TRAUMA is very much an arthouse game, and as vague as that is it should tell you right away if you’ll have the patience for it. There’s no deep gameplay or clear story to be found here, just a lot of clicking and speculation. This is by no means a bad thing, as I will expand upon, but its not going to be for everyone.
The title refers to the car accident and subsequent hospitalization of the main character, a terribly disaffected European woman. You’ll be playing through her dreams as she lies in her hospital bed, mulling over the choices she’s made in life. The game is divided into four dreams, each presented as a series of still photographs. Clicking on hotspots or gesturing with the mouse moves you from one photograph to the next, simulating movement through the celluloid environment. You’ve probably played something like it on a Flash site, where someone took a bunch of pictures of the alley next to their house and cobbled them into a 10-minute adventure game.
TRAUMA is a little more involved than that, thankfully. Each dream has a goal that must be accomplished using a special gesture learned in that dream. These gestures can also be used in other dreams to unlock alternate endings and paths. In addition to the goal and three alternate endings, each dream also contains nine photographs to find within the photographed world. Some of these give additional background on your character’s life, some teach new gestures for moving around, and some give clues to the alternate endings. They can be tricky to find due to the wonky angles of some scenes, but getting all the endings for a dream unlocks a “photo sense” that gives you vague but useful feedback on how far away a photo is.
During your explorations, your character will narrate what you see in her best deadpan Bjork voice. A lot of this is philosophical meandering like wondering if she’s every really connected with anyone, but it makes a good backdrop for your actual meandering. The environments are also more than just photo club art projects, with some limited CG added for dreamlike features. Overall it’s the atmosphere of TRAUMA that most appeals to me, the combination of quiet, unaffected musing with a journey through familiar scenes made alien by the way they are chopped into stills. The audio does a lot to prop up this feeling, with understated sound effects and a low minimalist soundtrack that’s just the right amount of menacing.
Despite the appeal, I still have some bones to pick with the design. Like with any photographic adventure game, some of the connections between scenes don’t make a whole lot of sense. Some clicks will tilt your head a little, others will send you into the next zip code. The fourth dream in particular has a layout that is sure to aggravate, with multiple transitions that could only be accomplished with teleportation. And don’t expect any sort of explicit resolution or pathos to the story, because you’re either going to get a total non-ending or a slightly cryptic non-ending, depending on if you find all the photographs.
If you’ve read this far and are still with me, TRAUMA is probably a game that will hold your interest. There’s only an hour or so of exploration total, but it nails that dreamworld feel that so many games shoot for and miss. And if you do dive into it, maybe you can extract more from the story than I could. I appreciate unique experiences in games, and while TRAUMA might not be groundbreaking or even deep in its gameplay, there’s enough to see and feel to make it a worthwhile experience.