of the ending won’t matter anymore, but well…

    In my interpretation, the Mom really went insane and wanted to kill him and
    Isaac hides in the Basement for prolonged period of time without hardly any
    food, water, etc., and that this, combined with the shock of what has happened
    to him, has caused him to hallucinate the levels and the items/ enemies he
    encounters. When he gets killed by the monsters in the game, he dies for real,
    losing the strength to go on, with the Last Will being the only thing he has
    time to do before losing consciousness and never waking up again. Each level
    represents him going deeper into his subconsciousness as he’s losing more and
    more strength, which is why the levels become harder, with more enemies and
    barriers to overcome. When he defeats Mom, this gives him strength to come back
    to real world (seen as he draws the note in the epilogue), but then the Mom
    finally finds him and kills him if you stay at there.

    Therefore, your character goes on to hide deeper in the basement, before
    succumbing to the hallucination again. Even though he has just defeated Mom in
    his mind, he is now missing her and however much care he received from her,
    which is why the next two levels are set in the Womb. Defeating Mom’s Heart
    shows him overcoming this attachment to her and this prompts him to wake up
    from the dream again and find the Chest. When he finds the noose in there for
    the second time, he realises that going into the Chest will be equivalent to
    suicide. However, this is forgotten as he begins to find progressively better
    stuff inside the chest, which represents him warming up to the idea of going
    there. When everything is terrible is unlocked, he understands that he will
    likely die anyway, either by Mom or in the Chest and therefore the game becomes
    harder as his consciousness gets more disturbed and it takes more effort to
    survive. He continues to progressively find better stuff in the Chest, warming
    up to the idea further until he finally finds the ???. In my view, it represents
    the suicidal part of his consciousness which stayed hidden from him until the
    10th ending and it is named like that not because his mind doesn’t recognise it
    (if your idea is true, then how would you be able to use it as a playable
    character in the first place, if his mind refuses to even recognise it?), but
    because he’s already dead and death is the unknown for Isaac, no matter what he
    tells to himself. The music from then on changes to Jesus Loves Me as in that
    ending he goes into the Chest offscreen and he’s singing that to himself to try
    to comfort himself while dying of asphyxiation, the distortion being due to the
    brain damage he has already sustained.

    When faced with this grim reality, Isaac proceeds to follow religion that has
    saved him before, thinking that he will be saved if he just expunges all of his
    sins. Therefore, the next level is Sheol, i.e. Hell, as he’s fighting to purge
    his mind of sin, culminating in his battle with the Satan. The Bible will kill
    him in the fight instead of Satan because it is the religion that asks him to
    get rid of sin that he has in him and not Satan. When he wins, he realises that
    he won’t be able to get rid of sin that is in him for as long as he is living
    and he still goes to the Chest. He flashes through his other, non-suicidal
    personalities in turn to try to find salvation, yet he realises that they’re
    all sinners and thus proceeds to go to the Chest.

    After that, the Cathedral level represents him turning to the different side of
    Bible and Christianity – to the side of forgiveness, not damnation. Because it
    is always easier to condemn than to forgive, the Cathedral is a harder level
    than Sheol. When he’s fighting himself, he’s fighting his sinful/punitive
    nature and as he progressively does damage to it and takes it apart, it goes
    higher and higher to heaven, because he thinks that this is what will happen to
    him now. Even then, however, going to heaven requires him to die, and he does
    so in the Chest.

    The escape for the Isaac comes when he finds the Polaroid with the happy memories
    of his life before the Mom going insane. This finally gives him a reason to
    stay on this earth and allows him to confront the ???, the suicidal part of his
    consciousness in the Chest. When you beat him, you finally get out of the
    Chest: the Get Back In The Box message appears precisely because he’s now OUT
    of the box and went past that, with this message being a mental scar in the
    back of his mind, which is also why it is very faint.

    What happens after Isaac gets out of the Chest is very
    speculative and from what we can glimpse from the pictures, Isaac and Mom might
    well have reunited (I see no other way to interpret the picture of Isaac and
    Mom together AFTER the picture of Mom with the knife.) This is not too
    impossible if we assume that the story takes place over several days: Mom might
    well have lost a lot of her zealotry by then and begun to question her actions,
    and finding Isaac surviving for so long might well have broken her disposition
    altogether.

    Overall, I believe that this theory has one important advantage over your
    interpretation (and don’t get me wrong, yours was still very detailed): your
    theory doesn’t explain the Polaroid adequately. In your view, it was a disruptive influence on
    Isaac that forced him to defeat reality of his situation so that he can stay in
    his dream. But if so, why would it give him invulnerability when he takes
    critical damage, thus allowing him to stay in the dream for much longer? It all
    makes the sense under the interpretation above, though: the Polaroid reminds
    him of what he had and why he shouldn’t give up and this allows him to become
    temporarily invulnerable in the game by holding off the unconsciousness in
    reality. More importantly, if the Polaroid was against Isaac dream, why would
    it be shown in the ending if it reminds him of the reality he has just fought
    off? Finally, if ??? is representing the reality in Isaac’s situation, wouldn’t
    getting killed during his boss fight allow you to escape the dream? However,
    this doesn’t happen and you get the same death note as usual.

