Real Talk: Games About Trauma (art caught between “everything is horrible”, “everything is survivable”, and “this is too hard to talk about”)

CW: Trauma

“Trauma” sometimes seems like an unfortunately reductive word to describe what these games are… The games that are easy to ignore because they come with lots of trigger warnings so they are “ugh another one of those”, the brave games that are hard to make and even harder to play, the ones that seem to be in abundance but still don’t get talked about enough… There is a bravely pioneering aspect to them that is hard to ignore. Some might brush them off as losers “being high on their own supply”, or one might understand why they will keep existing as long as there are indie games. I don’t think they will go away.
The way these games exist, and the space they take up, means that games are an actual outlet for real lived human experiences.
Part of the motivation behind writing this post is to acknowledge their importance again.

Nightmare Temptation Academy by Lena NW

Throughout the long and controversial outrage that was Gamers attacking me while I was developing “Everything is going to be OK”, I kept shouting into the social media void that “Games don’t always have to be fun!”… to validate the not-fun experience that I was creating.
It didn’t seem to stop the harassment (you know… because art should be pleasing otherwise it is not art, if I didn’t want to be harassed I should make a better game, insert consumer entitlement here!), but it did help me stay stubborn enough to actually finish it.
When it was nominated for IGF’s Nuovo award a former friend remarked that it was only nominated because people felt bad that I was being harassed. Maybe it lacked the legitimacy at the time, but it’s in the MoMA now, so…

Utopias: Navigating Without Coordinates by AAA

The more we talk about games as Legitimate Art (Art proper with a capital “Aaah!”), the more we have to acknowledge that they are complicated messy things about complicated messy human experiences. Games are inseparable from their politics, even the most common-place mainstream ones are inherently political. Nothing exists in an isolated bubble.
That messiness is what I love most about the medium.

I often think that… the things people popularly value the most about games are overrated (that tiring drive to make something “safe” that sells), and the characteristics that they try to protect games from the most (politics, imperfection, unpolished, “bad”…) is what ultimately makes them so memorable.
Unpolished messy confusing things filled with politics and personal stories is why I’m here.

HITME by xiri

It’s interesting how the way you view games can shift once you start to expose yourself more to this type of work. To me a “game that is hard to play” used to mean one that is technically challenging in its mechanics and what it tasks you to do. One that demands a certain level of mastery in how you engage with it.
Now I view a “difficult game” as one that is hard to get through for how raw and real it is.
A “hard game” is one that is equally as hard to talk about as it is to play.

He Fucked The Girl Out of Me by Taylor McCue

It’s hard to really describe an experience like “He Fucked The Girl Out of Me” without feeling like it’s not your place to talk about it. All you can do is play it. Listen. Anything else feels like talking over it.
How do you even describe it without sounding like you’re downplaying it?
It’s a GameBoy game. There’s nothing masterfully complicated about the mode of interaction. If I were to go by Gamer or AAA standards, I should not care about this game, but it’s so much more…
This GameBoy game was a nominee for the Nuovo award at IGF. It’s an iconically defiant thing that speaks to the power of vulnerability.
Reading the comments on its page is like reading a wall of solidarity, where everyone left a little flower or candle in front of an altar.
The itch page’s URL ends with /trauma, but it’s so much more than “just trauma”.
It made it so far despite everything stacked against it, even the title.
It’s a powerful thing to see.

Love & Dehumanization by Aria.

There’s something defiantly cathartic in how “Trauma” takes up space in games, even if it’s a type of controversial ugly duckling.
I mean… if “keep politics out of video games!” is the occasional battle-cry from angry Gamers on social media, then where exactly does “trauma in video games” land on that spectrum?

The queer traumatic/erotic vent game jam

Quite a while back Swanmachine (who also makes beautiful things!) reached out to me about the “queer traumatic/erotic vent game jam” that was being organized. The jam is still ongoing as of writing this!
The “queer traumatic/erotic vent game jam” is a game jam specifically for survivors of sexual violence, as a way for people with such experiences to safely share their work, without being penalized for being NSFW or other easily misinformed labels.

