Krystian Majewski’s Trauma

Myst depicted the world as a series of images organized to match the four cardinal directions. That these images were mostly static did not detract from your sense of physical immersion. When you faced a stairway, clicking forward would bring you to the top of the steps; turning left or right might reveal side paths to distant buildings; and turning back would remind you of the path by which you arrived here.

Krystian Majewski‘s Flash game Trauma, a surprise IGF standout this year, also depicts the world as a series of discrete, unmoving images. But unlike Myst, these images represent a girl’s memories of her dreams (not her actual dreams) instead of the dreamlike terrain itself. As you play, the girl, who has survived a car accident, is recalling these dreams to a hospital psychiatrist.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

Question marks.

The images differ significantly from those of Myst. They aren’t windows into the world, views out the eyes of your avatar from different vantage points. No coherent body is implied. Instead, these are discrete snapshots, actual photographs, that you shuffle through almost like a deck of cards. They correspond vaguely to physical space; for example, if you are on a road, clicking ahead will take you further along that road. But Trauma‘s landscape is plastic, and the game upholds geographic integrity only so that it can disorient you later. Following the road, you end up at the beginning.

The camera pulls back from your first-person view to reveal that what looked like a straight road from your vantage point is actually a terrifying Möbius-like spiral. Consider how difficult it is to make sense of this spiral, and then consider the horror of poking around aimlessly from within the spiral’s underbelly.

Myst was full of seams. There was no visual transition to accompany an act as simple as turning left or right, ascending a staircase, or crossing a portal. Your changes in perspective or position weren’t fluid movements, but rather sudden displacements. To compensate, your mind reflexively imagined yourself turning left, automatically pictured the empty space you traversed to reach the top of the steps — filling the gaps left by the game.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

Zoom in.

Trauma anticipates and undermines your instinct. As you click around, the image before you lurches, blurs and fades unsteadily into the next. One flat plane is literally subsumed into another. The game plays out the transition for you, revealing the world to be exactly what it is: a series of discrete images that you willfully connect into a seamless space; nothing more. They are no better or different than the small polaroids you collect in the game, little scraps that contain evidence of questionable authenticity.

At stake here is the notion of a continuous experience. As you navigate the lands of Trauma, you hear the girl speaking to her psychiatrist, trying to remember how each scene is relevant either to her dream or to her past before the accident. She never sounds quite certain. Sometimes there is clear doubt in her voice. As the player, you are embodied in the girl’s memory; you actually enact her remembrance. Playing Trauma — probing the depths of memory — leaves you with many contradictions and few clear answers.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

This throws the profound unreality of many first-person games into sharp relief. In reality, memory is what allows us to experience life as continuous. Our present was begotten from the past; our future depends on our present. In contrast, in games that hope to mimic reality — take the paragon of seamless first-person experiences, Half-Life 2 — it isn’t memory but technology that fosters continuity. It is HL2‘s Source engine, scripted action, and non-player dialogue that let us roam and interact with the world entirely from Gordon Freeman’s eyes, as if we had merely stepped into his boots and proceeded from there.

But past, present and future all exist simultaneously in Half-Life 2 as code. Memory is nonexistent; the physical world of City 17 is also Gordon Freeman’s beginning and end, a timeline collapsed into a single locus, not at all like a Möbius strip. In other words, if Gordon Freeman has a memory, he is incapable of remembering anything that you have not played through. His brain is no better, or worse, than a cinema reel.

Krystian Majewski's Trauma

You don’t imagine yourself into the worlds of Half-Life 2 or Myst, because those games simply show it all. Trauma, meanwhile, is a game about imagining, where nothing is shown simply. A strange act of doubling therefore occurs: The blatant subjectivity and natural instability of the girl’s memories align with the obvious artifice of the game world, and this more accurately reproduces human experience than Valve’s and Cyan’s literal re-creations. The narrative is full of holes, and the space is knotted beyond comprehension; yet the mystery is comforting. Rather than being a seamless slide forward, life is experienced more as a series of memorable flashes or punctures in the fabric of time. This isn’t a conceptual exercise; it is how the game is built.

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