    However, none of what I have written here matters much if
    Edward doesn’t think so. I really hope that Edward will see that and provide some
    sort of comment on the situation. If so, I thank him in advance.

    • Luigifan

      …I actually think I prefer your version, actually. It’s bleak, but not devoid of hope.

  • Simotsquid

    I just find it sad how this isn’t just fiction; it applies to the real world, an example being my constant need to find an escape from reality. I hate school and I can’t stand work so I play videogames and read Twinfinite articles on the internet. I am seriously scared by this, but it’s “fun” to go through these imaginary worlds that are so much more interesting than the real one. Even right now it is my dislike of the truth that pushes me towards alternate realities like books and games. Also, I believe that games provide a sense of accomplishment, such as winning over a boss, getting achievements, or even getting useless little digital items like in A.V.G.M. I find it incredibly impressive how accurate Edmund McMillen’s games really are when you think about it.

  • Simotsquid

    I just find it sad how this isn’t just fiction; it applies to the real world, an example being my constant need to find an escape from reality. I hate school and I can’t stand work so I play videogames and read Twinfinite articles on the internet. I am seriously scared by this, but it’s “fun” to go through these imaginary worlds that are so much more interesting than the real one. Even right now it is my dislike of the truth that pushes me towards alternate realities like books and games. Also, I believe that games provide a sense of accomplishment, such as winning over a boss, getting achievements, or even getting useless little digital items like in A.V.G.M. I find it incredibly impressive how accurate Edmund McMillen’s games really are when you think about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.hebert.3910 Stephen Hebert

    Each day I’m amazed at how deep some games are becoming. It’s strange how some people bash
    games and favor books over them as some sort of all mighty standard of
    intellect when some games can have a much deeper meaning with its own rich
    personality. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good book, but it’s simply mind
    blowing how rapidly people have turned games into an actual art form and not
    just a form of entertainment. Maybe one day a literature class will have a game
    as a supplementary material or perhaps a class of its own.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1269933580 Malcolm Windisch Moore

    I would like to add my take on the chest ending. It goes through the entire going into the box, but the last two pictures are of 1. Isaac’s mom with a knife, then 2. Isaac’s mom and Isaac at a window. I think maybe Isaac’s mom was just trying to get Isaac out of his “box,” but Isaac was too afraid, and saw it as his mom being the bad guy trying to kill him. Or at least trying to cut him off from what he saw as his world, not knowing and being afraid of what was outside of his box.

  • http://www.facebook.com/griffin.toombs Griffin Toombs

    Well, Isaac is obviously hallucinating throughout the game. He also believes that he is a sinner and there is nothing he can do to change that. As stated in the intro video, he played with his toys and his mom watched Christian programming. Well, what if his mom wasn’t really homicidal? What if Isaac said in his mind that she is completely perfect and loved by God, and he was an evil sinner? Isaac would then do what is said his mom does in the intro video, removing all his toys and clothes, in an attempt to become pure. He then locks himself in his room and believes that his mom, who would be coming to see what was wrong with him, is trying to kill him to appease God. He would escape into his basement in an attempt to hide from her and survive. As for the items shaped around abuse, I don’t think his mom was abusive. In the intro Isaac’s dad is not mentioned or present in any way. The only thing that we know about his dad is through “dad” items and the polaroid. These abuse items could be associated with his dad. The reason why he wasn’t in the intro video is because his mom probably called the police and he was taken away. Isaac’s mom could have been the only person that protected him, making him to view her as a saint. Because of him viewing the Bible as saying that he is evil and his dad’s terrible abuse, Isaac could think of himself of some sort of evil being and his mom was told by God to end him. The poor kid also probably had a very low self esteem, as noted in the dream sequences in the loading screens depicting him being made fun of by other kids. This is just a theory though.

  • MetroAndroid

    Aether is the story of someone who goes into the box.
    Time Fcuk is the story of someone who comes out of the box.
    Isaac is the story of someone trapped in the box.
    Maybe Rebirth will have a continuation where you can break free of the cycle?

  • MetroAndroid

    I also like to think since at the end of the game Isaac looks at the box but doesn’t crawl in if you go the upper path, that maybe he’s conquering his deathwish by destroying it rather than killing himself. It could honestly go either way depending on Edmund’s way of thinking.

