On Making Trauma Legible: How Interactive Fiction Identifies Trauma

27 mins read

Trauma resists definitions. Nevertheless, people will try to write about it, even within interactive fiction.

In last year’s IFComp alone, we see Naomi Norbez’s My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition, B.J. Best’s LAKE ADVENTURE, Ayu Sekarlangit Mokoginta’s Lonehouse, and others deal with aspects of trauma. The value of interactivity is not self-evident as there are many works that successfully depict trauma without it. What does interactivity have to offer in narratives that explore trauma?

This essay argues that interactivity helps players recognize trauma more clearly than, say, reading a book or watching a movie about it. Rather than passively watching trauma unfold, players can become more intimate with trauma through gameplay. Their interaction brings the unseen aspects of trauma into something more legible. Legibility is therefore an ideal for trauma-informed interactive fiction: it clarifies, explains, and depicts trauma in such a way that players cannot pretend the trauma isn’t there. In order to play the game properly, they must confront the traumas explored in the game, whether they want to or not.

A Machine to Help Transfer Experiences

When Taylor McCue was asked why they made a game instead of a comic, He Fucked the Girl Out of Me, they began their answer with “I am not a good person. I wanted people to understand me, not pity me.”1

In HFTGOOM, the player controls a ghost avatar. At first, all they can do is walk past the horrible reactions people have said about the story they’re going to hear.2 The narration then doubts itself because the game would never be finished if it tried to “recall traumatic details and recreate things perfectly”. Instead, it invites the player to focus on an “impulsive decision”.

After this prologue, the player learns that their player character is seeking hormones. They follow their character to the pharmacy where they are given the choice of buying hormones or looking around the pharmacy. The latter fleshes out the location, but it doesn’t advance the game state. The player has to choose hormones, making them share the same goals as the character.

But it turns out the player character, Ann, is poor and they need some quick cash. They are roped in by their crush, Sally, to try their hand at “sugaring”. Sally wants to drill into Ann’s head that they need to be comfortable taking the initiative and refuse to let the customer dictate what should be done in sex work. The player regains control of Ann in a food court and must take food samples until someone says no. That end-point is never reached; the dialog box of “Would you like a sample?” will keep popping up until Sally says it’s enough. The awkwardness lingers, but the point is well-taken: people can take from each other as much as they want.

The player will relive more and more of these traumatic memories as Ann becomes a sex worker and depends on it for their livelihood. They will walk home through a photorealistic rendition of the developer’s neighborhood, buy snacks at a 7-11 only to find that the character is thinking about the sexual activities necessary to justify those purchases, and realize that all meaningful choices that can be made are false.

If the player resonates with HFTGOOM, they will understand that this narrative is the only way these events could ever unfold. Contrary to narratives that blame survivors for their actions, the game’s design reinforces the lack of agency to show how limiting the choices can be in these desperate situations.

This design approach is similar to how Emily Short describes interactivity in so-called dynamic fiction, which is a kind of IF that allows some interaction but otherwise does not allow the reader to change the course of the story. She explains the appeal of such works like this:

The interaction in a dynamic fiction story is doing something else: it’s providing pacing, it’s creating a sense of identification with the protagonist, it’s eliciting complicity with what happens or demonstrating the futility of the protagonist’s experience.

In particular, she mentions how interactive horror fiction in this style is effective because she has to “inhabit that moment of doubt over and over again” as she clicks through the text.3 The same dynamic is present in titles like HFTGOOM where the interactivity doesn’t usually affect the progression or change the state of the game, but rather how the player relates to the character and the setting. Interaction allows players to take actions (even those explicitly ordained by the developer) and become complicit in what is happening in the game. Whatever happens on the screen is co-signed by them, regardless of how they feel about the game.

Of course, different games may be more or less successful at engaging the player, and there will be players who refuse to engage with the game because the interactivity presented doesn’t match their heuristic for a game. Strongly implied in these games is the need for players to play these games knowing that whatever subject matter is being explored is being done in good faith. This means that the intertwining of interactivity and complicity is always fragile: not everyone will take the leap of faith and accept this style of interactivity at face value.

But if players accept these premises of trauma-informed games, then there is some possibility that some of their strengths may come from hurting the player. As McCue admits:

I really basically just designed a machine to inflict trauma on people in a weird way, so that they would understand rejection, understand shame, and then accept me.4

If the rhetorical techniques5 they use to get the message across are so effective they hurt the player, then so be it. McCue justifies their “trauma machine” in another interview:

By having a machine have that conversation for me, I can explain myself once with all the agony that comes with it and then never technically have to do it again or something. That’s what HFTGOOM basically is, it’s a machine to help transfer that experience to the player a bit so they can understand me and hopefully accept me.6

In other words, interactive fiction like HFTGOOM is usually designed by developers to make their trauma legible for players. The game mechanics will ideally force them to work out the issues and come to a better understanding on their own. If successful, there will be no need for further agonizing explanations.


