Fluidity of movement is one of the great joys of video games, and of life, really, but the sad fact is, few of us have the grace, reflexes, and commitment to achieve physical precision in the real world. Great dancing takes time, sacrifice, and talent. A good game, though, can offer a gratifying illusory substitute. Press the control stick and hit a few buttons, and your on-screen avatar will whirl, twist, and spin as though they’d been doing it all their lives. Most of the time, this spinning is done in service of escape—master the controls, perfect the dance, and you can save yourself from your enemies. In Bound, there are enemies to dodge, but the unnamed heroine’s pirouettes serve more than just a practical purpose. Here, the beauty of movement is an opportunity to transcend the sorrows of the past.
It’s a lovely metaphor, really, and viewed as a metaphor, Bound is a frequently lovely experience. The framing story features a young pregnant woman getting dropped off on the beach. She wanders up the shore, occasionally pausing to flip through a notebook full of abstract, graph-paper-inspired images. These images provide the design foundation for the rest of the game: a series of frequently gorgeous missions through a fantasy kingdom made up largely of blocks, ribbons, and sharp angles. A pair of giant monsters lurk on the horizon, and the imperious queen offers her daughter some cold words of comfort—and then it’s time to get moving.
While Bound’s visuals in the “real” world aren’t particularly impressive (the pregnant heroine has all the liveliness of a mannequin made of dead fish), the fantasy realm is a gorgeous explosion of shapes and twisting perspective shifts. Levels loop in on themselves, platforms rise and fall to soothing music that swells into a kind of rapture. And through it all, the daughter dances, running elegantly across planes and boxes and narrow passages, turning and diving and dodging to find her way through to the end of the next memory.
The smoothness of movement here is striking, at least on a visual level. Considerable effort was made to ensure the lead character’s balletic movements are literally just that, and the result is something that’s always easy to look at, even if the controls themselves don’t quite live up to the same standards. At its best, segments feel like a journey through a series of delicate impressions that add up, in the end, to whatever part of her past the pregnant woman from the framing story is trying to work her way through. The imagery is suggestive but only occasionally specific, allowing for a variety of interpretations while still evoking an emotional response.
The problem is that as nice as all that movement looks on screen, the process of actually making that movement happen is an intermittently frustrating experience—not outright terrible, but never as smooth and gratifying as the game clearly wants it to be. Bound isn’t trying to be a committed platformer; while it has occasional jumping puzzles and enemies to dodge, these rarely offer much challenge, and the lack of explanation for various tasks never causes much difficulty. This makes sense on a conceptual level, as the actual rigors of combat could’ve distracted from the elegiac beauty so much of the game strives to achieve.
Only, without that satisfaction, it becomes hard to understand why the dangers that are there are there at all. Upon completion, the game offers players a chance to repeat the experience in “speedrun” mode, which seems to suggest that the designers weren’t entirely unaware of the value of their product as more than just a series of eerie video poems. But judged on that level, it’s a middling experience that never truly embraces its mechanics in a way that would give them depth.
Take the “dancing” skill. The player has no mode of attack. You can run, dodge, and jump, but when enemies strike, it’s possible to dance them away by holding the right trigger and pressing various buttons on the controller. It’s a neat idea, but once it’s introduced, you’ve seen all it has to offer. There’s no inducement for “better” dancing, no sense of difference between mashing this button or that. The magic of the idea rubs off when it becomes clear that there’s no way to master it, no encouragement to hone your skills (outside of the speedrun segment, which isn’t all that inviting), and, just as important, no drawback for failing to improve.
This may sound like irrelevant nitpicking. After all, judged purely on an emotional level, Bound has a number of striking moments, and its finale is all the more admirable for its understatement. But the frustrating, iffy feel of the controls stand in the way of a truly immersive experience. While the empathy on display in the narrative and the care shown to the imagery and score are impressive, the lack of engagement in the actual play itself robs these elements of the richness they deserve. Bound aims for transcendence but can’t quite get over its two left feet.