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Bound will help you dance away your childhood trauma

The new PS4 game Bound is about a pretty princess ballerina, but there is more to it than prancing around in tutus. It has does have prancing (and twirling and fluttering and capering), but the game uses ballet to tell a story about a crumbling family and a child’s use of dance to escape the emotional trauma of her home. Bound combines elements of “Empathy Games” like Papo y Yo with platforming mechanics and gorgeous motion-captured animation to create an experience that will cut deeply into many players.

Ballet has a bad reputation in some circles, and insipid princess games that come in pink DVD cases don’t help. Classical ballet is far from the sparkly fairy tales found in Barbie’s latest adventure on the Wii U. Ballet tells stories straight from the deepest pits of medieval folklore. Those pretty princesses suffer fates worse than death at the end of most of these stories. The dashing princes who try to save them don’t fare any better, either. It’s tragic, and cathartic, not just fairies and sugarplumbs. In Bound there is a terrible monster destroying a kingdom, a Queen who wants to stop the monster, and a Hero who may or may not help. Caught in the middle of it all is a Princess, and the Princess must use the power of dance to navigate a dangerous, painful world.

There is a deeper story beneath the fairy tale, of course. The King, Queen, Hero, and Princess represent members of a fragile family. The nature of what happens to them is highly subjective, because the game is designed to be non-linear. Players will have different paths through the game, meeting the characters in different orders, and seeing scenes in different sequences. What’s clear is that the Princess is still plagued by the emotional aftermath of some event long ago.

The story is told with a framing device: a woman walks along a beach, looking at an old diary filled with drawings. Players can make her flip through the book and linger on any page. Each page represents a different level in the game, and staring at it will transport players from the beach into a surrealistic world where they control the Princess. Thus, players can go through the levels in any order they like, based on which pages in the notebook they find most interesting.

The Princess must use her balletic powers to leap over obstacles, navigate narrow beams, and defend herself against hazards. There’s a simple control scheme for running, jumping, and rolling, with a dedicated “Dance” button that turns any move into a graceful flourish. The Princess doesn’t fight enemies by kicking with her pointe shoes, or using Ballet-fu like Summer Glau. Instead, she generates a protective aura around herself when dancing. The many hazards on the levels can’t hurt her when she dances and, yes, that is a metaphor for using dance to cope with emotional crisis.

That story will be an emotional punch in gut for many players. It would be a spoiler to say exactly what the story is about, but it’s a real world situation that’s quite common. Many players have been there and it will resonate powerfully with those who have been in the same position as this fictional family.

Past events are told through a series of interactive tableaux, where the characters are frozen motionless, but the player is able to walk around and observe their surroundings. In these memories, the Princess becomes a little girl who watches her family in a time of crisis. Her recollections are fuzzy, and there is an unusual animation technique where fragments of the memories float around like pieces from a broken stained-glass window, or a paper mache project that has disintegrated over time. The pieces drift around in darkness, but only assemble themselves when the player focuses on a location in their surroundings. Diligent players can try reconstructing the memory entirely before moving on to the next level.

Bound (7)

Many of these Empathy Games are built around the idea that they will be played once, then set aside. The emotional impact of that first time is more important than replayability. But Bound is built so that platformer fans do have incentives to play it multiple times. Those who stick to the easy path on their first run through they can beat it in a few hours, however, they will notice collectible crystal shards placed in hard-to-reach areas of the levels. These shards mark the hard paths for players who want a challenge.

Because the levels have a surreal, Escher-esque design, the Princess can reach unlikely places that players might overlook. Several levels have floating spheres drifting around like giant balloons, but each one has its own central gravity. This allows the Princess to leap onto them and run around them like tiny planets, standing upside down in relation to the rest of the map. These unintuitive, mind-bending paths are full of the collectible crystal shards. Aside from the platforming challenges, there is also a speedrun feature. This isn’t just about jumping efficiently through the levels, it’s also about finding the fastest route through the story.

Because players can choose the order in which they play the levels, they will pick up bonus defensive powers in different orders each time they play. In keeping with the theme of overcoming childhood trauma, each level pits the Princess against a symbolic representation of something bad from her childhood. On one level she is plagued by shadowy paper airplanes that attack her like stinging insects. After beating that level, she will be immune to that particular enemy on other levels.

Bound (6)

Players who don’t have a personal connection to this story can still appreciate Bound. The aesthetics alone make it worth playing. The Princess was motion-captured from a real dancer, Maria Udod, who gives the character extraordinary grace, even during her idle animations or simply when standing still. It’s a delight to simply move this character through the world, although many people will have a much more profound experience with Bound.

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