Wednesday 14 October 2015

Some thoughts on... Twin Peaks and the Detective Mystery Genre

After finishing university and the long, arduous slog of exam term back in June, I set my mind on spending time doing things I’d been itching to do in those daydreaming moments during revision, when freedom is the singular shining beacon on a mountain of books, papers and deadlines.
Specifically, ART: experiencing, enjoying and making.
Where does Twin Peaks come into this? Well, the series had been on my mind for a long time because so much art that I already loved was littered with references to it. To name but a few:
  • Bastille’s Dan Smith is a self-confessed lover of the programme, whose song ‘Laura Palmer’ directly addresses the character of the same name from Twin Peaks.
  • The makers of the ongoing episodic game, Life is Strange, are huge fans. Not only is their game set in an idyllic Washington state, small town environment comparable to the fictional town of Twin Peaks, but the game’s mystery-centred storyline draws on many of the themes from the TV series.
  • Other mystery adventure games such as Alan Wake contain numerous resemblances to Twin Peaks in their storylines, setting and aesthetic.
On this evidence, I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing out on a sort of cultural lynchpin by not watching Twin Peaks. I had to watch it, and for once I actually had the time to do so.

About Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks is an American TV mystery drama programme produced by Mark Frost and David Lynch, spanning two series which aired in 1990 and 1991. In total, the two series consisted of 30 episodes. Following the TV series, a feature film called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which acts both as a prologue and epilogue to the TV series, was released in 1992, also directed by David Lynch.
In 2014, it was confirmed by Lynch that a third series would be produced, set 25 years after the events in the original two series. It is expected to air in 2016 or 2017, and announcements continue to be made of members of the former 1990s cast and production team that are returning for the new series.

Mysteries and me 

I started watching Twin Peaks around the middle of June, and finished at the end of August. This timing was fitting, because it happened to coincide with me enjoying numerous other examples of detective mystery fiction. After all, Twin Peaks wasn’t the only thing I was going to spend my newly-found freedom on!
During this period I also:
-       Continued to play ‘Life is Strange’.
-       Played ‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’.
-       Played ‘Her Story’.
-       Played ‘Homesick’.
-       Watched playthroughs of two Sherlock Holmes games.
-       Watched a number of detective mystery programmes on TV, including New Tricks, Midsomer Murders, Sherlock and Jonathan Creek.
-       Watched the film Shutter Island.
-       Read ‘Digital Fortress’ by Dan Brown.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had quite a decent exposure to detective mystery fiction over this period.
And given my desire to start thinking more artistically again after the mind-numbing experience of intense revision and exams, the combination of Twin Peaks and these examples began to make me think about what the figure of the ‘detective’ and the detective genre in general represent, and what they mean to me personally.
Detective, crime and mystery fiction have been ever-present in my life for almost as long as I can remember. It’s probably quite unusual for parents to let their kids stay up and watch adult murder mystery TV shows when they’re still only halfway through primary school, but that’s what my Mum did. Programmes like Midsomer Murders, Jonathan Creek, Poirot, Miss Marple and A Touch of Frost became staples in our family, and I loved it. Mysteries intrigued me.
I think that to me mysteries were (and still are) almost more than stories, because in addition to describing a sequence of events mysteries give you the opportunity to question the reasons or motives behind, and the consequences of, these events. Through the medium of the detective, they allow you to piece together each flicker of thought, feeling and action and use them to shine light on a bigger picture. You can delve into the details and the nitty-gritty, knowing that even something small and seemingly insignificant could tip the balance of understanding.
The distinguishing factor is curiosity. Mysteries provide us with questions, and our engagement with the story is typically built upon our curiosity to know the answers to these questions.
While curiosity in everyday life may be construed as nosiness and lack of respect for privacy, I think that the great thing about mystery stories is how they encourage us to experience the thrill of searching for hidden meaning, deciphering clues and solving problems, without the same social and physical boundaries we would experience in real life. With our newly-found access to people’s lives – their secrets, their relationships with others, what they do, where and when – we become glued to the edge of our seats by the anticipation that each snippet of information brings us a step closer to answering the questions posed at the beginning.
As a result I find that mystery stories also tend to be very satisfying as well as thrilling, because when the pieces of the jigsaw finally fall into place and a story arc is revealed, you get a sense of fulfilment from having your questions answered. I think about the classic scenes used by Agatha Christie, where the detective gathers all of the characters in one room and systematically re-tells the sequence of events, this time filling in the gaps with facts established during the investigation. It is a catharsis, where tensions are abruptly and dramatically released, like a ‘drop’ in music. You can see why this technique was so effective. You have the satisfaction of resolution and the drama of revelation clutching each other at the climax.
However, at the end of the story it isn’t always as clear cut as the ‘bad guy goes to jail’, ‘crime doesn’t pay’ refrain. As well as providing a further sense of resolution or satisfaction to the story, justice in mystery dramas is a theme that allows you to consider the boundaries between right and wrong, in a genre where it is nearly always a crime that is the source of mystery. It is interesting to consider how morality should operate, for example, when mental illness is involved, or a long time has passed since the crime was committed. It adds another layer of meaning that goes beyond the confines of the story’s events, and is thought-provoking in that it allows you to consider your own moral inclinations.
Overall, then, I would say that my long-standing affinity for detective mysteries is largely built on three pillars:
·         Curiosity: the exciting process of learning and interpreting information about people and events.
·         Resolution: the satisfaction of having your questions answered, and sometimes justice.
·         Morality: questions of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and their wider significance.
What Twin Peaks changed

