Thursday, 8 October 2015

Review of 'Bound' by Rosa Carbó-Mascarell

Bound is a game developed by Rosa Carbó-Mascarell, a Masters student in Digital Games: Theory and Design at Brunel University. The game was designed as part of her dissertation project called Walking Simulators: The digitisation of an aesthetic practice, which analyses the ‘walking simulator’ genre of games from the perspective of psychogeography, environmental storytelling and romanticism. Rosa and I are good friends, and share common interests in travel, art, psychogeography, urban exploration and video games.
My comments in this review are based on a playthrough undertaken during a game-testing day organised by students on Rosa’s course. The game at this point was in an early alpha stage of development, and the bugs I mention in this review have since been fixed. Rosa is also aiming to improve the game further in the coming months by adding content and optimising it for tablets.
If you’d like to play Rosa’s game (I would definitely recommend it!) then tell me and I’ll contact her for you. This review contains numerous spoilers, though, so you may not want to read this first!
In the last few years, the world of gaming has seen the upsurge of a genre of games that differ quite vastly from the triple-A titles we are used to seeing advertised. Story-rich, intelligent, and utilising exploration as the central mechanic, these games can claim to be an important part of the relatively recent turn from prevalent perceptions of gaming culture as action-driven, violent and mindless.
For some gamers better acquainted with the cut and thrust of popular first-person shooters and the like, the focus on walking, discovering and interpreting within these new exploration-centred games lacked the immediate thrill and deft skill they typically required for gaming. Using the term ‘walking simulator’, these gamers poked fun at a game style they personally found uninteresting. But following the success and popularity of groundbreaking games in this emerging genre such as Gone Home, the term ‘walking simulator’ stuck and was reappropriated by enthusiastic gamers looking for a banner under which games of this type could be categorised. Now a pervasive tag on the Steam Store, recent critically acclaimed games described by this term include Life is Strange, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Homesick, Year Walk and Dear Esther.
Bound is a game that was developed very much with the walking simulator standpoint in mind. However, as part of a project looking into the significance of walking and exploration as aesthetic acts within digital environments, the game acts as an insightful study into the principles behind walking simulators, and their influence on gaming experiences. This review takes a close look at Bound’s gameplay, story and psychogeographical components to investigate where it sits within the walking simulator framework. I go on to explain why, for me, Bound is a game that almost perfectly captures the essence of what walking simulator games are: what their purpose is, how the player experiences these types of games, and how they connect to the wider traditions of psychogeography and environmental storytelling.
Mechanics and gameplay
At the most basic level, Bound achieves all this through its very mechanics. Unlike the vast majority of critically acclaimed walking simulators, movement in Bound requires the player to take individual steps using the ‘A’ and ‘L’ keys (or by tilting the screen to the left and right if playing on a tablet). Cleverly, Bound also uses the same sideways navigation system as Year Walk, with forward and backward motion reserved for entering new buildings or rooms. The effect of these techniques is that the very act of walking – taking one ‘digital step’ after another, as opposed to simply pressing W, A, S and D – becomes the lens through which the player experiences the landscape. Each step reveals more of the rich, beautifully designed 2-D vistas, which appear in front of the player like paintings. In a clear reference to the Romantic period, and its artistic and literary appreciation of the landscape, everything about the way you traverse the game environment provokes true recognition and immersion.
The landscape in Bound
At first the ‘stepping’ mechanic takes a bit of getting used to, and even feels slightly laboured. But the benefit of this initially challenging mechanic for the game is that it draws the player’s attention to how the rhythm and tempo of their footsteps affects their interpretation of the environment. For example, more attentive players may take slower steps, or stop completely, as they scrutinise certain details of the landscape and consider their meaning. Ironically, this implication can be somewhat lost in walking simulators using the W, A, S and D controls, where players appear to magically ‘hover’ from place to place as they explore the game environment. While meaning is still gleaned from the landscape in these cases, movement becomes a means to an end rather than being an inextricable part of how the game is experienced. In Bound, in the spirit of the psychogeographical tradition of ‘dérives’, the aim is for the player to specifically consider the significance of walking for the human impulse to explore, find meaning, and satisfy curiosity.
