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How IGF Finalist Trauma Evokes Atmosphere
by Brice Morrison on 02/02/11 05:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

Trauma, a game that was a two-category finalist in the 2010 Independent Game Festival, is a title that I personally have been looking forward to for a long time. Following the story of a woman who survives a car accident, the title takes the player through a series of her dreams, echoing moments and thoughts of her life (or are they?) Yours truly was lucky enough to get a Beta invitation, and I can tell you, the game is not only entertaining, it’s also intellectually stimulating and very engrossing.

Krystian Majewski, Trauma’s creator, does many things well, but what I believe it excels most at, as evidenced by its nominations for Excellence in Visual Art and Excellence in Audio awards, is creating an atmosphere.  When you’re playing Trauma, you aren’t just playing a game; the room you’re in falls away, you forget about the chair you’re sitting on, and you enter into the woman’s dream.  Exploring, moving, looking, thinking, and feeling very alone.

It truly is a mystifying experience.

How is Trauma able to do this?  There are a couple of techniques that it employs to get the job done, all within the game’s artwork, the sights and sounds, some inside and some even outside the game itself.  Let’s take a look.

Want to Look Real? Take Images from Real Life

Trauma is made up of clicking on images that are taken from the real world.  Very high quality and wonderful shots of dark alleys, lonely street corners, and moonlit parks allow for exploration.  Additionally, the images are navigated through a 3D style interface which is very advanced for Flash (it looks very similar to Microsoft’s Photosynth, if it doesn’t use it directly).   

Thus, navigation is a snap.  Look around, turn, look closer.  You feel like you’re in a real space.  Why?  Because it’s not a cartoon, or some vector graphics, or anything else.  All the images are actually taken from real life and have a photorealistic level of detail.  By stitching together these spaces using real images and then editing them as he saw fit to add gameplay items, Krystian was able to turn an everyday real world area into a game space and create the atmosphere the game needed.

In a way this reminds me a lot of the early Resident Evil games.  At the time of these games, they didn’t have anywhere near the technology to make for photorealism.  But their challenge to evoke fear in players demanded that the player feel like the game was real.  People don’t get scared of cartoons.  They typically only get scared of live action films.

So what did the Capcom team do?  They used a series of still images with 3D characters running on top.  What this allowed them to do was to render scenes much more realistic than otherwise possible, and evoke the terror they needed through the atmosphere. (video link here)

By taking images from real life, and navigating around them, players of Trauma don’t need to make much of a mental leap for it to feel like it could actually happen, or actually exist.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I was walking around in Germany and came upon one of the scenes from the game.  Try getting that feeling with Canabalt.

There is more than one way to reach  photorealism.  If a game is seeking to feel like real life, and there aren’t the resources to pull off high-end 3D, incorporating still images from real life can sometimes do the trick.

Eliminating Distractions

The second aspect of Trauma that contributes to atmosphere may at first not seem like that much of a big deal, but I believe it is key to the experience.  When you load up the game, the page that it’s on is entirely black.

Complete solitude and simplicity.  Nothing is going on except this mysteriously lit street corner.  Definitely conducive to atmosphere.

Take a moment to appreciate how necessary this is.  Trauma has created a captivating scene, one that pulls you into the story, has you jumping with fear at sudden sounds and lights, just as any Hollywood movie would.  It’s not a game that can be played in a couple of minutes.  But Hollywood movies have the benefit of trapping you in a dark room with a giant screen and surround sound.  Even console or downloadable PC games have a similar advantage – they take up the whole screen.

But Trauma?  Trauma is a Flash game.  Creating an atmosphere is difficult for Flash games.  To illustrate my point, contrast the above Trauma screenshot with your average flash game anywhere else on the web:

What are we supposed to pay attention to again?

Humans are programmed to notice movement in their environment.  Our eyes move to objects that are moving, animating, or changing.  Thus, in order for Trauma to make you feel like there is nothing else in your life going on at the moment other than this dream, everything else needed to be blocked out.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for sites like Newgrounds putting ads, suggested other games, and reviews around their games.  It keeps them in business and creates a great overall site experience.  But it also detracts from the game experience, distracting the player.  What is the consequence of this?  Games that are going to be popular on sites like Newgrounds or Kongregate are going to be more of the fast-twitch, no thought, action click games.  Because those are the games that you can play while distracted.

With Trauma, you need to be sucked in, 100%.  So for Flash Game titles that want to evoke a more engrossing experience instead of the usual click-and-gone, developers could try giving the game its own page with a blank, black background to cut out the visual noise normally associated with Flash titles.

There’s No Music In Real Life

Finally, Trauma has an incredible soundtrack.  Usually when I think of incredible sound tracks for games, I imagine humming a tune, a favorite melody, some great electric guitar or some great orchestrated music.

Not Trauma.  Its soundtrack is all about ambience.  Sounds of a mysterious world, low, hushed tones that you barely know are there.  I believe this is the best possible kind of music that Trauma could have had for the experience it was seeking to evoke.  While the melodies and tunes in other games like Super Mario Galaxy are fantastic, they don’t make it feel like real life.  And that’s fine for them, because they are attempting to feel like a cartoon, like an epic movie, or make the player acutely aware that they are literally playing a game.

But for Trauma that mistake could have been fatal from a design perspective.  Since the game’s mystery thrives on realism, the low bass tones and squeaks from the soundtrack are just enough to keep you on an uneasy edge, but not enough for you to consciously wake up to it.  Not unlike the noises of a hospital room.

The lesson is clear: For games that try to feel less like an epic feature film and more like an actual real life experience, developers should consider using ambient music that mimics the sounds vacuum of real life.  Low strings, foot traffic, or car horns are all sounds of real life.

All in all, Trauma delivers a great experience of feeling like you are in a dream, and beyond that, a real dream that you could actually have.  The world looks real, the dark tones put you on edge, and something just…doesn’t feel right.  And that is exactly spot on.

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.


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