Why 'Bound' Went with Ballet and Modern Art
Inside Plastic Studio's artistically challenging new game.
On its surface, Bound is an avant-garde platformer, threaded together by a mature narrative (as in, one kids most likely won’t get), and reinforced by a highly unique visual premise — a ballet dancer cavorting through an abstract world inspired by modern art.
When it was released on PSN earlier this week, a friend of mine had a very succinct way of describing it on Twitter: “Bound is basically like a dev team said ‘Hey, games can’t be art? Fuck you,’ then built a game behind that idea,” he tweeted. Plastic Studios, the developer, favorited it.
Even for an independent game scene already teeming with strange and interesting projects from around the world, Bound sticks out. With its dreamlike structure and fragmentary dialogue between a princess and her mother, it is as perplexing as its morphing geometry is mesmerizing. And playing it does at first blush feel inscrutable.
Plastic’s director Michal Staniszewski is a “firm believer” in the artistic potential of the medium, and the Poland-based studio has a track record for experimentation. Their 2008 console debut Linger In Shadows was not a game at all, but an interactive art application released digitally for PS3; they followed it up with Datura, a surreal first-person experience that played out as a series of allegorical vignettes controlled by a disembodied hand. Both hew closer to experimental film than most small games with more standardized storytelling.
Accordingly, Staniszewski sees Bound and other challenging creative games as akin to festival-circuit independent films, an approach long overdue for interactive mediums. But what drives Plastic to create perhaps more difficult art comes from people over a certain age not realizing what games in the modern era can be.
“The biggest problem I have with gaming is when people turn 30 they stop because they think it’s for kids, like you don’t watch cartoons anymore [because of that],” he says. “Of course there are cartoons for adults — but a lot of people don’t get that, and even more people don’t get that there are games for adults. There are games designed for them, and they don’t know it.”
With this idea in mind, Staniszewki wants Bound’s originality to attract an audience from across a range of perspectives as well as more seasoned players.
“I just can say it’s a ballerina game,” Staniszewski says, referring to his elevator pitch. “Actually, it’s a not a ballerina game, but it’s enough to get some people interested. But it’s absolutely not a game about dancing.”
What is it about, then, if not dancing? Staniszewski says ballet is just a means to an end within a larger interpretive experience – similar perhaps, to performance art pieces. Its design didn’t begin close to its final form, either. Throughout development, what the game would eventually become fell into place piece by piece. And that gradual evolution was a bit turbulent.
“[In 2012], I had written a 60- or 70-page design document,” Staniszewski says. “And from that, what we have in Bound is like less than 10 percent. There were a lot of concepts that we tested that didn’t work.”
While the narrative concept and universal touchstones were there from the beginning, there’s little resemblance from what Plastic started with. The game was initially going to be focused around multiplayer interactions, a plan that had to be scrapped when network issues caused unavoidable imbalances for players.
Development shifted course because of Catzilla, a PC benchmarking tool Plastic has recently worked on that features a Kaiju-sized cat destroying buildings made of blocks — shapes that would come to define Bound’s landscape.
“The main character was a strong young girl, like in [Hayao] Miyazaki’s movies,” Staniszewski says. “But she was supposed to be flying on some kind of plane. And you were supposed to fly around these buildings [made of blocks] and shoot them, making them collapse.”
At this point the girl could walk or fly, but this too was thrown out, thinking it might be too jarring for players. It’s how the princess as she is in the final game began to take shape, and where the design started to take root as a platformer. After submitting their earliest foundation to longtime collaborator Sony Santa Monica, Plastic got some tough feedback — it just wasn’t that much fun. The studio’s Seth Killian (who has since moved on to greener pastures) had some advice on how to improve.
“He said that I should play Mario,” Staniszewski says. “Because the first character we made was really bad, rigid and really hard to walk, and the jumping was really bad.”
Getting acquainted with Nintendo’s plumber back in the day was a little bit of a challenge, because Nintendo games weren’t initially available in Poland at the time.
“Not too many people know Mario, because we didnt have the first consoles,” he says. “We didn’t have the NES — we had Pegasus, which was like a clone of NES, but it was not so popular.”
So, Staniszewski bought a 3DS and a Wii U to study, using Super Mario 3D Land and World as reference points.
“Most of the movements in Bound are from [those],” he says. But it was also iterative, because I didn’t know Mario at all.”
The ballet still wasn’t in place, however. Santa Monica sent Plastic yet more feedback once they had nailed down the platforming. This time? The heroine just looked like another game character. As a platformer, there was nothing to distinguish Bound from anything else.
“It was quite frustrating feedback, because I knew I would have to [create] everything from scratch,” Staniszewski says. Inspiration finally struck when a friend posted a video on Facebook of a contemporary dancer. And for Bound, it was something that just made sense.
“The character we had, with her mindset, she has these kind of emotions in her,” he says. “I realized we should use dancing. And I figured out we should try ballet, because it was really hard to find any game with ballet.”
Here, something clicked.
“There’s not a single game made with ballet dancers in the past so many years — why is that?” he says. “How many other ideas haven’t been used?”
From there it was a matter of copious research, as Staniszewski pored over countless hours of contemporary dance and ballet on YouTube until he finally reached the point where he could tell a good dancer from a bad one. After some more time — and, as he figures, a lot of money wasted on trying to animate the proper movements — he concluded that they needed to work with a real dancer.
“I realized we had problems with the animation because I didn’t know how a ballerina behaves when she’s moving near a wall or pushing a block,” he says, laughing. “And I was really watching a lot of videos — I found out that’s not on the internet.”
The modern art look was a similar happy accident.
“From the very first concepts, our art director said that it resembles suprematism,” Staniszewski says. “[So] I started to look into it, and it was like, ‘wow, some of those pictures are exactly like if we took screenshots.’”
Apart from suprematism, Staniszewsi began pulling from other modern art movements, giving Bound a style that covers most of the 20th century. He knows, too, that the studio is fortunate to have space to work within a creative environment where the right inspiration — what the essence of a project actually is — may take time to find.
“It was a project of constant change,” he says. “But we were so lucky that all the changes were moving forward and not moving back — we were not going in circles.”
Staniszewski says getting Sony to understand what exactly Bound would be took over a yea – not for a lack of understanding, but after delays in reaching that creative “eureka” moment.
“I’m starting to worry if I’ll be able to do the same [on the next project],” he says. “You need to have a lot of freedom to think about things. I don’t know if it’s easy — with Bound, maybe it was easy, or maybe it was just luck. That’s the big question. If we’ll be able to do it again.”
Whatever Plastic’s next project might be, Staniszewski is interested in further exploring art that has a proper balance between content and form. In Bound’s case, that refers to its dual elements of storytelling and platforming design (note the optional edge guard, which was included so players would look elsewhere on-screen than the princess’ feet.)
In future games, Staniszewski wants to explore the idea of telling stories through design itself. He uses the obtuse controls in Starbreeze’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as an example, which effectively divides the controller in two so that each hand controls one sibling. It makes the game’s ending more powerful when, spoiler alert, one of the boys dies.
“You feel you’ve lost a part of your controller. In the end you feel like one of your hands is missing. Like one half of you is missing,” he says. “That’s something games can do much better than movies.”
Though Bound’s dancing doesn’t do that, Staniszewski is confident it can still resonate with a variety of people. Over the hundreds of playtests Plastic did, many people had different takeaways for the game.
“They couldnt agree what the interactions between the characters [meant],” he says. “Everyone could understand what it was about, but they had different perspective on it based on their life experiences.”
Given the inherent provocations art should foster, that’s probably for the best.