Bound (2016)

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 “The fact that I, myself, do not understand the meaning of my paintings at the time that I am painting them does not mean that they have no meaning.” – Salvador Dali

 

 

Labelled an Experimental 3D Platformer, Bound is a surreal expression of repressed emotions seen through the inner little girl inside of an adult woman. In case you can’t already tell, Bound is an indie developers dream (freedom from normative gaming constraints) by Plastic and Santa Monica Studio. Elegant as rain on a windowpane and relaxed as a golden afternoon, Bound is undeniably beautiful. That is, if you have the patience for its unhurried beauty.

If you don’t, you need to get some. Go get some patience right now. ‘Cause you need to see this in all of its  dreamlike motion:

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“Some of your childhood traumas may be remembered with incredible clarity, while others are so frightening or incomprehensible that your conscious mind buries the memory in your unconscious.”
― Renee Fredrickson

I was instantly grabbed by the original E3 footage for this game but I was also confused, as many perhaps were, when I first began playing Bound and the opening images were very realistic, decidedly non-fantasy scenes. They are beautiful, but they’re certainly not the bizarre polygonal imagery of the trailer.

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A plain woman steps out of an automobile, great with child and clutching a composition journal in her arms. She strides down toward the nearby shore and watches clouds, waves and a distant sailboat, walking with all the speed of advanced pregnancy. She pauses along the shoreline, opens her journal and is transported to the unreal world of Bound.

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Ah, so that’s it. The game turns back and forth between the fantasy world and the real one with the turn of a page, and Bound progresses as the woman makes her way down the shore toward a house. With each page in her journal bearing a sketch, presumably of her own design, she faces troubling memories from her own childhood, first interpreted through the fantasy-world and then literally pieced together in realistic (and more painful) terms immediately afterward. It is Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” in video game form.

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In this manner, we follow the girl inside the woman on an incredibly personal, albeit relatable, journey of facing and conquering repressed memories. These take the form of things such as paper airplanes that scatter like swarms of birds and smother you, gouts of guttering flame, glittering pearls, and vine-like, tentacled plants that grab at her arms. It becomes clear, as the woman revisits hurtful memories, just why these things continued to haunt her on into adulthood.

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In the fantasy-world, the woman becomes the Princess of a surreal kingdom, her fears become physical dangers that attack her. The Princess encounters a few other characters. Her mother, the Queen of the realm, and two gigantic monsters, one terrifying and one complacent.

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The first thing to strike you (beside for the complex simplicity of backgrounds that are in constant movement and focus, shifting into order as you approach and falling into disarray in the distance) is the grace of the Princess’ movements. This is easily the best motion-capture I have ever seen.

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There isn’t a moment when the movements become as awkward or clunky as we’ve become used to seeing them with mo-cap. There’s no unusual elongation or shortening of the body or limbs. It’s simply the plain human form for all of its unique attractiveness, without being sexualized. If Bound failed in every other element (which it does not) it would still be redeemable for the value of its protagonist’s portrayal.

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The Princess confronts the woman’s fears and unlocks her repressed memories through dance. I hesitate to call it “interpretive” dance, but if that helps you, there it is. Whenever the Princess is overcome by her fears, or dragged down by the hazards and obstacles of the fantasy-world, she turns to the pirouettes, pliés, and attitudes of an elegant ballerina to dispell the danger.

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It’s visually stunning and in itself it’s an eloquent notation on the intrinsic value of art as a refuge from pain. Many artists successfully turn to painting, writing, song and dance as a method of dealing with the hurt of their lives, and I adore that this concept formed the backbone of the Princess in her fantasy-realm. I’m not painting myself as an orphan or an abuse victim or anything but writing became a personal hiding place for me in my earlier years. I think a lot of people can identify with this in Bound.

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Moving through each dreamlike scene and facing each childhood fear in the order that you choose, we discover the traumatic experience of (spoilers: highlight to reveal) her parents’ separation when she was a little girl. Her relationship with her father forms the emotional center of Bound.

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But in discarding the memories and fears, choosing to remember only what she finds is best to remember, her walk toward the house is a cry for healing. I won’t say much more because as predictable as Bound’s climax is, its presentation has incredible impact, on down to the final words of the game and the final choice the woman makes on a doorstep between reconciliation or simply moving on.

