The Binding of Isaac has become a hugely successful indie game since it launched on Steam. Now, Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl, the two men behind the game, are trying to expand the audience by moving to the 3DS, Nintendo has decided against allowing it, mainly because of the religious aspects of the story. For those of you that do not remember (or know) the story of Isaac, which the game is based on, I will give you a quick synopsis.
Isaac was the only son of Abraham, and Abraham loved his son very much. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering and Abraham agreed. Just before Abraham was going to kill his son, an Angel appear to tell him to stop. God saw that Abraham was a God fearing man, and his son did not need to be sacrificed. Abraham then found a ram and sacrificed it to God as a burnt offering and their family, in almost every sense of the meaning, lived happily ever after.
That story was taught to me at the age of 6, and was told over and over again for many years to come. It is a dark story that really shakes a kid. The Binding of Isaac is just as dark as you would expect, but I won’t go into anything about the story, as that is some of what makes the game so good. Just know that Isaac in the game is based on this important biblical tale, but the two versions of the character/person are far from carbon copies. Regardless, the fact that Binding is based on a religious story is the cause of Nintendo’s refusal to release the game on the 3DS.
There is no doubt that Nintendo is censoring what you are allowed to play on their system, but this isn’t the first time they have done this. They were significantly more aggressive with their censorship in the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System eras. Maniac Mansion for the NES and Mortal Kombat for the SNES were two of the most well known cases of censorship by the company, but they weren’t the only ones. Even then, Nintendo allowed the games to release as a censored shell of the original. An option they are not giving Isaac.
For now, Nintendo has put a complete halt on a release of The Binding of Isaac. It would seem the game is a perfect fit for a Nintendo system. Isaac is a randomized dungeon crawl, that takes a great deal of inspiration from Zelda and rogue-likes. As previously stated, Nintendo isn’t putting the stops on Isaac for the 3DS because of the gore (which would be less of an issue), its the religious overtones of the game that raised the red flag. It’s also something they have rarely, if ever, used as the basis to deny a game’s release.
I’m no huge Nintendo fan (I’m not not a fan either), and this isn’t the place for me to take a personal stance and spread the gospel of my own views on their decision, but it is a great place to question how much religion is too much for Nintendo, or where the line is drawn for censorship in general. I know some of you Nintendo diehards are well versed in every story, in every game, that the company has allowed to appear on their various system, so chime in with examples that support or go against their stance. This was going to be a short story about Isaac getting blocked, but I started to wonder, has Nintendo ever released a game that pushes religious controversy at all? This caused me to start digging even further than I had expected for this story. While this link is a bit older, it will shed some light on Nintendo’s stance towards the type of games they allow to see release on their hardware. First, here is Nintendo’s stance on acceptable material, from quite a few years ago (it is the most complete breakdown I could find, and seems to stand up even today, to an extent):
Nintendo of America’s priority is to deliver high quality video game entertainment for our customers. When those customers are children, parental involvement in their game playing is recommended. Nintendo is concerned that our products do not contain material that society as a whole deems unacceptable.
Consequently, since 1988 we have consistently tested the content of all games developed for Nintendo systems against our evolving game standards. As our business has matured, we have adapted our guidelines to meet the concerns of the members of our target age group and their parents. Although we realize that definitions of social, cultural and political views are highly subjective, we will continue to provide consumers with entertainment that reflects the acceptable norms of society.
The following Game Content Guidelines are presented for assistance in the development of authorized game paks (i.e., both Nintendo and licensee game paks) by defining the type of content and themes inconsistent with Nintendo’s corporate and marketing philosophy. Although exceptions may be made to preserve the content of a game, Nintendo will not approve games for the NES, Game Boy or Super NES systems (i.e., audio-visual work, packaging, and instruction manuals) which:
• include sexually suggestive or explicit content including rape and/or nudity; (1)
• contain language or depiction which specifically denigrates members of either sex; (2)
• depict random, gratuitous, and/or excessive violence; (3)
• depict graphic illustration of death; (4)
• depict domestic violence and/or abuse; (5)
• depict excessive force in a sports game beyond what is inherent in actual contact sports; (6)
• reflect ethnic, religious, nationalistic, or sexual stereotypes of language; this includes symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha; (7)
• use profanity or obscenity in any form or incorporate language or gestures that could be offensive by prevailing public standards and tastes; (8)
• incorporate or encourage the use of illegal drugs, smoking materials, and/or alcohol (Nintendo does not allow a beer or cigarette ad to be placed on an arena, stadium or playing field wall, or fence in a sports game); (9)
• include subliminal political messages or overt political statements (10)
This all leads to a question about censorship. While Nintendo has become more lax towards what they will and will not allow in their games (Mad World comes to mind), are they going too far by deciding what people can see when it comes to religious content? Are they being hypocritical by throwing out these rules for some games and going back to them for others? It should be said, again, that the information above is from the Gamecube era, but no date is provided, so there is no way to know just how old the info is. There is also nothing as concise as this currently that I could find. Ed McMillan, the man behind The Binding of Isaac, spoke about the controversy through twitter:
Nintendo is saying that Isaac cant ever exist in the 3DS shop ever. I have no idea how this would effect retail but theres no way anyone would publish it retail wise either way due to the games price. It took a while to get an answer because the religious themes in the game made it very hard for Nintendo to take a stance on it, so it had to keep going higher and higher in the ranks of Nintendo approval to get the OK.
I was told for a while it looked like we were getting the green light because we had an official rating in Germany (M) and as long as the game could get a rating that was not (AO) it would probably pass… but then they went silent for a month and I had a feeling after the news got around in Germany about the controversial “Blasphemous” rating that Isaac received (which resulted in its (M) rating), it would probably get back to Nintendo and sway their vote… but I have no confirmation that that was the reason.
All I know is they passed on it due to problems the religious aspects of the game might cause. I don’t have details on what aspect of “religion” they are most bothered by, but I did hear that they didn’t care about any blasphemy in games, but cared more about religion period and how something based on the bible might effect things… honestly it was a pretty muddy response, but I did hear that religious games are far more bothersome than blasphemous ones, and the game being based on a story in the bible and being “by the book” in a lot of ways could have actually been an issue.
All this stuff has opened my eyes so much more to the freedom devs have with Steam. Censorship like this doesn’t pop up that often in games, and there really are only a handful of “banned video games” or highly censored ones. It’s nice to have the freedom to publish something that speaks its mind about religion on a platform like Steam.
Are we in an era that game companies should still censor what we can and can’t see? Is Nintendo just slow to move towards the freedom provided by other companies. They were slow to admit how important online gaming was to the masses after all. Gaming is populated by a diverse group of people. There is no way to not offend or upset some subset of that group without upsetting another, but is Nintendo stuck in the 90’s by making this choice? How much freedom can a company have in controlling what we view? The Bible’s version of Isaac’s story is an interesting tale of complete faith, one that The Binding of Isaac could lead the unfamiliar to read. So, what do you think? Where do you stand on the issue?