Apart from walking, the other principal mechanic within the game is the use of mouse clicking to zoom in on, and interact with, different objects in the environment. This is effectively the ‘explore’ mechanic, where the curious player can turn their walk into a game – or perhaps more accurately, ‘bring the game to life’ – by uncovering details on the screen with their cursor, and piecing them together to turn the situation into a narrative. For example, the player can find keys by clicking in different locations within the game, which then allow the player to uncover more information that was previously concealed. You can open cupboards, read postcards and notes, and even play music on a turntable. Indeed, there are no sounds in the game apart from the sound of your footsteps and any music you decide to play, because the idea is that the landscape itself, and the player’s personal experience of it, is the game. No meaning or experience is pre-given. There are no objectives or checkpoints dictated by the game. The only motivation is the player’s own curiosity, and the only way to satisfy curiosity is to engage with the environment. The landscape can’t be skipped, and thus the player must use their curiosity to find the game within the landscape.
All this being said, there is room for improvement in how the click function actually operates. One problem I encountered was when I clicked to focus in on objects. On the ‘zoomed-in’ screen, I found that if you clicked over the top of where another clickable object was, it caused the new object to zoom in at the same time below the first zoomed-in screen. This became a bit troublesome for me when I wanted to click all over the zoomed-in screen to make sure I’d thoroughly explored each object.
It also wasn’t always clear which objects could be interacted with. In a way this is interesting because it encourages curious players to examine everything very carefully. But if you’re like me and want to make sure you’ve found everything there is to be found, it can encourage you to spend too much time clicking everywhere in each place to make sure nothing is missed.
The last problem I found was quite humorous. It came near the end of my playthrough, when I needed to find a key to unlock something earlier in the game. Strangely I just could not find the key, even though it was right in front of my eyes. Eventually it was made clear to me where it was, but it was an unintended optical illusion that I really struggled to see past. Perhaps even if the key slightly overlapped with another object in the foreground it would have been more obvious. But hopefully it would only take a slight adjustment for this to be improved.
Story and concept
I want to move on now to talk about what these walking and clicking mechanics reveal. If the ‘game’ within Bound is based on meanings interpreted from the landscape, what motivates the player to discover these meanings? And how do these different meanings combine to make the game compelling to play?
The answer to both of these questions lies in the style of narrative that Bound employs. Storytelling in Bound is not the typical sequence of chronological events we are used to in games, where the player’s goal is to ‘complete’ one set of events in order to progress towards ‘finishing’ the story. Instead, Bound uses a method of storytelling that actively encourages the curiosity around which the game revolves, involving questions and answers. The idea is that by presenting the player with a situation that provokes a sense of mystery and intrigue, the player will want to know the answers to the questions that arise from this situation. The only way to do this is to explore the situation further and find more information, but this in turn can lead to more mysteries as a series of unexplained events unravels. Suddenly what was initially just an ambiguous situation becomes an exciting quest for truth. This is how the environment becomes a game. The ‘game’ evolves from the thrill and anticipation that each turn of the corner will bring answers to the questions that intrigue the player, and a true story will emerge.
In Bound, the first spark of curiosity arises when the player comes across a house during their walk, and through the window of the house we can see the body of a woman lying in a chair, not moving. This is not a normal situation; in fact it is somewhat concerning. Is the woman alright? Is she dead? Was it murder? What is going on?
The house
If you want to answer these questions, you must get into the house. But it’s locked. Damn! Is there a key anywhere? And so the search for the key begins. You eventually find it and open the door.
You walk over to the woman and click on her to see what’s wrong. Yep, she’s dead alright. But there’s clearly much more than just a dead woman in this house. There are all sorts of objects lying around. Maybe these will give you some idea about what’s happening?
But alas, more questions. The victim (who we discover is called Katherine) appears to have received postcards from her sister Ellie, who is travelling. In the postcards she mentions an ‘awful situation’ that Katherine is in, and talks about Katherine's husband Allan. Something’s definitely not right here. Was the victim having marriage problems, or even being abused? Did her husband murder her?
Further investigation appears to reveal that Katherine had a fondness for travelling. Her sister reminisces in the postcards about past travels together, and books by romanticists around the themes of walking and journeys are scattered around the house. So why is Katherine not travelling with her sister? Did her husband force her to stay? The date on the postcards indicates that it is the 1920s, after all. Household relationships were different then.
