Game Review: Bound

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Bound is an ugly game. Colours clash violently and weird polygonal abstractions, which litter the game’s surreal environments, jar like broken glass. Even the princess around whom the game centres on has her perfect dancer’s form marred by geometric distortions and odd colouring. Bound is an ugly game, and that’s a big part of what makes it so powerful, haunting, and beautiful.

There’s a lot of focus in the game industry on looking “good”. Whether good is defined as the photorealism of something like Uncharted 4 or the stylized art direction of Telltale, there’s a general expectation on games — from both developers and players — that they’ll be aesthetically pleasing, or at least that they’ll try to be. Bound is a game that makes a point of being ugly, of rejecting aesthetic principles that are so often taken for granted, and that’s a powerful statement.

The thing is, Bound is a game that deals with ugly themes, and its disjointed presentation is both symbolic and emotive. It tells a story about family dysfunction and domestic violence, and it’s a better take on such themes than any other game I’ve played; the broken glass aesthetic is a big part of why that is. It captures the feeling of confusion and betrayal that will be familiar to any kid who’s witnessed their parents’ break up. Even with the story told almost entirely through the metaphor of a princess trying to save her broken kingdom, Bound achieves a heartfelt, intimate tale—one that, unfortunately, will be very familiar to a lot of people.

However, Bound is a beautiful game as well. It has you platforming and puzzle-solving your way through these abstract spaces in the most enchanting way possible: with ballet. The princess’ every movement is fluid, graceful, and, well, balletic. A jump is never just a jump, but a grand jeté or a cabriolé; when you’re fending off the swarms of paper planes and other oddities that threaten you, it’s not with a sword or gun, but with pirouettes and pique turns. Even the respawning animation after a fall takes the form of a brief floor routine. The princess’ movements are absolutely stunning, and it should be no surprise, given that her motion capture comes from the talented dancer Maria Udod.

It’s this contrast between the elegance of the princess dancing and the ugliness of the game world that’s especially potent. More than anything else, Bound is a game about “finding beauty in the dissonance”, if you’ll forgive a Tool quote. It’s a game about picking up the pieces and trying to put them back together, whether they be the fragments of a broken family or the shards of the crumbling abstract kingdom that the princess calls home. The beauty of dance is your primary means of defence—in the most literal, mechanical sense—against this discordant world.

How exactly those pieces form a whole will vary from person to person. Drawing on the work of filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, Bound presents its events in a randomised arrangement—not only can you choose the order you play the game’s levels but the sequence they’re presented in is shuffled for each playthrough, too. The end result is that the story can unfold in drastically different ways, simply from a handful of cutscenes and thematically-related levels being seen in a different order. Who’s at fault, and how does that affect how you approach the game?

It’s really worth playing the game through multiple times to see this “Kuleshov effect” in action, because it’s quite impressive and the way Bound uses it to underpin the theme of piecing together something broken is remarkable. Luckily, it’s a fairly short game—a couple of hours, give or take, on a first run—so this isn’t a big ask. The brevity also means it can easily be played in a single sitting, and that’s when Bound is at its most powerful—when you can experience all the ups and downs without distraction, and carry your emotional response into the final moments.

That couple of hours assumes plenty of time just taking in the game’s world and processing the story that Bound unfolds. If you’re rushing, you can get through it in under an hour, and there’s actually a Speedrun mode that unlocks after you finish it the first time. The drive of trying to improve your best time and outdo friends and rivals is certainly appealing, but I think the real draw of speedrunning here is just the spectacle of it. The gracefulness of the princess’ movements and fluid level design make the rush of the run its own reward, and involves the player in that dance—that process of finding beauty in dissonance.

Bound is an ugly game, but it’s the most powerful, most enchanting kind of ugly. It dares to reject videogames’ obsession with “looking good” and instead focuses on using visual design to complement the core themes and emotional hook of the game. It’s an ugly game because, by taking those ugly fragments and piecing them together, we might just be able to find something beautiful.

On PS4

Publisher SIE Santa Monica Studio
Developer Plastic
Genre Platform, Exploration
Players 1
Rating PG
Released 16 August 2016

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