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Review: TRAUMA

The four chapters of TRAUMA.

TRAUMA is a matter of perspective. Navigation of its landscapes requires clicking from one viewpoint to another, a camera click following each movement. Among your goals is to find various Polaroids, which grant small bits of narrative about the protagonist's life. Some of these photographs give further instructions on how to interact with the environment, drawing on the world you are inhabiting (which also has the feel of a photograph). Even moving to the edge of where you wish to view next tilts the world in one way or another. In between chapters we see clips that indicate we are in a hospital, and the protagonist chats with a doctor. Each has points to make, each has a way of viewing the circumstances being discussed.

I have a viewpoint, though I cannot speak in concrete terms. Instead, I resign myself to listening and exploring. Sometimes it isn't about me, after all. In my own past, I have certainly played the patient ear: listening to friends describe their lives, or alternating between shrinking into and holding someone in my own arms while discussing our lives and what has occurred in them, or some concept vague an abstract. Even when it isn't about me, I can relate, however. It is what makes me human. It may not be about me, but it can have an effect on my life.

There isn't much concrete in TRAUMA. Each of the four chapters has a primary goal that will 'advance' the story, so far as there is a linear story to advance. However, the linear story is simple and straightforward. In fact, one does not need to progress from the chapters in the order from left to right, which creates a curious sense of the story's linear function not really even being the point.

There are no real decisions to make in this game, beyond playing or not playing, completing 100% or not; instead, the decisions you make are focused on how you interpret what is happening, what is being displayed, and what certain symbols mean for you. For instance, the only humans you see are the ghostly images of people caught in some vague motion blur, or barely visible. While you can see a closeup of a woman's face during the cutscenes that cap the end of each main story goal, there is only one significant portrayal of a human being not caught in photograph. Is our protagonist a lonely person? A loner? Is her being caught in Nighthawks an indication of the type late-night, early-morning loneliness that pervades her life? Or is it a simple memory?

Which is where TRAUMA becomes even more curious. There are symbols you draw, sure. However, there are so many signifiers in total, that what you wish to make out of the game comes down to your own perspective. In some part, it is going through a woman's life as she heals from an accident, but in general, it is full of a certain ennui, nostalgia, and general anxiety about continuing in life. It is through photographs we travel, indicating her own memories, her own past, and yet, it is as much about her own reaction to them now.

Photograph on the tree!

We can read a book, watch a film, or engage with any form of art or media and come back years later to discover that what was once fixed in space has changed. Really, it hasn't. What has changed is what we bring to the experience. This is what the protagonist in TRAUMA seems to be doing. Walk past a diner and she will remark on how it seemed to her once, and yet you are experiencing it now, in a different sense, with her. She certainly guides your experience, but how you interpret it may not be how she is experiencing it. The game is as much her story as your reaction to it.

Which speaks to our memories as well. What we may remember is filled with gaps, and even on looking at a place or photograph, any number of memories may come to us. They are as treacherous as anything, and what we make of them depends on our mood. The mood of this experience has a certain discontent to it, from the music that lies in the background, to the darkness that is punctuated by the glow of certain lights.

TRAUMA is an experience that reflects as much on us. What it might mean to you depends on your situation in life; while we can say this of many games, in truth, this one strips away a lot of the extra bits and focuses solely on that portion. What I saw while progressing was a person trying to come to terms with what has gone before, and what no longer holds true. There is one particular exchange that solidified such, between the doctor and patient, where they discuss how her parents used to be role models. The question is whether they are now too old to be role models, or whether she is too old to have them. Questions about our place in life, and how we affect change in the world around us are something we are often asked to explore, even superficially, through game worlds near and far. At the same time, the goal appears to be that seeking of comfort--something her parents seemingly no longer offer.

While there is a stated main goal in each chapter, typically having to do with ways to affect the scenery around you in a way that differs from the other chapters, everything you learn can be used. For us, the audience, the comfort of certain trappings is still present; certain numerical goals still grab at us: nine photographs, one main ending, three alternate endings. This underscores that there is, again, no real order to how you wish to explore a chapter. In much the same way that a Metroidvania game will give you tools to go back and explore places you missed in your early explorations, and not each powerup is required to progress and finish, you are given different methods of interaction that have the same rules in every chapter. That swirl you draw around drains to make them swallow up the environment around it? It is used more than once.

As you'll note, I haven't really labeled TRAUMA a game. While I certainly believe I could, I don't believe the traditional use of the word really gets at what would interest people in this title. If you want to finish as soon as possible, this isn't really for you. If you want to just ruminate, and chew for a bit, while taking in a world made of blurs, photographs, and scratches thereupon, all in a melancholy manner, I would definitely recommend it. That's just my perspective, however.

A review copy of TRAUMA was provided me via Steam. I took approximately forty minutes to complete the linear story, and another forty just exploring for photographs I had missed as well as the alternate endings to chapters. It is available for PC, Mac, and Linux directly from the site for €5 plus whatever you wish to provide the developer, or via Steam for PC and Mac at €4.99. A low-res demo may be tried here.

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