HUGE EDIT: Edmund McMillen has blogged about this article saying “By far the most mind blowingly accurate break down of the over arching meaning behind the binding of isaacs ending.” Thanks everyone for reading!
Edit #2: Check out Twinfinite’s interview with Edmund McMillen where we got to hear all sorts of great details about Isaac Rebirth! Here’s my roundup, and here’s a link to the full interview on YouTube!
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.