Games that use environmental storytelling tend to place you in the role of an archaeologist of sorts. In BioShock, you piece together the troubled history of Rapture through audio diaries; Myst begins with your nameless, silent protagonist exploring the strange circumstances of its fantasy setting; and Metroid Prime went deep into its alien denizens' lore. Indie developer Krystian Majewski's new title, Trauma, puts you in the role of a psychologist, asking not "what happened," but rather "what does this mean?"
The former question is answered in the opening cinematic where a young woman survives a car crash, leaving her in the hospital and her parents dead. This leads to her explaining the strange dreams she's been having to you, the psychologist. You explore her dreamscape, which is comprised of gorgeous photographs carefully altered with surreal imagery. It's a striking art style, with the fragmented images of the real world standing in for the lucidity of a dream.
Movement is handled similarly to Myst where clicking certain angles alters the perspective. Unlike Cyan's classic, blurred images appear where you can shift your vantage point, making it clear where you can look. You can also manipulate the environment by drawing symbols that you learn via Polaroids scattered throughout each stage. These range from simple movements, like a 180 degree turn, to more colorful gestures, like draining the scenery in a whirlpool when placed on specific surfaces.
There's a "Metroidvania" element to this, where you can go back to previously completed levels using newly discovered abilities to uncover alternate endings. Don't let this familiar concept fool you, though; Trauma isn't about puzzles. At least not in a typical sense. Completing each stage is easy, and even uncovering every ending and hidden photograph revealing the protagonist's memories is relatively simple. The challenge comes from figuring out what any of it means.
Trauma is an extraordinarily esoteric game with little concrete to go on. Certain themes are obvious, such as academic life burying one's childhood or outgrowing one's parents as role models. Other times it's incredibly vague. When the protagonist says of a traffic sign maker, "They think they are showing you the way, but all they do is set up yet another hoop to jump through," it feels more like aimless angst than the crushing drama one would feel from losing one's parents.
Elsewhere, navigation can be cumbersome as you painstakingly scour every angle to make sure there wasn't a perspective you missed. It doesn't help that half the hidden photos are instructions for movement you've probably already learned.
Now I reach the point where I'm supposed to give a score to this ambiguous artistic expression. It's not the kind of game that falls easily in line with numerical ratings, so I'd prefer to give it one giant star with lots of extra points and a smiley face in the middle then ask you to figure that one out. But alas... Trauma was a game I wanted to love, but found more curious than transcendent. Still, any game that requires this much psychological analysis is a welcome departure from the norm.
PROS: Interesting subject matter; great art style that uses full-motion video in a novel way; enigmatic symbolism is open to interpretation.
CONS: Will be too obtuse for some, navigation is problematic, putting the instructions for how to move into hidden collectibles feels forced
Trauma's puzzles are simple, but forming meaning out of its esoteric prose requires great effort on the player's part. PROS: Interesting subject matter; great art style that uses full-motion video in a novel way; enigmatic symbolism is open to interpretation. CONS: Will be too obtuse for some, navigation is problematic, putting the instructions for how to move into hidden collectibles feels forced