Release Date: 16/08/2016
Played On: Playstation 4
Available On: PS4
Time Played: 2h 19m
Progress: Completed Story + 1 Side Area
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
I'm always up for abstract ambiguity in games and stories in general, so as I danced my way through the beautiful environments of Bound, my mind wandered to theorise on elements in the game. This Playstation 4 indie darling has a lot of good ideas and hints at a bunch of interesting themes, but I'm not sure if it ultimately succeeds.
Mechanically speaking Bound is a relatively straight forward game, with a little more input required than your typical walking simulator. In some ways it's a platformer, but there's no skill requirement and very little exploration, leaving a linear path from start to finish. There are side areas to discover, which are fairly well hidden as you need to be looking out for alternate paths if you want to find them. There's not a lot there to discover though, and the main experience can be discovered easily by simply progressing in the most obvious direction at all times.
Jumping platforms and navigating around the abstract level layouts can be a bit of a pain, as the controls are often clunky and a bit unresponsive. I experienced too many deaths by jumping for a platform I thought I could reach, only to be disappointed. This is not the game for the running and jumping crowd, as you could find much better platforming experiences in a number of different games.
One of the main gimmicks of the game is that your character dances her way through the levels, which is beautifully animated and fun to observe. Pressing various face buttons will change your dance, allowing you to jump and duck around a few minor obstacles along the way. Dancing is often preferable to running through a level, as there are hostile elements that will stop you in your tracks if you're not lost in a swirl of ribbons and movement. It's a shame then that the fastest path through the game is to run between sections of each level without dancing, as the dance slows you down enough to make parts frustrating.
If Bound were more of a narrative game, I wouldn't mind the pace, but 99% of the game is spent moving through locations, with that clunky platforming along the way. With such a focus on movement and physical expression, the slow moves and lackluster platforming only seem to get in the way. I found myself getting tired of the movement restrictions when I was about half way through the game, leaving me to seek out the fastest route to the finish line. It took me out of the world a little and became very gamey as a result, which is especially disappointing when the rest of the game is great.
Thankfully there's more to this game than the basic mechanics that let it down. As far as I can tell, the game is about a woman and her childhood memories. Between levels you play in a realistic world where this woman walks along a beach, looking at drawings in a book. Each drawing becomes a level to play, as she remembers something from her past and relives associated emotions.
I must say that a lot of the game's themes are abstract, so my own interpretation may be a bit different to someone else's.
Anyway, each memory takes you to the abstract world of thought and emotion, which is where the game really shows its promise. This is the part where you dance through the world, collecting shapes and travelling through odd buildings and across twisting platforms. Everything around you forms and deforms as you move through it, all while an ocean of blocks and shapes undulates below. The design of the world is outstanding and really needs to be seen in motion to fully appreciate its beauty.
The animations are spot on as well, with your characters dancing gracefully throughout the level with fluidity and purpose. It's such a shame that the controls get frustrating as you miss ledges and clip away from ladders, because the game really is a looker.
If you like soundtracks as well, this one has a nice amount of instrumental music that supports the theme of dancing, as well as the sorrow and dread that are woven into the story.
I'll try not to spoil any major story points, even though I may have interpreted things incorrectly, but be warned that something might slip out accidently.
Each level is book ended by motionless scenes of children and a family in their home. As you move through the scene fragments come together to change from a chaotic mess, to a tangible diorama of events. This is probably my favourite thing about Bound, while also being the biggest let down. Throughout the game there are a number of abstract parts that really get your brain ticking.
There are a couple of other characters in the abstract world of memories, where one is aggressive and imposing, while the other is some kind of protective authority. I spend the whole game theorising who these other characters could be, and what their role was in the whole thing, only to be blatantly told right at the end of the game. Maybe I'm just a bit slow and should have figured it out all along, but I was right in the middle of interpreting the game, when the game spoke up and said "forget all that, it's actually this". Like clipping off a ladder to fall into the abyss, I felt the rug get pulled out from under my emotional investment in the game.
Perhaps anyone else playing Bound will understand it all quite literally, but I was so tied up in the surreal ambiguity that having it spelled out in the end defeated the purpose. There's a lot to unpack about the possible story behind the game, which would have been a far more interesting experience.
For example, throughout Bound you're safe when you're dancing, which is often at odds with what is happening on screen that it amplifies the notion that the player character is reliving memories from an emotional perspective. There are parts where you are face to face with danger, so much so that you hold your head in pain and can't move. Alternatively, you can dance through the scene without even acknowledging the danger that's meters away.
For me this spoke of the escape that art can bring from the pain of daily life. As if the character turned to dance as a way to focus on what's in front of her and cope with the emotional stress of the literal world. Of all the arts, dance is the one I relate to the least, but I can connect with this interpretation because it's how I feel about music and drawing. In Bound, losing yourself in dance is often the only way to progress, which counted as a commentary on the value of having creative pursuits that let one examine confusing emotional experiences. In this way, Bound could be seen as a journey through trauma, with the manifestation of this trauma playing a role in conquering the world it inhabits.
There are tangents that could explored, but with this type of ambiguous material to work with, there are endless possibilities. Hence why I was deflated to be told at the end what had literally happened. It's like finding out that your favourite song means something completely different to your own interpretation. It kills any meaning that it had in the first place.
I don't want to get completely down on Bound, as it was a worthwhile game to play and I'm glad that it was made. There's a lot of potential that could be realised better in another game, which might reach the heights hinted at in this one.
Bound is a perfect example of how sometimes the meaning you want to convey to a player, might not be as powerful as the meaning that players find for themselves. Oh, and please don't put lousy platforming mechanics into a game that doesn't need them to make its point.
Overall though, I liked Bound, despite its stumbling blocks. The world of artistically designed games is getting larger and larger, so let's keep the ball rolling and continue to give these sort of experiences a go. For a game to get this close to paying off completely, I'm looking forward to the future that will bring more refined art to the medium.