  • Selena

    I myself retreated into a fake world when I was younger, but unlike most children I started when I was 11 or 12 and went until I was 15 and finally started attending school instead of being homeschooled. Those years are all a blur with only my personal world and the worlds of video games and books that I escaped to being the only solid memories. Everything else is fuzzy with mostly vague notions. My mother worked at the YMCA running programs for children so that was my social interaction as a young child but my mom lost the job when I was 12. This seperated me from all but two of my friends. I was either alone or with my mother the vast majority of the time for the next 3 years. This caused me to retreat into a world of my own where I had friends, and was powerful and important (also allowed me to explore my budding sexuality). I was also very depressed during this time and my world is about all that held me together. My parents were distant (still are) and most of my interaction with them was them talking down to me or yelling at me because I hadn’t done something. It was during this time that I struggled with my growing moral problems with my Chrisitianity, making me of course guilty for feeling that a “perfect and loving god” was bad and fear that I would go to Hell. Thankfully going to my art school helped a lot, I made friends and discovered myself and eventually I forced my parents to take me to therapy and for the most part I’m happy now but I know exactly where the inspiration for these games comes from and I will always have that in my mind. I know most of you don’t give a fuck about my life but it’s certainly made me feel a lot better by sharing this. So if you did go through the trouble of reading this, thank you.

  • gamer12

    Hello all. I haven’t played the binding of Isaac, but was intrigued by the plotline, so came here to read about it and the meaning of the endings.

    I think I’m like Selena here, in saying that I suffered a lot as a kid, had overly religious (semiabusive) parents, and played games and read a ton to escape and went deeper and deeper and deeper into the escaping…so it’s amazing how Mr. McMillen created this world. I think I might give the games a try, but they look so scary and gory

  • Anonymous

    I just realized another thing that proves that your theory about BoL might be right. Why do you think Isaac would make a last will when he dies in the game? Probably because his so called “reality” that he believes in (the world of BoL) where he was supposed to be the “hero” failed since he died in it. When he “dies” in the game, he realizes that his world was never meant to be. That whatever he does, he can’t change the fact that he has sinned so he feels as though he was meant to die all along so he suffocates himself in the chest but not before leaving all that he has found his so called “reality” to Guppy (who must’ve been alive during that time but was dead during the couse of the game, possibly another reason as to why Isaac ventures off to be the “hero”. Maybe to avenge Guppy who was dead in his “World” but was really alive). Quite sad really, when you wake up and realize that you were never the hero all along

  • Kanta Supakanon

    This is way too late to join the discussion, but I would like to share my interpretation of this game. Maybe some other late arrivals would appreciate this?

    I agree with the article on Isaac’s inner world, but I believe that the real world angle is important as well.

    One thing that stay firmly in my mind is the game’s plot introduction. Mom sound crazy and oppressive. She seem like a suffocating presence that is determined to take everything away from Isaac.

    She took away his pictures, games, toys and even his clothes.

    Then I saw Isaac being so happy when he found a noose that he use to hang himself…and a nail he use to stab himself. Things he found in his toys box.

    Then I realize that every playable characters are Isaac one way or another. Most of them is simply Isaac “dressing up”….and Magdalene look just like Isaac’s dead sister.

    Games and drawing pictures are tools of escapism…

    Could it be that his mom is trying to help? It is a legitimate cause for concern if Isaac had been playing dress up all the time, doing nothing but drawing and playing games. If Isaac had been playing with a noose and a nail by hurting himself.

    Had his mom really locked Isaac in his room? Did she really grab a kitchen knife to kill him?

    Could it be that Isaac locked himself inside his room, because he felt that his mom left him no choiThis is way too late to join the discussion, but I would like to share my interpretation of this game. Maybe some other late arrivals would appreciate this?

    I agree with the article on Isaac’s inner world, but I believe that the real world angle is important as well.

    One thing that stay firmly in my mind is the game’s plot introduction. Mom sound crazy and oppressive. She seem like a suffocating presence that is determined to take everything away from Isaac.

    She took away his pictures, games, toys and even his clothes.

    Then I saw Isaac being so happy when he found a noose that he use to hang himself…and a nail he use to stab himself. Things he found in his toys box.

    Then I realize that every playable characters are Isaac one way or another. Most of them is simply Isaac “dressing up”….and Magdalene look just like Isaac’s dead sister.

    Games and drawing pictures are tools of escapism…

    Could it be that his mom is trying to help? It is a legitimate cause for concern if Isaac had been playing dress up all the time, doing nothing but drawing and playing games. If Isaac had been playing with a noose and a nail by hurting himself.

    Had his mom really locked Isaac in his room? Did she really grab a kitchen knife to kill him? Maybe, she is literally trying to open his door with that knife.

    Or Isaac could have see her attempt to take him out of the box as nothing short of murder. Personally, if someone try to ‘extract’ me from my world or vice versa, I’ll be on full defensive mode. My inner world IS my heart and soul given shape.

    This is just a guess, but if Isaac had been dressing up as his dead sister to cheer up his grief stricken mom (who goes along with it). Maybe, Isaac’s dad feel he had enough. He choose to leave instead of helping his depressed wife and disturbing son.

    So maybe it is true that it’s impossible for Isaac to find salvation within himself, but that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be saved. There is a world outside with someone who care about him…and would hold his hand.

  • catrap0

    reposting this here Just now

  • Fox

    Damn.. this is just really sad >_< *wipes tear*

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