To quote from the jam page:

“i’m makin this mostly for myself so i can ~COLLECT THEM ALL~ (the type of vent games i desperately want to play to feel less alone in the world but do not know how to seek out)”

I found this to be a beautiful type of “fuck you” too. I’ve had my own sexual trauma shared without consent, really gross “fan art” made about it, and fought over what felt like my right to my own story or safety for a long time. I don’t think I ever came to grips with this being “mine” let alone something that could be turned into something “beautiful” (that is also mine). I’m not sure if I ever could, knowing what people do with that information… but there is something very cathartic about reading that description.

Fuck you. This is mine.

black stars, clear liquor by Briar Ripley Page

Survivors of horrible things are labeled and stigmatized by a culture that will easily bury them simply for being victims of something. We don’t like victims. They are annoying. They speak out and then we have to selfishly damage control that.
I can’t count the times I’ve been called “manipulative” for sharing how much I want to die because of what happened to me. I can’t really safely talk about it without having my social media reported for self-harm. It helps to talk about it, but I know I can’t without consequence.

– Yes. I want to die. Eat shit tho, I’m still alive!

I know I’m not alone in this, but I feel alone as a result, smothered by this culture that suffocates.
I feel free when I create work that talks about it. In my games I create a safe space, protected by the label of “Art”, in a fictional world that I build as a game designer so I can actually confront these demons. Maybe even invent stories where I can defeat them.
It’s like I’m stealing my voice back from those that took my narrative, and taking the pressure off an infected wound… just a little bit.

In this culture… it is rare that you find the defiance to actually label yourself, share on your own terms, and demand respect for that. These games take courage to make.

Currently the only entry in the “queer traumatic/erotic vent game jam” is black stars, clear liquor, a branching twine story.
It is the type of honest and metaphoric experience I would expect to find hidden in the submissions.

There Aren’t Really Words by rosekiid

Vulnerability is the honesty hovering behind this type of work. Open, honest, heartfelt sharing in a game by the creator to the player has existed for a long time… especially when we talk about games made by solo-developers.
I find Kultisti’s work to often have this deeply emotional and heartfelt tone that is communicated through mechanics.
Riba a game about loss, uses the interaction of fishing to convey memories.
Bitsy games are often entirely about vulnerable moments turned into a game. It seems like every other Bitsy that I play is someone’s personal confession.
See Madutsukis Closet, and There Aren’t Really Words, for a good cry.

Madutsukis Closet by Bagenzo

Kitty Horror Show’s work is strongly metaphoric, and uses horror to relay deeply moody and heartfelt themes.
When There Is No More Snow is a semi-autobiographical story about being young.
The indie game space has a long history of many unsung gems that you can’t get out of your head once you play them for how beautifully personal and human they are.
I often wish they would get the attention they deserve.

There is a certain stigmatization that comes with making games that are about pain. The black sheep of indie games is one that needs to be covered with content warnings, “Caution! Turn away while you can!” and apologies from the creator for being “too much”…
Maybe it’s this industry’s version of The Scarlet Letter. Where, as punishment for adultery, you must wear a big red “A”… On Wikipedia the book is described as exploring themes of legalism, sin, and guilt. Sometimes I think that maybe these games represent the same. The way they are rejected, complained about, criticized for exploiting trauma, or unnecessary blame put on them for “harming” people that play them… is an unintentional commentary in itself.
I’m not against content warnings. This is not the takeaway. They are necessary. Sometimes I just think that there has to be a better way of doing this rather than burring your work in what seems like meaninglessly arbitrary abbreviated warnings.

– Speaking of content warnings, NEEDY STREAMER OVERLOAD is a wonderful example of doing it more empathetically.

