TRAUMA Review: Defeatism You Can Play

By: George Weidman

So imagine this: you’re standing in the middle of a highway, in the pitch-black darkness of 3 a.m. There isn’t a soul is in sight, regardless of the busy web of directional signs and meticulously clean pathways that branch out in every direction. You walk (or rather, unerringly float,) into a tunneled overpass. A white-plaster brick wall fully blocks the road in front of you, staring flat-faced at the glow-in-the-dark road arrows pointed forward.

“I thought they wanted me to follow the road. Why did they make it so difficult?”

Krystian Majewski’s TRAUMA is filled with utterly serene moments of surreal immersion like this—moments where the atmospheric silence is immediately broken by the droning of a foreign-accented female narrator (Anja Jazechann.) The effect is quite stimulating. This woman’s voice sounds overwhelmingly dead inside—she drones on and on, half-asleep, creepily and mechanically, of observations and tutorial messages that are written with an almost patronizing flair for simplicity (forgiving the writing’s translation from Majewski’s primary German language, of course.)

This is the core experience of TRAUMA, and the entirety of the game. Gameplay involves a point-and-click interface that navigates through a series of connected still-life photographs and hearing the narrator’s expected response. Basic navigation involves finding clickable sections of a Bradley L. Garret-styled photo that fade us over to a new photo of the corresponding area. It’s Myst meets urban exploring.

Unfortunately, this is an admittedly dated interface. Pixel-hunting for different sections of interactivity is many times clunky and unintuitive, and navigates the camera into areas that don’t often correspond to what was clicked.

 

Am I Dreaming?

The basic storyline of the game, told through live-action videos and photos (surprisingly rare in modern games,) involves a recovering car accident victim whose dreams you experience in these point-and-click sections. There are four dreams in total and each take about 15 minutes to play through. However, they are supplemented by a handful of alternate endings and collectables that explain more of this woman’s story with each discovery. Some very basic puzzles arrive in the form of symbols and obstacles dispelled through mouse gestures that are learned in later levels. Backtracking through earlier levels with moves learned in later levels is required for chasing the alternative endings, but welcomed thanks to the thick, symbolic narrative that reveals new layers of story with each successive return.

Objectivity versus Sensory Experience

Let’s cut to the chase. TRAUMA is a very, very basic adventure game (and not a very challenging one at that.) We’ve been playing it since 1993. Using the mouse (and the mouse only,) to click through pre-rendered areas makes for a limited and methodical experience. But TRAUMA is the kind of experience that every gamer needs to have at least once in their lifetime.

If you’ve never felt that tingly sensation when walking through the first screens of Braid, or shivered at a chilly line of spinal goosebumps when reaching the end of The Path, you need to play TRAUMA. It definitely places itself within the genre of those games, and it’s the kind of experience you don’t get outside of that genre. That is to say: TRAUMA is an “art game.”

The Art of Car Accidents

These dreams are less like conventional game levels with obstacles and endings and more like a mosaic of opportunities to see what kind of emotional barrage Majewski can throw at you. This is what is core to art games: they are less about winning and losing or competition or “fun,” and more about exploring what kind of new sensations interactivity can give our medium. TRAUMA is absorbingly immersive—tingly sensations and goose bumps are common. Flicking through hazy, glowing photographs of these nighttime urban environments is a true sensory experience. The psychotic, hollow-sounding ambient music combines with the aesthetic theme of these photos (dark primaries with bold splashes of neon colors, ghastly captures of motion-blur, and harsh digital grains,) to make for a rich visual and aural experience.

It’s all helped by an uncanny sense of eeriness. In virtually every frame of the game, something’s off. Every photographic game screen, with as much realistic “live action” reality it contains, is tainted with some sort of eerie artificiality. Something’s been added in or changed (like a huge brick wall in the center of the frame,) and though it’s not always readily identifiable, the dreams always ends in a splendid show of CGI elements clashing against the quiet stillness of these photographic scenes. Impossible geometry and weather morph themselves in and out of the scene in real-time, and lend the entire game a threatening, paranoid atmosphere. Not knowing what’s “real” or not is a central theme of the game, and sometimes, knowing that the whole world can fall apart at any moment is terrifying.

Blurry Vision and Loss of Hearing

Also terrifying is the sound design, which is unusually atmospheric for a 2D game. Bass-heavy music tracks flow from a quiet sense of urban jazziness into more repetitious, ambient-sounding genres. Think Silent Hill, but with more violin. Sometimes, however, Martin Straka (sound designer) hits a chord that is downright devastating.  The fourth dream in particular features a track that sounds like pure bitterness— for this one level in particular, the background music creates an atmosphere of glass-eyed hopelessness that is an emotional wrecking ball.

Nothing Happens

Hopelessness, misery, and oppressive hegemony are the literary themes of TRAUMA. Here’s a spoiler, brace yourself: nothing happens. Every dream sequence is wildly metaphorical and abstract, but the pieces very clearly fall into place by the conclusion, easily revealing that this woman’s story is actually a very dull, self-inflicted and unsympathetic one (if you chose to interpret it as such.) She doesn’t win out and live happily ever after, and when you win (as a player,) nothing happens. Two endings are unlockable— each one nearly identical save one beaten-to-death visual metaphor in the “hidden” ending.

There are no fantastical elements here—virtually every gameplay decision involves confronting the very normal, real, first-world problems of an unknowingly-privileged first-world person, and playing a linear point-and-click computer game doesn’t help her situation

While Majewski’s narrative may sound stilted and uninspired, it’s anything but. The whole game seems like an experiment in playable defeatism, and that’s refreshing. The underlying plot here is interesting enough to keep you going forward, and presented beautifully. That it evokes such a strong reaction is the icing on the cake.

 

Is It Worth Your Money?

Editor’s Note: We missed an update to TRAUMA by Mr Majewski.  He has made the entire game available for free on via his official site.  He asks if you do like TRAUMA to buy the downloadable version.

TRAUMA Summary

  • Time Played – 4 hours
  • Widescreen Support – No
  • 5.1 Audio – No
  • Bugs – None
  • DRM – None
  • Control Scheme – Mouse only
  • Game Acquisition Method – Purchased by Reviewer
  • Availability – Steam and Official Site

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