Stressed and overwhelmed from a seemingly never-ending schedule of work, I began Bound with exactly the wrong attitude. At the moment when I clicked on the icon, it was just an obligation. Another box to check. Another review to be done by a deadline. Another item on the to-do list standing between me and the relaxation I’d been craving for weeks.
Then the game started, and I immediately remembered why I was so excited to play it in the first place. Bound is a visually stunning work of art, a journey through the abstract that fills every corner of the screen with mesmerizing shapes and colors. And outside of the framing device that makes up just a few minutes of play time, it also attempts to serve as an interesting metaphor for the healing process.
Enjoying the beautiful tranquility of the visuals and music gradually transformed my stress into quiet contemplation and gratitude. I was reminded that, in spite of my current day-to-day anxieties, I had once been in a place not unlike the protagonist — and that I might spend a little more time each day being thankful for my emotional freedom. In spite of this personal peace, though, the journey also left me with the feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the depiction of its themes. Bound may remind players like me that we’ve broken away from our difficult pasts, but it fails to capture just how painful that process can be for the people in the middle of it.
The game kicks off with the aforementioned framing device: a woman, carrying a baby in her womb and a composition book in her hand, exits a car and begins strolling slowly toward a nearby beach. In between bouts of walking, she sits from time to time and goes through her book, which is full of abstract art she has created — ostensibly as a way of coping with a series of events I won’t spoil here. The majority of the gameplay comes in the form of navigating this abstract art, piecing together how it serves as a metaphor for this woman’s trauma and subsequent recovery.
You play as the Princess, whose world is a chaotic mix of 3D shapes and surreal, colorful textures. It’s basically impossible to do justice to the arresting beauty of this universe with words alone, so take a look at the accompanying screenshots and trailer for a taste of just how gorgeous it really is — it’s even better in motion. Though the game has been advertised as a “platformer,” that’s a bit of a mischaracterization; while the Princess can run, jump and climb like a platforming protagonist, the level design itself is more reminiscent of what’s now called a “walking simulator.”
That is to say, there isn’t all that much required of the player in terms of challenge. While you may take the odd step off a platform and plummet to your death, the majority of your time will be spent going through the proverbial motions — hopping over small gaps, clambering up ladders and sliding down ropes is practically automatic in its effortlessness.
Additionally, you’ll sometimes come face-to-face with situations that lend the game its title; tiny black paper planes and long chains of pearls will reach out and bind the Princess’s limbs. The solution to these scenarios is dancing, which seems to represent how the protagonist coped with many of her difficulties. Simply hold the right trigger and the ribbons tied to the Princess’ arms will whirl around as she dances, creating a shield between her and whatever’s trying to grab her. Like the rest of the gameplay, this is fairly automatic — you just hold the trigger and literally waltz through the obstacles.
This lack of difficulty is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it makes it accessible for just about anyone to experience, which is something that doesn’t happen nearly enough in the gaming medium. On the other, though, the facile nature of this trek — gorgeous though the journey may be — inherently damages the symbolism it attempts.
Though many parts of the Princess’ adventure are initially harrowing — including the aforementioned moments where she is forcibly held, and another few where she comes face-to-face with an imposing, bellowing monster — there is never a sense of true danger, fear or despair. Though the protagonist may duck away and tremble with each roar of the huge creature, the player knows that it poses no real threat; though she may let out an agonizing scream as red tendrils whip around her arms, the player knows that a simple tap of the right trigger will make her safe again.
This effectively severs the link between the player and the character they’re controlling, and paints every interaction with a broad brush. It’s a testament to this latter point that the level-ending sections, in which the Princess slides down a huge ribbon and evaporates all the obstacles that haunted her, feel much the same as everything that came before them. These should be big, cathartic moments, but since the player’s sense of power is never truly wrested from them, the process of “taking it back” leaves a weak impression.
This is a story about healing, after all, and the one thing I know for sure about healing is that it’s not quite as neat and tidy as Bound makes it out to be. I’m sure quite a few of us can conjure up a story similar to the one at the center of this game, and how much of a struggle it is to overcome something that traumatic or painful. Plastic Studios’ gorgeous artwork made me grateful to be on the other side of a difficult part of my life, but I’m not sure it will speak to those currently in the fight — and it won’t make any sense at all to those who lack a point of reference.
There’s a significant gap between the person holding the controller and the people onscreen, and this makes it frustratingly difficult to establish empathy for them unless you’re willing and able to fill in the blanks yourself. For the people who really need Bound, that’s a gap too wide to cross.
This review is based on the PS4 exclusive, which we were provided with.
Bound is undeniably beautiful, but a chasm between the player and the characters makes it difficult to empathize with them — unless you're willing and able to bridge the gap yourself.