NEEDY STREAMER OVERLOAD came recommended to me by ChillWorksDev when I was joking on [formerly]Twitter about how you’re not doing it right unless your art’s content warnings need a content warning.
NEEDY STREAMER OVERLOAD is a game that speaks to a specific type of online experience. You play an aspiring streamer trying to “make it” in the competitive attention economy that is internet culture.
You have to carefully balance your mental health, sleep, followers, medication… The game let’s you do unhealthy things like vanity searches or checking social media. It’s a biting commentary. Sometimes you just kind of HAVE to look yourself up, you know?
It’s an overwhelming experience. NEEDY STREAMER OVERLOAD is hard to get far in because it feels like “breaking” is inevitable. There’s much to this game which makes it relatable, even if you just want to innocently exist online. Is going too far inevitable? Is it possible to build a platform without being sucked into these darker aspects?
The aesthetic is adorable, happy, pink… but the theme is a dark biting commentary on aspiring to be a public person online.
It’s intentionally overwhelming and hard to navigate. That’s what makes it so impactful.

– BY THE WAY… ChillWorksDev made unsung gem, The Lovely Estate, which is also a game that I wish more people knew about. It captures the spirit of this post too… and the aesthetic is wonderfully weird.

I went to showcase BlueSuburbia at this small community show-and-tell in LA last month. It was the first time I went anywhere to showcase my work since the beginning of the pandemic. I’d forgotten how that was like.

BlueSuburbia is what I’m currently working on. It’s about a lot of things dealing with struggle… war, poverty, being abandoned, abuses ranging from political to personal… The story in it is largely about how it was like for me to come forward about my sexual assault. I don’t think I could make anything else right now.

I’m creating a space where I can talk about it, without guilt or fear. I hope I can even find the power to give it a happy ending. Sometimes I feel like… rather than ending my own life, I can do that in the story. Other times I want to use it to claim a happy end for myself, even if it’s just in fiction.
I need to talk about it… at the same time, I want others to see themselves in it.
So I’m off doing it again. Making something that is painfully vulnerable.

Showcasing it was actually harder than I thought it would be. I forgot how personal it is. While people were playing it, I had to fight the urge to run away and hide… especially when I saw that they reached the part where the game talks about being gutted alive with prying questions like “Did his dick go in!??” (reflecting my experiences with Kotaku journalism).
Some part of me wanted to shield them from playing it.

BlueSuburbia is all metaphoric. A story about unbeatable giant monsters, gods, monoliths, and powerful servants of dark entities. You are a tiny light navigating a dark world bent on putting you out. Fighting your way through being told that you can’t make it, while you reply that you have to try.
I know how it’s like showcasing this type of work because I did that so much with “Everything is going to be OK”… but this one was unexpectedly harder.
It’s so raw to me. Even so, there’s something about sharing this work that just feels too important not to.

When you create a game about this type of thing you are building your own safe space to talk about it.
To share your experiences in the most accurate way possible… something that (as much as you possibly can make it) reflects how this is like. It gives hope to a desire to be understood. Maybe that it might even be possible… To destroy any chance of misunderstanding or misrepresentation.
I’m creating a world that I am the master of, and a story that you experience from that perspective. It’s hard to misunderstand something that you experience for yourself, and that specific type of communication is what games empower.
As the designer, I can hopefully make a space of mutual understanding. A graveyard for pain. A place to confront and bury demons.

It’s a difficult thing to personally show to people. You’re letting them in and opening yourself up to commentary. Maybe we’re not there yet where games can be art, the same way that literature or paintings can be, especially when we still put so much weird stigma on things that are vulnerable. Pain is nothing new in the grand scheme of art… It’s important to me to be able to showcase this work, make this work, see this work be respected for what it is… it sure isn’t easy. Maybe that’s why it matters!

UPDATE, other recommendations after publication:

Milk outside a bag of milk outside a bag of milk

Lenophie from Paquerette Down the Bunburrows (linking to that game too because it’s delightful) recommended Milk outside a bag of milk outside a bag of milk and it really needs to be on this list for its relevance… so I’m adding it!

AlphaBetaGamer also left a comment on the version of this post with many more wonderful recommendations for games about trauma… In case you feel like falling down a rabbit hole, those are some beautiful finds!