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Impressions: Trauma

Good Dreams?

Originally due in 2009, it's been quite a wait for Krystian Majewski's Trauma. Nominated in three IGF 2010 categories, including the Grand Prize, it was pipped in each, but clearly highly lauded. Kieron spoke to the developer about it back then. Well, it's just been released this very hour, and having played it I'm jolly well going to say things about it.

I'm really not sure.

I'm currently in an incredibly bad mood, which has worsened thanks to unrelated circumstance as I've played, and I've found myself warming to the game more the fouler my temperament becomes. I'm not sure what that says about me or the game, but it helps to explain the sort of territory we're in.

Trauma plays a little like using Google Street View during a fever dream. You manoeuvre your way through static real-world photographs in the same way as Street View works, clicking on projected images where they appear to travel. The image then spookily glides from one to the next. Unlike GSV (although after playing this I think they should introduce it), you can also use gestures to move around, such as turning left, right, or around. Then other gestures will interact with the world, although not in familiar ways. One, for instance, allows you to drain elements of reality down a plughole.

So you're a girl who's been in a car accident, and now you're experiencing the four recurring dreams she has in hospital. You can play any of them in any order, as often as you want, with different goals each time. Each has a main "ending", which will trigger a cutscene related to the stay in hospital. But there are three other alternative "endings" that can be discovered through exploration and experimentation. I put "endings" in such quizzical quotemarks because, like a dream, they don't bear any narrative sense of being an ending, simply a place where things stop.

Scattered throughout each dream are Polaroid photographs, some containing (annoyingly repeated) hints (although presumably that's so you can start with any of the four dreams), while others offer brief memories. The dreaming girl's awkward narration half-explains these things, also commenting on anything else that takes her attention as you move around.

So is it any good? It's very difficult to say. The means of interaction is fascinating, and creates a peculiarly disjointed aesthetic. But then at the same time this is essentially the same way you moved around all those vile Myst-clones throughout the late 90s, and it was rightly condemned at the time. It's far, far better delivered here, being - as it is - memories constructed from literal photographs. The creator has clearly taken an enormous number of shots, documenting interesting, backstreet, graffitied areas of urban oddities, and then cleverly constructed them into something you can move through. At the same time, you are often just waving the mouse around trying to find if you've missed a way of changing scene for about half the time you're playing.

It's nice that finding new gestures in one dream means you can then go back to another and do something different there. It's altogether an extremely interesting construction. My issue is, I'm not sure it quite delivers.

Returning to an earlier dream to execute a move I couldn't before doesn't result in opening up a whole new area to explore. Instead it invariably just offers me another ambiguous, esoteric finish to the dream that ticks a box on the screen but offers little else. The sense of achievement is lost in the muddle of deliberate obfuscation, and then leads nowhere but the menu screen.

I'm also not convinced by its motif. Of course, this is a far more personal response, but - well - I just didn't have a response. The music is wonderful, the use of photography fascinating and well executed, and it certainly creates a dream-like uneasiness. But that was background and I didn't discover any foreground. I certainly didn't feel like I'd "shed light on different aspects of her identity - such as the way she deals with the loss of her parents", as I read in the Steam description after I'd played. Then again, perhaps this was passing over my head? Clearly this aspect is going to be different for different people. I'm just not sure it goes deep enough.

Which is to say, I can see why this game was nominated for so many IGF awards, and I can also see why it didn't win any of them. It's one of those cases where I'm left thinking, "I can't wait to see what this guy does next", rather than wanting to champion him right now.

Which makes the price of just under £5 (you can get it from Steam now for £4.39, or directly from Majewski's website for €5 plus any tip you want to add) a tough one. It's certainly not a large amount of money, but it's also a game that's over in an hour. However, hugely importantly, you can try it for free via the website. I certainly recommend you do that, to see what you make of it. And you can watch the trailer below:

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