What’s most tragic about Bound is how few will make it a point to play it and finish it, perhaps waving it off as just another inaccessible, artsy-fartsy indie game for hipsters. Your loss if that’s you. I’m serious.

Bound doesn’t have all of the embellishments of a major franchise and won’t appeal to everyone with its lack of action, its snail pace, and its abstract beauty, but I am convinced that it will reward anyone who takes the time to appreciate it for what it is: easily one of the rawest symbolic portrayals of the singular sense of loss.

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The 8-Bit Review
visual Visuals:
9/10
Holeeeeee smokes. Sorry for the outdated idiom but I was reminded of it by what seems at first like outdated graphics in Bound. The low polygon count is deceptive. You’re not going to experience the early 3D graphics of the 90’s.

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On occasion there was a kind of flatness about everything but the animation and lighting in Bound is exquisite. This is a screenshooting paradise. There were moments when I simply paused (or made use of the extensive photo mode) because there was so much to process.

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A sea of shaded cubes churns beneath you. Monolithic structures of fragmented, measureless shapes form and deform as you pass. Thousands of tiny moving objects swirl around you like living things.

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Bound’s sense of unreal physics is mesmerizing, as if the developers figured out how to replicate an actual dream. It’s so breath-taking that you must see Bound in motion:


audio Audio:
10/10
I already knew the music was going to be everything I wanted it to be from the trailer but I wasn’t expecting it to match up with the on screen visuals as much as it did, syncing up with the fracturing of solid objects and the graceful movements of the dancing Princess. Somebody needs to make this soundtrack available. Now. It’s one of the best I’ve come across and I’ve already abused the scraps of it I’ve found as background for writing.

You can credit “Heinali” Oleg Shpudeiko, a composr from Ukraine, for this soundtrack of dreams. Layered, heavy, trance-like, timeless. How can I describe this music to you? The closing song which plays over the credits is the perfect emotional conclusion to this game, and I won’t share it here because I believe you should hear it in context first.

Then after that you can spam-listen to “The Ocean That I Found” by Heinali.

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gameplay Gameplay: 6/10
As a platformer, there’s little to be said about Bound beyond its beauty.

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It has simple and easy gameplay. A few ladders to climb, a few walkways to walk, a few stairs, a handful of more unusual architecture, spiraling halls, and several secret areas to uncover form up the setting of Bound but it’s nothing we’ve never seen before. I think my wife summed it up best when she said “As a game, I can’t get into it. But as art, it’s amazing.”

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This is most apparent in dancing. Holding down R2 triggers the dancing animation and then you press X, O, triangle or square to perform different moves. However, these don’t really link together in their animations and so the transitions between each aren’t that fluid. It makes each move seem isolated in its execution from the rest of the dance. It’s stylish but it could stand to be more complex, given that dancing was the marketed foundation for Bound’s gameplay. As it is, dancing becomes something to tap buttons through to hurry along a cutscene or stave off dreamscape hazards, and there’s little more reason to enjoy it beyond that. Chained moves or combos would have gone a long way to alleviate the simplicity of Bound’s platforming.

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There are also memory shards (identified as such in the game’s trophy data) which must can be collected to form up a better image of a specific memory at the end of a stage, and to achieve the trophy too, of course. But Bound doesn’t keep track of these for you and you’ve no idea where all of them are, requiring you to develop a fairly intimate knowledge of each level. That can be quite the task considering the volatile surrealism of Bound’s stages. It’s enough to make M.C. Escher dizzy!

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story Narrative: 7/10
There is no cohesion in the fantasy scenes, especially since they’re chosen in any order you please. It can be confusing as to what’s happening with the characters and their interactions there, but they only make sense in terms of the memories related to them. They are episodic, practically, and serve merely as frames for the woman’s confrontations with her fears. That however is the underlying story.

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The goal of Bound is outside of the fantasy-world. Not within it. She is preparing to (spoilers: highlight to reveal) face her father, perhaps after years have gone by. Expecting her own child has probably encouraged her to face the experiences of her own childhood so that she can be a better mother. As a fairly new father, this is another theme in Bound that resonated with me.

