There’s a line by British rapper Mike Skinner which is pretty old at this point, but holds some truth when it comes to Bound: “You’re fit, by my gosh don’t you know it.” It’s a damn good looking game alright, and features a broad catalogue of art forms: contemporary ballet, abstract sculpture, even children’s drawings. Development studio Plastic is confident enough in Bound’s beauty to include a photo mode, offering a level of creative control normally reserved for car porn games like Forza. Adjust the depth of field, exposure levels and filters, then share your work in the photo mode contest run by publishers Sony Santa Monica. “Every frame of Bound has the potential of a masterpiece photo, and the possibilities are limitless,” the competition promo declares.
Sure, it’s a perfectly admirable achievement to craft a visually distinct videogame. But what about the gameplay beyond that? What lies beneath all those carefully curated polygons? Bound is essentially an action platform title (ie. traverse obstacles and avoid hazards to reach an end-of-level goal), but it’s a very distant cousin to Mario and Rayman. Players guide The Princess, a masked ballerina in a shimmering dress, through a metaphysical world full of impossible architecture that rises from a sea of pulsing white cubes. Her journey follows the introspection of a nameless pregnant woman in the “real world” who leafs through a childhood journal full of family tumult.
As the woman processes the anguish of her past, The Princess is assailed by physical manifestations of these fears. Dancing is her only defensive measure, and shrouds The Princess in a swirling protective barrier of ribbons. It’s a breathtaking showcase of motion capture technology, brought to life by the grace of dancer Maria Udod and choreographer Michał Adam Góral. And yet the dancing feels kind of optional for the most part, essential in only a handful of instances, a little bit of flare amidst the simplistic platforming.
I totally get that Bound is not trying to be a fully-fledged platformer a la Mario/Rayman. It shares just as much DNA with something like Gone Home, in the sense that it emphasises the narrative experience over the player’s input. Which is fine, except that connecting with Bound’s narrative is not easy. In keeping with its highly-stylised, low-poly presentation style, Bound tells the pregnant woman’s story in broad brush strokes. The narrative is (literally) fragmented, limited to some freeze-frame vignettes from the “real world,” and The Princess’ esoteric interactions with fantastic versions of her family. This means that a lot of the story is left to the player’s imagination.
Yes, yes, I know! Art is very subjective, so it’s not really a problem that Bound is open to some interpretation. Every player will bring their own experiences to the game’s key themes – childhood, parenting, family – so some leeway is useful in giving the player freedom to establish a personal relationship with the subject matter. On the other hand, this is supposed to be a story about the pregnant woman and her Princess alter ego, and the anguish she feels towards her (**spoiler alert** I guess?) hot-tempered father and apathetic mother. So the highly abstract nature of Bound risks weakening the player’s emotional connection with its protagonist – her experiences, her memories, her secrets.
It falls to the game’s soundtrack to provide some important emotional cues. Ukrainian composer Olag Shpudeiko sets an ethereal undertone for The Princess’ journey with a soft electronic ambience. Her agile footwork is matched at times by Shpudeiko’s light and nimble piano; on other occasions, a slow and brooding arpeggiated synth creeps ominously to the fore. There are moments when The Princess is forced to pass through areas filled with phobic hazards, and the piano motif is detuned, pitch bent and distorted to become a nightmarish mimicry. We know these things bother the Princess, as they interfere with her movement and cause her to cry out, but the score reinforces just how terrifying she finds them.
Music helps the player share in The Princess’ triumphs, too. At the end of each level, when she has confronted the final manifestation of a sad memory, a large yellow ribbon unfurls in front of her. As she glides along this ribbon, The Princess has an elevated vantage point over the level – that is, the dire memories – she has just persevered through. Shpudeiko brings this breakthrough moment to life by blending his synths and piano in a soaring, uplifting theme, some light drumming helping usher The Princess back to a place of quiet serenity.
Without these musical signals, Bound could have been a lot more opaque, too intangible for its narrative and themes to resonate as they should. Shpudeiko’s score adds the crucial final brushstrokes to this beautiful and unique canvas, providing the emotional weight needed to tip Bound away from purely serving as screenshot fodder, to a powerful and resonant gaming experience. And that is exactly the treatment that The Princess deserves. Not a pretty selfie on Snapchat to be gazed at and discarded, but an enduring masterpiece to be treasured.