Thursday, August 18, 2011

life makes pushers of us all

Developer: Krystian Majewski
Release: $6.99 on Steam, $5 Direct from Developer

A tragedy in more ways than one

a stone’s throw

Tragedy seldom makes sense in the context of its occurrence. There is no assurance, no assuagement, and no comfort found in the experience of tragedy. There is no solace, no great grace, nor any sense of wholeness or health in the face of a true, unforgiving tragedy. All that there is, is tragedy. It is what it is. It is personal, it is vital, it is indelible. It draws every ounce of strength from you and it leaves you with little left but a whine and a whimper and no choice but to move on. It pushes you to your limits; it breaks you down to what little insignificant essence you have. It forces you to start all over again.

Any creation hoping to replicate this experience takes on a tremendous burden; one that requires the grit and gall to explore these emotions and reproduce them faithfully. You cannot pull punches, and you cannot settle for less. You cannot expect to accomplish your goal without leaping so far out of your mind that you question your ability to come back. You have to let everything go, or resign yourself to second-best. Tragedy demands a tragic commitment.

TRAUMA is tragedy that just doesn’t commit.

take me home, tonight

TRAUMA isn’t all bad, but its failings outshine its feats. On the one hand, it has a penetrating, contemplative audio and visual style that’s well-orchestrated and atmospheric; at the same time, immersion may be broken for some people because it’s so well-packaged. It sounds counterintuitive, but for me immersion requires more than just a very well-planned experience; it also requires that I not be able to sense the hand of the creator. If you want me to believe in something, especially an emotional something, you had better be sure that I can’t see you telling me to believe in it. For some this isn’t a problem, as they don’t mind being led about by overt dialogue or manipulative speech, but for me it matters. It matters that I experience and explore the emotion of my own volition as opposed to a forced false choice with a pre-programmed response. I don’t feel by observation; I feel by feeling. TRAUMA fails in this respect because I too often see the hand of the creator breaking through the curtain, and the hand is ragged, hairy, and kinda dirty. And that really, really, turns me off.

The story revolves around conversations between a girl who is recovering from a car crash and a psychiatrist who is helping her recover. There are 4 “episodes”, each with multiple “endings” (only one of which truly matters). Gameplay comes in the form of the well-tread “eye spy” and point-n-click vein and is implemented quite well. It’s a natural compliment to the visual style of the game, but it also seems like a missed opportunity (but I’ll elaborate on that more later). The bottom line is that TRAUMA is a thoughtful work and an elegant composition, but merely a serviceable game.

the road less paved properly

It may be fitting for others to laud this game for its willingness to tackle the rather daunting task of leading the player from observer to vicarious participant to identifying agent in the exploration of the psychological phenomenon of trauma, but for me I simply can’t say this is a good game. The fact that it was intended as “art” rather than the conventional idea of “game” isn’t a good enough excuse; if anyone chooses to create a game, that is, to use games as their medium, they must make the gameplay a core aspect of the experience.

In this case, choosing to use eye spy and point-n-click wasn’t necessarily wrong; it was just shallow. I actually agree with the choice to use this particular control scheme, because I believe it’s a natural fit (like I said before). The reason why it isn’t any good is because the subject matter and the premise of the game begs for deeper consideration of its exploration maneuvering. In other words, the gameplay could have been much more interesting if the creator had only thought it out a bit more.

Using photographs to represent the repressed psyche of an individual is a superb idea: it replicates the disjointedness of memories and their emotions, and the act of navigating from still frame to still frame is a fantastic way of replicating the experience of thinking about a particular idea or event. We are capable of this (those with eidetic image-based memory will understand this better, but everyone is capable of it to an extent) and it is a familiar, intuitive way of reflecting on emotionally difficult situations. What it misses, though, is the evanescence of memories and emotions.

pushing envelopes

After each “epiphany” (what I have decided to call the endings), you are pulled from the memory and back to the menu. From a gameplay standpoint it's an annoyance, but from a design standpoint its rather clever and actually accurate to the sensation of epiphany itself. The reason why it’s an annoyance though is because it’s unexpected; up until the epiphany, you’re free to move about every which way and click freely through the dream limitlessly.
If Majewski had implemented some measure of linearity into the exploration of the dream, it gives the epiphany more leverage and prompts the player to pay more attention. My own suggestion would be to make exploring each dream more consequential by having more and more of the dream become inaccessible the less time you spent looking at them. To me, this would not only provide a bit more incentive for the player to stay engaged, it would also more closely replicate the experience of self-analysis and the experience of epiphany. It is small considerations like these that make me feel that Majewski indeed failed to understand the scope and ability of games in engaging individuals and replicating real-world phenomena.

If you are making a game, regardless of intent, you must focus on the gameplay. I am not arguing that Majewski should have let the game dictate the emotional goal of his game, but I am saying that his game must have better gameplay. And better in this sense is not necessarily more “fun” or more “exciting”, but in fact more engaging, more novel, and more authentic. Majewski had an enormous opportunity here to implement something interesting in the form of gameplay, not just art or style or intent. Unfortunately we once again only see innovations in only those areas, and not the one which actually matters.

sweet dreams

Art games aren’t a bad thing for the industry. I would argue that more of these types of games need to be made, or at least more developers need to have this type of “what else can I do with games” attitude. After all, this is what art essentially begs of us: do something special. Peter Jackson’s classic Dead Alive is still considered by many to be the goriest movie of all time; I consider it a great piece of art. As a period piece it not only challenged the ideas of what films could do, it also broke boundaries that didn’t even exist at the time. It essentially set boundaries so far out that even movies today have yet to reach them. They aren’t really “standards” per se, but they are markers of where movies can go, even if many don’t ever go there (whether for good reasons or bad). At the same time, it was still a good movie, with a good measure of humor, camp, honesty, narrative, and extremely enjoyable direction. It used the medium’s strengths to push the medium itself into places unknown. This is what we should expect of art games.

At the very least, I have to applaud Krystian Majewski for his courage in wanting to do something different with games. But you have to throw that stone as far as you possibly can, farther than you think is possible even. Games are still new and we should be testing its waters by cannonball, not by pebble. It can be daunting, but even if you don’t make a hit, you make a splash so big that it undoubtedly uncovers some things that you, others, and the rest can look into.

TRAUMA should be commended for wanting to be different, but it shouldn’t be because it really isn’t.