Version tested: PC
An esoteric point-and-click adventure in which you navigate dreams rendered in Polaroid snapshots, Trauma borrows the ambiance of sombre European cinema. It combines lingering night photography of Cologne, Germany with CGI motion graphics to haunting effect. Its lead character is voiced by a Björk-ish woman who wouldn't sound out of place in an Ingmar Bergman film, while a soundtrack of ambient pianos that lose their train of thought mid-melody adds to the trancelike atmosphere.
For those who believe indie game visuals are limited to pixel-art homage or neon space vectors, Trauma offers a striking alternate vision: one that, through its use of photography, is rooted in reality, even as it attempts to uproot that sense of reality through composition and context.
But plunge through the swirling, opaque glass of Trauma's aesthetic and there's a focused, somewhat orthodox core beneath. It's not clear whom you play as in this game, but your task is to save a girl from her recurring, trauma-inflicted dreams.
The opening film suggests she was the victim of a car crash, but at the moment of impact - if indeed that's what happened - the world dissolves into streaky lights and the incessant blips of a heart monitor. It would imply a clearer objective than is given to say your task is to piece together her fractured identity. Rather, you collect snapshots of her past while trying to solve the simple mysteries of her dreams, a task that aids her recovery from the Trauma of the title.
The girl is troubled by four dreams - levels, in game terms - that must be navigated and 'solved' in a variety of different ways. Each dream has one main ending (rewarded by a short film showing the woman's waking interactions with her doctor) as well as three alternate endings for completists. These are endings in the literal sense only: they end your progression through the dream, rarely attempting to make sense or order of what you have seen.
The dreams all take place on Cologne streets at night, in four distinct locations, each one mostly deserted. You move around the locations by clicking on hotspots in the environment, snapping your way forwards and back to the sound of a camera shutter going off, a little like moving down a road in Google Street View.
As you explore the dreams, the woman explains in abstract, ambiguous terms what you are seeing before offering echoes of objectives. She speaks not as an omniscient narrator but as a confused victim, uncertain of what needs to be done, offering clues toward clues, unsure of herself and her exact needs.
But you're not left floundering entirely. Hidden in each dream are nine different Polaroid photographs, frames within frames, which offer snapshot memories of key moments in the woman's life: her first day at school, her bedroom when growing up, how she was feeling when studying for her law degree. In addition there are key photographs showing arcane symbols that can be drawn on the screen in order to interact with the world. At their simplest, these are directional controls. A downstroke to move backwards, a sideswipe to move left, a crescent to turn around.
But soon you learn more complex rune shapes to perform further dream magic: finger incantations to identify figures motion-blurred in the frame, or cause objects to circle down drains, or lift heavy orbs from the ground. The interactive vocabulary is limited and precious. You learn just a couple of shapes in each of the four chapters, taking the language you absorb into other chapters to access hidden, alternative resolutions.
The four dreams are quickly resolved, and playing through the entire game will take less than an hour, only a little more if you attempt to collect everything on offer. The puzzles, such as they are, are simple and most can be solved simply by learning the right runic shape and identifying where it must be deployed. You've no inventory to speak of, no NPCs to interact with, and your reach into the world is limited to movement and that tight clutch of shapes. As such, the game banks on its ambiance and mystery to engage and entertain - and on this count, it's a success.
The interstitial movies are reminiscent of Julian Schnabel's film of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, while the script and, in particular, Anja Jazeschann's performance as the young woman offer a tender insight into the frustrating vagaries of lying in a hospital bed, waiting to recover from a life-threatening accident. It's territory rarely touched upon by video games. The looping routes within the dreams themselves disorientate and the long-exposure photography, coupled with Martin Straka's melancholy soundtrack, gives the dream levels an otherworldly feel.
Trauma is too slight and too leftfield to attract a wide audience, but it offers a fascinating vision of game, film and still life meeting to create something both fresh and familiar. Its creator's aspirations may lie close to a filmmaker's, but this is a very different kind of homage to cinema than that espoused by Rockstar's Housers and their many imitators.
Thoughtful, mysterious and haunting, Trauma is best approached as a curio. Its execution is arguably stronger than its ideas, and the narrative trajectory of the game has no surprises in it, outside of the surreal tone. But as an artwork exploring the mind of a trauma victim, its singular voice and approach stick in the mind.
7 / 10