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Princess is faceless. The woman is never named. But when (spoilers: highlight to reveal) she asks her father in the fantasy-world “Why did you leave us?” and the reply her subconscious gives him is “Because I could”, you can be sure that I got a lump in my throat. I once had that same question. I went through that same experience myself as a young boy and I knew right away that this was the “trauma” the game was headed for, but that didn’t rob it of any impact. It’s visual metaphor and measure of silence, sadness and longing were all enough to give a predictable conflict serious emotional weight.

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I wouldn’t call it “heart-wrenching” or “tear-jerking” as I’ve read in other reviews, since I feel there is a sense in which that cheapens the bitter circumstance (no offense to my fellow critics). Merely crying over what happened isn’t nearly enough of an appropriate response and Bound itself demonstrates that with its complicated portrayal of confronting repressed memories. In so few words and with such imagery Bound tackles heavy ideas. And in choosing what to do with them, the woman will no longer be “bound” by them.

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diff Challenge: 4/10
Bound’s 3D platforming is a piece of cake. There is no fear of death. If you fall, you immediately regenerate nearby. Even the dangers of the woman’s fears are more hindrances than actual dangers. It’s a world conjured up in the mind. There can be no death. As such, completing Bound is easy and the game is very brief. However, once you complete the story for the first time you’ll unlock speedrun challenges. These are very difficult and prevent Bound’s score for Challenge from dropping below a 4.

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replay Replayability: 7/10
With multiple ways to complete the storyline and speedrun missions, I’ve already completed the game four times in as many days. Each time, Bound doesn’t become any less of a wonder, though the occasional frustration with controls seeps in. It must be said that as a 3D platformer Bound has solved issues with the camera that have plagued that genre for generations of consoles. Walls dynamically split and fracture as the Princess passes behind them, allowing you to see what you’re doing. Clever level design even makes use of this feature in a few places. It remains to be seen, of course, but this may speak volumes of Bound’s possible longevity and impact on the genre.

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unique Uniqueness: 10/10
I don’t think anyone could argue a perfect 10 for Uniqueness. I mean, just look at it.

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pgrade My Personal Grade: 9/10
I don’t know that I’ve ever played anything this beautiful, in its own stark, high-contrast, geometric way. The imagery is off-set by a pace equal to an afternoon nap, but I’m not complaining. I love naps! Bound was so relaxing to play and it didn’t disappoint me. I’m giving it a passionate but cautious recommendation. I recognize it won’t be for everybody. I know that. But I’m pleased to know also that this kind of game is occupying a larger part of the industry. Beyond the explosive violence of FPS’s, the mind-numbing number crunching of RPGs, and the button mashing of action titles, Bound exists as a testament to what video games can strive for, what new forms they can take on. Successful or not in the long run, Bound proves that video games can take any form, even one that touches upon something as deep and explores something as profound as repressed memory. The potential of video games is unbound.

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Aggregated Score: 7.8

 

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17 thoughts on “Bound (2016)

  1. Hi there! Would you mind if I share your blogwith my zynga group? The#8&re217;s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m definitely adding this to my list. Oh, it’s already there. Well I’m bumping it closer to the top. I live for things like this especially since I’m constantly arguing that yes, video games can be considered art and all narratives are worthy of discourse.

    Thanks for marking spoilers! Oh and the Dali quote instantly intrigued me, too. Not that I’m a huge fan of Dali (I don’t hate him, but he’s not one of my favorite artists), but that I can relate to that in the writing medium.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Add it to the top! If you want art, Bound is one of the best examples. The spoilers aren’t anything you won’t see coming but they are presented well enough that you’ll be moved. And you and I have the same perspective on Dali. He’s not my role model but I find his work is interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! I finished the game past weekend and loved it. At first I was a bit confused, probably wasn’t expecting the episodic structure and the need to choose pages (the order makes some variations). Now, I want to play it for a second time, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it even more (and one of the best Photo Modes ever is a plus).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading! I was also confused because I was expecting something more linear without the real world parts. It was a pleasant surprise. It’s even better on subsequent playthroughs. Let me know if you can finish any of those speed runs!

      Liked by 1 person

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