Alright, but then you find flowers from Allan in their bedroom. How much did he really care about Katherine?
More questions!
And at this point you are engrossed in these people’s lives, and have a slight voyeuristic urge to look through every nook and cranny in the house to see what might be hidden there. Who knows what secrets could surface?
So as you can see, what started off simply as curiosity about an unusual situation within minutes becomes an exciting hunt for knowledge; a journey of discovery. With the freedom of an apparently empty house, the game presents the player with a thrilling opportunity to explore the lives of its inhabitants. And because the player must work to discover the story through their own impulses and interpretations, rather than it being given to us on a plate, the meaning that Bound leaves us with is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
Examples of objects in Bound
Indeed, the overarching concept of the game is certainly not lacking in depth. It is perceptive and full to the brim with detail; narrative and gameplay interweaving in an experience that explores the significance of travelling, walking and exploring in a world where so many boundaries exist to restrict us from having these opportunities.
At the forefront of this concept is a vivid contrast between the freedom of exploration and the constraint of responsibility. In the story that emerges as the player navigates the house, this theme manifests in the relationship between the travelling sister Ellie, the victim Katherine and her husband Allan. The player goes on to discover that while Ellie is free to enjoy her travels around the world, Katherine is housebound due to severe illness. And while Allan gets to leave the house to travel far to work each day, this is only the result of him taking a job that allows him to support his wife better. We also learn that all this has occurred at a time when women had just been granted the right to vote in the UK, which provides an insightful juxtaposition to the predicament of the characters in Bound. It was supposed to be a time when women could begin to challenge their stereotypical housebound domestic role and venture out into the world, and yet for Katherine this freedom was inaccessible. The house’s windowed exterior looking out over the idyllic Swiss mountains, and the postcard pictures, are metaphors of all these constraints. The landscape is there – you can see it transparently through the windows and in the pictures – but the proximity is an illusion. ‘Being there’ isn’t the same as having the freedom to explore. And in the end, we discover that this is what led Katherine to take her own life. At least in death she was able to step outside her ‘prison’ to go on a different kind of journey.
The freedom/responsibility contrast is cleverly embodied in the player’s actions too. The player is made deliberately aware of their ability to take one step after another through the game’s controls, which you appreciate more after understanding how Katherine was unable to do the same thing. Furthermore, the very fact that the player is playing a game means that they are also free from the social limitations that would discourage people in the real world from journeying and exploring a place such as an empty house.
As the game’s title, ‘Bound’ ingeniously captures the game’s overarching concept in a single word. While ‘bound’ can refer to the action of stepping or leaping, it can also mean ‘constricted’. Moreover, it can be used in the sense of ‘destination’ (e.g. ‘London bound’), not only referring to travel but also an element of destiny or fate. The notion of destiny may seem constricting but it entails a journey nonetheless – and from this perspective the stories and characters we encounter in Bound become somehow reflective of the twisting and turning paths of life itself.
Psychogeography and environmental storytelling
The most intelligent feature of Bound, in my opinion, is the way that this concept and story are so effectively communicated to the player: solely through their interaction with things they encounter in the game environment.  I’d like to finish by considering where Bound stands in relation to this intricate technique of environmental storytelling, and its underlying theory within psychogeography.
A basic definition of psychogeography goes something along the lines of “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviours of individuals.” However I think that this often-cited definition could do more to show that the relationship between humans and their environment is dialogical rather than deterministic. Cultural geographers have long recognised that the notion of environmental determinism – the idea that environments are what shapes human behaviours and cultures – is passé. It is ignorant to suggest that the emotions and behaviour of people can be shaped by their environment without simultaneously comprehending the possibility that human behaviours, emotions and experiences can themselves shape environments.
What I love about Bound is that it reflects both of sides of the psychogeographical coin brilliantly. Yes, the act of re-living the characters’ story described in postcards, letters and other objects found in the game environment is likely to provoke certain emotional reactions in the player. But the player is in no way directed as to how they should feel, or what they should experience. The game content may be the same for each individual player, but each experience is deeply personal. There is no narration or God’s-eye view telling the player where they should walk, what they should explore, and how they should react to it. Indeed, this attribute is common within successful ‘walking simulator’ games, where discovering meaning is often more satisfying to curious players than simply being told what to understand.
