The act of moving through Bound’s unique, abstract, and utterly gorgeous world is unlike anything ever experienced in games. Developer Plastic, which previously worked on ambitious-if-not-strange PS3 projects like Datura and Linger in Shadows, has taken the simplistic core of a 3D platformer and injected it with some impressive style and vision.
While the camera can’t quite keep up with the world, the “how” and “what” of dancing through it makes Bound a memorable experience.
The first impression you get of Bound is that of a platforming video game that uses interpretive dance as a foundation for all movement. It’s only after the credits roll that you realize the reverse is true: Bound is an interactive, interpretive dance about a video game.
Though you might not be able to tell at first glance, the story is as simple as a fairytale: you play as a princess who sets out to protect her mother and her kingdom from a beast known as…wait for it…The Monster. But it only takes a second to realize that the princess moves with the elegance and precision of a ballerina – the way you can glide across the air, transition from one motion to another, and use her body as a canvas of expression is unlike any other character.
The art form of Bound
Bound speaks the language of games, but it’s only vaguely interested in fluency. It reproduces the basic elements in grand, abstract, poetic flourishes. Even the simple act of pressing the jump button creates a symphony of balletic movements from our brave heroine. Bound is less focused on presenting a series of challenges than it is in letting players participate in an interactive modern-dance performance.
There’s also a series of interstitials that tell a tale much more grounded in reality. The delivery is obtuse, but the pieces stitched together told an effective, if not entirely predictable emotional story. It deals with some themes and ideas that games generally don’t touch.
The worlds that you explore in Bound expand and contract like a living, breathing organism. Platforms manifest in space, the ground pulsates with an internal rhythm, and walls shatter apart and piece themselves together at will.
While the camera does its best to keep up with the oscillations and transformations of the space around you, you oftentimes have to come to a halt and rejigger the view in order to find your place in the environment. In a game that’s at its best when you’re moving, having to stop for this reason is a bummer. However, when you get going you find yourself just rolling, leaping, and spinning around gorgeous minimalist spaces for minutes on end just because it looked and felt so unique.
Bound’s gameplay is rudimentary, consisting primarily of running, jumping across moving platforms, and climbing ladders. Most of what passes for challenge has to do with navigating the many alternate routes through the labyrinth, sussing out what’s actually going to get you down to a lower level safely, what’s an actual shortcut, and what may result in plunging to your doom.
So much emotion is gleaned from the animation. The way the Princess’ body flattens against a wall, stretches mid-air during a leap, and controls during a pirouette is incredible. It is as effective a depiction of dance as ever seen in our medium. Likewise, her body language tells a story in and of itself, especially when she cowers in fear in the presence of The Monster.
That fear is unjustified, though, because there is no death in Bound, and there’s no punishment for platforming failure other than a quick respawn to the site of the incident. The platforming isn’t necessarily tricky or creative, but ledges can be narrow and the collision detection is a bit spotty, so you find yourself falling every so often. But like Journey and Abzu, you really don’t mind that lack of friction. The joy you get from Bound comes from its unique mechanics and its visually fantastic worlds.
The story and the characters
Then there’s the princess herself–our heroic dancer who must travel the labyrinth. There isn’t much to her from a mechanical standpoint. She can run and jump, and in lieu of an attack, she can perform an elaborate dance that allows her to traipse through dangerous environments unscathed. It’s a wonderful idea, albeit somewhat undercooked. You can put some variations on the dance with simple button combinations, but doing so doesn’t serve a meaningful purpose.
Repetitive as these actions can sometimes be, the game still deserves praise for creating a protagonist who neither looks nor moves like any other video game character: a lithe, masked hero whose smallest motion is an act of grace.
Despite being a relatively-simple 3D platformer, Bound’s fantastic sense of movement and strange, dream-like world make it utterly unique. And yet, to decry it for its overly simplistic mechanics is to ultimately miss the forest for the trees. Bound is digital art installation. It’s only in the game’s final moments, when you’re able to view the full breadth of the work, which it’s clear this is a work of art that could not be accomplished in any other medium but this one.