Before I began watching Twin Peaks, the main thing I’d heard about it was that the whole show (30 episodes and a film) hinged on the murder of one person - Laura Palmer.
This interested me. In a genre where the mystery tends to be solved in the episode in which it is introduced – or at least within two or three – I wondered how the programme managed to sustain people’s curiosity for so long. Without the satisfaction of having your questions answered, where was the sense of resolution?
Simply put: how did the producers managed to drag the whole thing out so long?!
But this fact turns out to be the genius of Twin Peaks, and why it completely altered my perception of what detective/mystery stories are.
In Twin Peaks, like in real life, drama doesn’t unfold neatly and resolve itself quickly and unproblematically, or confine itself to those directly involved in extraordinary events. From the very first episode, Laura Palmer’s murder is the gateway through which the viewer is sucked into the messy lives of ordinary people, in a small town where everybody knows everybody else. Because even in an idyllic, semi-rural, middle-class environment that appears pristine on the outside, people have secrets. People have dark and ambiguous histories. People tell lies. Equally, those who may appear bad or heartless on the surface harbour a lighter, sensitive side. And although serious crime is undoubtedly an extraordinary event, Twin Peaks departs from the archetypal mystery story by focusing on the drama, intrigue and downright strangeness that exists in the everyday, not just the extraordinary.
Curiosity, resolution and morality take on a meaning of their own in Twin Peaks, beyond the characteristic ‘criminal investigation’ storylines.
David Lynch’s brilliance as a director and producer shines through in two important techniques he uses to achieve this.
The first thing to note is a particular method of character development that Lynch uses, involving stereotypes. On first impressions, you begin to get a sense of what some of the main characters might be like. You have Sheriff Harry Truman, the law-abiding, no-nonsense cop. There’s Bobby Briggs, the typical macho high-school jock who loves to cause trouble. Leo Johnson, violent partner to Shelly Johnson, who is too afraid to confront Leo’s domestic abuse. Ben Horne, the rich local businessman who wants to own as much of Twin Peaks as possible. These are just a few examples of Twin Peaks characters that appear to fit quite neatly into the stereotypical roles of American small-town suburbia.
In traditional detective mysteries the characters largely stay within the boundaries of their given roles, apart from the murderer who is suddenly seen to be hiding a dark secret, and perhaps one or two red herrings to arouse your suspicions.
This is not the case in Twin Peaks.
Because as soon as you start to think you understand each character, Lynch abruptly uncovers a different side to their personality, pushing them beyond the limits of their stereotypes. All of a sudden you begin to question their actions and motives, realising that behind every curtain and batted eyelid are mysterious forces at work.
It soon becomes clear that Laura Palmer’s murder is certainly not the only mystery in Twin Peaks. Rather, every single person is a mystery.
No one is completely ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘normal’ or ‘strange’. In fact, no one is ‘completely’ anything.
And so we can see that in Twin Peaks, unlike your average detective mystery story, you don’t need extraordinary or shocking events to pique your curiosity, or question human morality. There is no simple resolution to people’s problems, where everything goes back to normal.
People’s everyday lives provide enough intrigue by themselves.
Which brings me onto the second of Lynch’s techniques that I wanted to talk about, involving the use of surrealism.
In another point of departure from your typical TV detective mystery, many of the goings-on in Twin Peaks do not appear to be ‘of this world’. At times, the series could justifiably be described as a ‘psychological horror’ or ‘supernatural drama’. Meaningful dreams and visions, multiple personalities, alternate dimensions and a variety of unusual mental disorders are just a few examples of this.
What interests me most about this element of the series, though, is how the surreal blurs into the mundane. The unusual and supernatural are a part of everyday life - slotting seamlessly into day-to-day occurrences – rather than just being the outcome of extraordinary events.
This is quite deftly symbolised by the cooperation of the two main ‘detective’ characters in the series. One is the spiritual, instinctive Special Agent Dale Cooper, an FBI agent sent to Twin Peaks to investigate the Laura Palmer case. The other is the practical, rational Sheriff Truman. In many ways they couldn’t be more different in their way of thinking or methods, and yet when combined they manage to strike a strong partnership as they attempt to get to the bottom of the mysteries that unfold.
The end result of this intertwining of the mundane and the surreal is that there is always an atmosphere or presence of mystery in Twin Peaks, rather than simply a sequence of mysterious occurrences. Every day is extraordinary, dramatic and worthy of our curiosity. And even when some of our questions are answered, there’s no ‘happy ever after’ where everything returns to normal – just like the ongoing drama that is real life.
That to me is the real beauty of Twin Peaks. Unlike any other detective mystery I’ve come across, it actively encourages us to appreciate the extraordinary in the everyday; the mystery and strangeness that is day-to-day life.
My 5 favourite things about Twin Peaks
The soundtrack: Angelo Badalamenti’s music is hauntingly beautiful; the perfect accompaniment to the series. Was thrilled to hear that he is composing the score for the forthcoming series.
The quirkiness: I love the quirky habits and traits that each character has, which make for some very funny and strange scenes throughout the series.
The setting: I like the sense of place that you develop as you watch the series. You really begin to feel as if you ‘know’ Twin Peaks almost as well as the fictional characters who live there, each location with its own meanings and memories.
My favourite characters: the melodramatic Donna, the slow-minded but lovable Andy, the insightful ‘Log Lady’ and the tantalising Audrey.
Agent Cooper’s recorded monologues: a brilliant plot device that gives you access to the detective’s thoughts and observations, but also add to the mystery of the series. Who is the ‘Diane’ to which he always addresses his messages?
Final thoughts

