1-1 The Binding of Isaac: Coping with Mental Health

The one video game I’ve played the most in the last 4 years is The Binding of Isaac. For those unaware, it’s a rogue-lite game designed by Edmund McMillen inspired by the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac. It’s a bullet-hell game where you use your tears to battle monsters in a procedural generated dungeon, unlocking items and power-ups to defeat various bosses and finally Isaac’s mom.

A sample of the game-play.

Warning: the game is rather juvenile in it’s theme with lots of body/fecal humor. Expect a fair amount of fart noises, literal poo-monsters, & blood. If you can ignore or make peace with this aspect of the game, then you’re in for a treat because the game-play is highly addictive.

BoI is one of those games that clicks with certain individuals, and when it does, it clicks in such a way that you’ll sink hundreds upon hundreds of hours into the game. Each new “run” unlocks something new: a character, a unique item that you might have the chance of picking up during your next run, new bosses, etc.

I bounced hard off of this game a few years ago. Someone had recommended it to me and told me that it was a lot of fun and so I took a chance and picked it up on Steam. It just didn’t “click” with me and I found myself wondering why anyone would play this game. The graphics are not that impressive (game is originally flash based).

But if you look deeper beneath the surface (beyond all the fecal humor) you’ll find a very deep game and one that is very challenging. The game is difficult but also fair. This is the main reason I keep on returning to the game. This difficulty is tied to my own mental health and it’s something I am constantly exploring.

It sounds absurd to write out, but I do believe this game saved my life. I’ve struggled with mental health for a good portion of my adult life and I found this game (or maybe it is more accurate to say that it found me) at a particularly low moment and it fundamentally changed me as a person.

At it’s core, BoI is about a young boy who is haunted by his demons (though mine are not as maternally focused as Isaac). BoI is a game about perseverance. Every new dungeon run presents the player with a new set of challenges and is that not what our lives are? Each day we head out and face a new set of challenges, we’re given various tools to battle our demons and sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not. It’s how you react to these losses, to the challenges you encounter that truly defines you.

I’ve learned how to push back against those dark thoughts that crowd my brain from time to time. That it’s ok to fail. Some runs are easy and you find all the right items and the bosses seem easy to defeat. Other times you die on the first floor through some foolish error or bad luck. No matter the run, whether it’s a success or a failure, this game has become a safe space for me. It’s like the back of my hand.

I feel like everyone needs a game like this in their lives. Something they can just dive into on a continual basis, a game where you are still challenged but not overwhelmed. A game where you are both thinking but also un-thinking. That kind of zen-like state where you just flow because you’re so familiar with the game and all that it brings.

I hope you find yours.

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