The individuality of the experience is evident from hearing how other play-testers reacted to Bound. While certain aspects of the overall concept were apparent to all, each player found varying levels of significance in the different details, and left the game with wide-ranging impressions.
The simple fact that the game is able to create such a powerful experience for the player is testament to another trope within psychogeography: the idea that even the mundane objects and routines of everyday life are extraordinary when they are endowed with emotions, memories and impressions. Even seemingly meaningless objects can possess stories. The psychogeographer’s role is therefore to acknowledge these stories and meanings, and use them as a lens through which to understand places. In Bound the player takes on this role in their desire to answer the questions that an initially unusual circumstance presents them with. The landscape becomes a thrilling mystery waiting to be solved, and you are the detective.

'Clues' encountered during the game
The phrase ‘genius loci’, or ‘spirit of place’, in particular comes to mind when thinking about how the ordinary becomes extraordinary in Bound. When playing the game, you get a definite sense of ‘traces’ that have gone before: emotions, memories and events that create a kind of presence or spirit inscribed in the game environment. One of my favourite examples of this is how Ellie’s postcards and Katherine’s letters are handwritten. Through reading the characters’ words in their own writing, you get a very convincing sense of personality and sincerity which almost gives you the sensation that you are communicating directly with them. Another example is the clever placement of romantic novels about journeying, which over time subtly demonstrates Katherine’s love and longing for exploration. These traces are ghost-like; spirits that give quiet whispers and delicate impressions. As a virtual psychogeographer you bind yourself to these wandering spirits, using them as guides in your own journey of exploration.
The culmination of this ‘spirit of place’ is at the ending of the game, however, where the player appears to suddenly inhabit Katherine's dead body. It is a ‘literal’ manifestation of the ghostly qualities of the game experience, acknowledging the player’s own contribution to the traces of meaning that inhabit the landscape.
The fact that the player experiences all of this through the act of walking is also significant, because while walking may be seen as a mundane, everyday practice, through Bound's moving journey of discovery the act of walking is reclaimed as an exciting, romantic, and significant practice. The game is effectively a love letter to walking, turned into an enjoyable and insightful work of art. This is very much in the literary tradition of psychogeography exhibited by romanticists such as William Wordsworth and Thomas de Quincey, who used walking as a gateway to experience the emotion of particular landscapes, which then manifested in their artwork. Dear Esther is probably the best example of a game equivalent, where walking in the romantic landscape of the British coastline is the method through which the player discovers who their character is, developing a sense of self.
Bound only takes roughly 40 minutes to play, but out of any game I’ve ever played it must have one of the highest ‘thought provocation to playtime’ ratios. You can clearly tell how much thought has gone into every aspect of the game – from the tiniest details of the objects to the wider concept – immersing you so densely in its world that you will struggle to drag yourself out again for hours afterwards. Even then, like water trickling out from the coils of the ear, you’ll find that certain details stick with you and re-appear mysteriously in the future.
The game’s premise is philosophical: it is an exploration of exploration. But although the subject matter may seem profound, it is a game that is built for purpose. For what genre of game could represent exploration better than the ‘walking simulator’?
The game is its own justification in this regard. The walking and interaction mechanics are designed specifically to make you think about how the way you explore an environment affects the experience you take from it. But more than this, the game revitalises exploration by making it exciting. The question-and-answer narrative presents the player with mysteries which can only be solved by engaging with the landscape. And because the story that unfolds is so intriguing and moving, the experience you are left with provides a real sense of fulfilment.
There is also a lot to be enjoyed by those interested in the psychogeographical element of walking simulators. Bound is a masterclass in environmental storytelling which very cleverly imbues the virtual environment with emotional significance, yet is broad enough to evoke a multitude of different interpretations. Every playthrough of Bound yields a different reading, and I imagine that it’s the type of game that would give even the returning player new insights, such is the quality of detail and concept.
Walking simulator games may not have reached the level of triple-A popularity yet, but their influence in the industry is growing and Bound expertly demonstrates their value and potential. This really is a great achievement for the walking simulator genre. Those who are already invested in the development of these types of games should be extremely proud and excited that someone following in their footsteps has produced such a promising addition to the field.

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