“Bound” is a Beautiful Game about Ugliness

Plastic Studios and Sony Santa Monica’s new PS4 game Bound has prodded me to write about it, which is in and of itself perhaps all you might need to know about whether the game is worth your time. This is not a review, but rather a reflection and critique of the game’s affective power. If that interests you, read on!

Earlier this year, Ryan and Amy Green of Numinous Games published That Dragon, Cancer, a video game about their experience of grappling with life when their son, Joel, was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 12 months of age. The game covers the four years that he spent fighting cancer through a series of scenes and experiences, many of which are maddening, sad, or both. The game is, unquestionably, one of the high points thus far for a medium that has historically struggled to grapple with more complex emotional and weighty material (and where an ESRB rating of “mature” rarely means anything other than that a game contains sex and gore). That Dragon, Cancer addressed a truly mature topic and took the player through a series of vignettes and varied gameplay experiences based on actual events, often presnted in dream-like, simplistic gameplay sequences. As an immensely personal effort by a very close-knit team, the game stands as a kind of small triumph in the growing subgenre of emotionally-resonant video games.

While all video games have the potential to push at various emotions, there has been a marked increase in the last decade of titles that deliberately set out to explore new emotional ground in the medium. That Dragon, Cancer is one such example, but preceding it are titles like Dear Esther, Gone Home, Spec Ops: The Line, The Novelist, To The Moon, and even some past Sony system-exclusive efforts such as Flower and Journey. These games are often cited as examples of the power of the medium of video games to create the same kind of emotional resonances that great film or painting might provoke, and it is safe to say that Bound treads this same ground. Bound, however, addresses its subject in a particularly metaphorical and surrealist mode, and its developers have created an aesthetically scattered, confusing, frustrating, and ultimately satisfying game that parallels the complexity of its subject matter. (Some of the pictures in this essay capture that aesthetic, but the game and the fullness of its design is best experienced with a controller in hand and in a single setting of about 2–3 hours).

Bound is a game about an unpleasant divorce and the emotions that are a part of it. It is a game about parents who argue, children who watch those parents argue, the consequences for those arguments, and the potential emotional difficulties that a combative split can present during both childhood and adulthood. The game is at times critical of its entire cast of characters (parents and children alike) and at times emphatically sympathetic to each of them. Bound ultimately seems to make a concerted effort to craft a view of humanity itself as conflicted and flawed, as beautiful and persevering; this is achieved through slight dialog, purposeful cut scene choreography, fleeting but still narrative vignettes, and the relationship of all these elements to the mode of traversal in the gameworld.

Bound is also about how considering the concept of emotional inheritance can cause reflection, stoke fears, and provoke decisive action. The bulk of the gameplay seemingly takes place in the imagination (or, perhaps, the subconscious memory) of a pregnant woman who is spending a day on the beach, reflecting on a journal she kept during a period of time when her own parents were going through an unpleasant, acrimonious, combative divorce.

As a young girl, the woman had drawn illustrations in a journal that reflected her emotional state of being: frightening monsters, majestic creatures, polygonal hellscapes, a happy family holding hands, fire and brimstone. Her mother was portrayed on its pages as a queen who was sometimes kind and other times cruel . Her father was portrayed as a beast who was sometimes angry and loud, other times sullen and misunderstood. Across the pages of her journal, she sought a savior for her father, she sought independence from her mother, she sought comfort and escape, and she sought answers for herself.

The expectant mother reviewing her own journal at the start of the game is clearly concerned for the emotional inheritance her past might commute to her own child. To address this, she sets about reliving the pages (each of them corresponding to a “level” of gameplay) and then tearing them each out of the journal as she finds a way to transcend those particular parts of her past. At the end of the game, the journal’s monsters fully addressed, the player is made to help the mother-to-be confront a real-world embodiment of one of the game’s metaphorical foci: she takes the journal to her father’s house.

