The entire premise of Bound threatens to collapse at any moment under the weight of its metaphors. Each level is essentially an abstract confrontation between the game’s protagonist and a trauma from her childhood, such as the way “Shout” gives the memory of a parent’s scream a demonic form, forcing players to sneak past it between outbursts. However, instead of getting bogged down with this heavy-handed correlation between the real and imaginary, Bound fills its levels with a dizzying variety of colorfully surreal elements, which bring to life the mechanisms through which the protagonist has coped with or cordoned off the more troublesome parts of her past. Whereas Psychonauts spiced up its mind-tripping platforming with a variety of pop-cultural references, Bound finds inspiration in modern art and ballet.
There’s a real-world framework to Bound, one in which the pregnant protagonist woefully trudges barefoot across a beach, but the majority of the game takes place within her vivid daydreams, in which she’s both a princess and ballerina. Here, there isn’t a gap she can’t gracefully grand-jeté across, and as players navigate the harsh geometries of the platforming sections, they’ll use somersaults and rhythmic gymnastics (like ribbon twirling) to dodge and deflect mundane objects—from a strand of pearls to a squadron of paper airplanes—that represent her most painful memories. As in Journey, movement isn’t just treated as a necessity of the gameplay, as a means of getting from one point to another, but as an expression of joy and healing.
But Bound’s artistic aspirations can sometimes get in the way of the gameplay. Its high-concept artistry isn’t a problem when it’s restricted to the background, like the roiling blocks in the game’s limning cubist sea, or used as scenery, like the bright, foam-like orange cylinders that wave in a Seussian fashion from the sides of various pathways. Beauty becomes labor as players traverse an impossible M.C. Escher-like tableau or delicately leap through a geometric obstacle course inspired by Kandinsky. It also doesn’t help that the camera keeps locking into awkward angles that make it difficult to judge distances and boundaries; it’s hard enough to land tricky jumps, let alone those obscured by optical art. (No wonder that the default settings enable the Edge Guard, which prevents you from accidentally stumbling off a ledge.)
A player’s progression determines the available routes throughout each level, but it’s not always clear which paths simply require a well-executed routine and which are deliberately blocked by the game’s design. For instance, gnarled white roots frequently appear, attempting to strangle the protagonist into a permanent first position. However, once players have come to terms with the memory of the broken flowerpot in “Trees,” these roots no longer appear in the remaining levels, which means that if this level is conquered early enough, certain impassable areas in other levels will now no longer be impossible to access. Because this isn’t made clear, however, some players may waste their time convinced that they can bypass a series of blocking branches with gymnastic grace, not thinking to seek out an alternative ladder or platform. The game suggests that this nonlinear approach has to do with the film editing of Lev Kuleshov, in which the interaction between shots (or in this case, levels) is more meaningful than an isolated moment, but in reality, this Mega Man-like convention is useful only for setting high scores on the Speedrun leaderboard that unlocks after completing the game.
This is what most trips up Bound: A level’s available shortcuts and accessible areas may shift across playthroughs, but the story itself never changes. There is no Kuleshov effect here. Ardent speedrunners will find themselves annoyed by the unskippable, repetitive cutscenes; those playing simply for a narrative experience will notice that the game’s emotional heft exponentially diminishes with each successive odyssey. (While a second playthrough will certainly reveal a few overlooked details, there isn’t nearly as much to unpack here as in, say, a David Lynch film.) For the most aesthetically inclined, there’s an extensive in-game camera mode that helps to stretch Bound’s two-to-three-hour shelf life, but this only reinforces the fact that underneath its beautiful packaging, the game is a simple, mechanical platformer.