I’m really, really glad I decided to watch Twin Peaks this summer.
Since watching the series, I’ve realised that the qualities that I typically like in detective mysteries are all there. There is plenty to be curious about in the lives of each character. You do get some sense of resolution when truths are uncovered, even if they are almost immediately replaced by new questions. And there is more than enough to take from the series on the nature of human morality.
The feature that makes Twin Peaks stand out, however, is the way that these qualities materialise.
In its attention to the intrigue of everyday life, the simple pleasure of the traditional detective mystery story is somehow imbued with a whole new level of meaning. Twin Peaks becomes so much more than just a TV mystery drama because it provides significant insight into real life too: into the inescapable mystery and strangeness of people living seemingly ‘ordinary’ lives.

I think the idea in many ways is simple, but it was executed in Twin Peaks so well that it became revolutionary in the detective mystery genre.
I have actually just finished watching series 1 of ITV’s Broadchurch, which I didn’t have time to watch when it was originally shown because – you guessed it – I had a ton of university work. The series has won several BAFTAs, and can you guess which TV show its writer, Chris Chibnall, cites as a major influence?
Yep, it’s Twin Peaks.
And there are quite a few blatant similarities, not least the fact that the series focuses on the everyday lives of people in an ordinary small town, which has been shocked by one sudden murder.
And Twin Peaks will continue to be an inspiration for detective mysteries of all types for years to come, because its approach and its ideas resonate with people.
This is what has motivated me to start planning some conceptual art based on the figure of the ‘detective’ and the notion of ‘mystery’ which, as you can gather, I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

There are also plenty of connections to my academic interest in psychogeography. As a practice, pscyhogeography is always looking to find intrigue and excitement in the mundane environments of everyday life. The theme of the 'extraordinary in the everyday', as well as the novel technique of surrealism as a way of depicting this in film, have given me lots to think about in terms of how we might visualise the little stories and dramas that take place and produce meaning in the ordinary environments we inhabit.                                                                                                                 
I’m now eagerly looking forward to seeing what new insights the third series brings, and enjoying the fantastic art that Twin Peaks will continue to inspire.

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.