It is Bound’s heavy use of metaphor, though, and specifically its ability to tie those metaphors to a particular visual design approach that is really its most interesting trick. The journal’s pages come to life in stunningly designed levels that employ Escher-like concepts to space, utilize color and shadow in ways that dazzle and disorient, and that ask the player to travel using ballet-inspired movements across worlds that seemingly come together and fall apart at will. There are moments where movement feels simple and fluid, but there are others where it feels contrived, non-responsive, or poorly paced. There are elements of the game’s “system” that are seemingly random and potentially buggy as well as components that initially force you to question if perhaps more testing was needed prior to release. Indeed, some of the game’s middling scores on game news and review sites have suggested that these are problems that the developers needed to work out prior to release. However, intentionally or not, these disruptive ludological moments work to parallel the uncertainty and difficulty found at the centerpiece of Bound’s vignettes and communicated quite clearly through some of its more direct narrative moments.

In those moments, the beast and the queen (the parents) say some horrible things to the main character (the pregnant woman as a child). For example:

  • Mother: “One day your kingdom will come, I’m tired of wearing mine.”
  • Child: “Why did you leave us?” Father: “Because I could.”
  • Mother: “Can’t I just have some time for myself?!”
  • Mother: “There is a seed of evil in each of us. We just don’t know when it will start to grow.”

Bound does not hesitate to introduce the player to the “evil” side in both parents, it does this through dialogue like that above and it also does this in its visual depictions of the parents as powerful world-destroying monsters. It reinforces that depiction audibly with sharp, loud roars and subtle, muted shouts. (The game owes some debt to Papo & Yo, which also uses the monster metaphor to present its own critique of parenthood.) Bound is both critical towards and understanding of the motives driving the parent’s split (and it shows that they are often themselves wary of its effects on the children), but it makes it clear that an unpleasant, acrimonious divorce is both ugly and consequential. It cannot be fully escaped.

These monsters are vanquished, and the player finds their ability to traverse and transcend the effects they have created in the world, through the use of dance. Ballet moves are used as a mode of journeying through the game that affords safety: with a button press it can create a shield from attacks that would otherwise force the player-character into a huddled weeping mess, it can untangle the player-character from temporary bindings that attach to her limbs, and it can call into being other dancing shapes that help to silence angry shouts. Dance is used to defeat monsters, even those once considered allies. Dance is used to move through doors that are otherwise closed, to soar to heights otherwise unattainable, and to give the game its moments of excitement and elation.

When you are dancing well, when the screen is moving quickly, when it seems that nothing in the gameworld can affect or effect you, the game creates moments of transcendence that lend hopefulness to its larger narrative. When those high spirited moments come to abrupt halts, though, and frustration and disorientation set in, a sense of inevitability, fragility, and difficulty balances the emotional scales. Dance is agency, but it takes work to maintain it; it is not always available, things will not always be safe.

In this important way, though, Bound is very unlike either Journey (to which many other comparisons are probably fair) or That Dragon, Cancer. Both of those games (as well as most of the others mentioned above) might take players on an emotional journey of ups and downs, but each ultimately presents an ending that has some relatively clear emotional resolution. Bound, by contrast, offers no such ending. Even though the woman on the beach has torn the pages from her journal, has buried the past both consciously and metaphorically, and has learned to dance/decided to move forward, she still is not guaranteed that things will go well. She does not know the final cost of this emotional inheritance for her child, and because of her past she has a mix of confidence and doubt about the future. In deciding to confront her father or leave him behind, she has tried (just as the player had in her journal) to move forward, whatever may come. There is no real resolution to these tensions other than continued movement, itself constrained by the world and its challenges.

It cannot be over-emphasized: that Bound is able to communicate those ideas through both unconventional narrative and equally as unconventional gameplay is no small feat. It is largely because of Bound’s stunning visual design choices — geometric shapes that can be read as any number of elements in the real world, their constant movement and shifiting colors, the collapse of those shapes into one another during level-ending still vignettes, and the cinematograpy choices that suggest certain ways for players to confront these elements — that its ending of emotional confusion and non-resolution are able to be read as deliberate and profound design choices (rather than sloppy and underdeveloped ones). There is a contrast here that operates as a productive tension — a contrast between the lightness of play found in much of the game and the heaviness of the game’s subject matter. There is a juxtaposition of what is beautiful with what is ugly, and the player is challenged to remain in the middle of both, to remain critical, observant, and tense. In this way, Bound accomplishes something that few games have been able to do, even when shooting for emotional resonance: it has found a way to address emotional complexity, to reinforce that complexity through narrative, gameplay, design, and direction, and to funnel those elements towards the generation of an experience that ends, satisfyingly, in an unresolved tension.