To achieve this goal, developers must find ways to make players invested in their games. There are at least two commonly employed strategies that try to make this possible:


The Archivist and the Revolution

In The Archivist and the Revolution by Autumn Chen, the player character is an archivist who has been laid off and pays rent by working as a freelance contractor recovering data from DNA. But the player also has the option to “cajole and beg for support” from two people. No matter what they do (or don’t do), the player character has to pay rent or risk becoming homeless.

While the player can choose to work in the archives or waste their time reading internet forums, the player character may become “too tired to do anything else.” Later on, they’ll face the possibility of running out of food in their apartment; they need to choose whether to buy food or “take what you need.” If the character gets sick and has no money, they may become too sick to work and worsen their situation. The player ends up juggling their character’s stamina, health, funds, and relationships.

But they can take a break from this exhausting routine, which may include helping the character perform a funerary ritual from the distant past:

You are in front of Lily’s gravestone, a small brown brick in a field of gray lichen. The name carved on the stone is illegible from years of scratches. Above the scratches, deepening grooves mark her real name.

The player may “scratch at the gravestone some more”:

With a key you deepen the grooves of her true name, and add new scratches to her “legal” name. Since she never had dignity in life, the least you could do was give her some modicum of dignity in death.

Her family was the most supportive family of all the nonbinaries you had ever encountered. Still they buried her under the name they had chosen, and not the name she chose.

This is not a required scene. The player character admits that they don’t know Lily and believes she would’ve considered them “a traitor for submitting [themselves] to the authoritarian capitalist patriarchal system.”

But this optional event is powerful because the player chooses to read it. They may not know how the event will turn out, but they’ve calculated that the cost of one turn is still worth the waste.

The player character is able to mourn now. They scratch the slurs off the tombstones and write the names they remember on paper to burn as an offering. The scene ends with the last choice, “You are alive, and you hope to stay that way.”

A simulationist approach places the player inside the game and asks them to interact in the way the game wants them to. This could mean going through the rhythms of someone’s life, but it doesn’t have to be a full-blown life simulator. As long as there are choices and the player is forced to go through the motions, the interaction makes them identify with the character and share the stakes.


This is best seen in a short game like DO NOT KILL THE SLEEPING BEAST, a game about substance addiction.

It begins by saying, “there’s a monster in your closet, but you know that already.” The narration addresses a family history of addiction and then, the player character’s struggle to contain it in the language of chivalry:

you crawl from your bed in the dead of night, scaling it like a mountain; even at seventeen, you’ve never felt so small. the descent, the climb out of your warm bed and into the dragon’s den, is a bit like playing knights and princesses when you were much younger. you, you reported to the king— but the king isn’t here.

Abandoned by the king, the only thing “loyal to the knight” is the monster who is “his keeper.” The player character finds the monster:

your fingers curl like claws, tugging at the monster’s keep until it is revealed: it sings to you, like a siren, in the clinking of glass bottles and the hiss of a bottle cap, popped.

The monster pressed to their lips:

crooning, it cries out, “why are you alone?”
nobody called
nobody came
nobody cares

Any choice leads to the same outcome:

“maybe it’s you,” it snarls, “maybe you’re unlovable.”
maybe so
maybe no
get me out of here

The same happens here:

“the king should know better,” it says, scolding.
i trust him
i love him
i want to go home

The narration reminds them they could kill the monster, but the character cannot. While “the beast clutches at your throat and makes it hard to scream,” it treats the character with affection. This is something the king could never give.

Nevertheless, the player character sends a message to the king that they love them, and the game loops with this final message:

tonight, you do not kill the sleeping beast. maybe you’ll be stronger tomorrow.

The interactivity (or lack thereof) in this game illustrates the difficulty of overcoming drug addiction. The player has no choice but to accept the monster and when there are choices, it’s about how lonely the player character is. They’ve seen all the moves and so, they’re forced to realize that there’s little the character can do to slay the monster.


LAKE ADVENTURE, on the other hand, simulates the experience and feel of old text adventure games to explore repressed memories of the past. Ed Hughes has discovered an “ancient” game he made when he was thirteen, but couldn’t get it to work. He feels lonely during the COVID quarantine, so he asks the player who works in his company’s IT department to play the game for him while he’s on call.

However, the player will soon encounter disconcerting descriptions that hint at something deeper:

More Hall
You are in some more hall. Exits lead north, south, east, and west.
### Behold the glory of More Hall. Guess I felt I really had to map my house well. Yeah. Um, let’s see. I think it’s stairs to the south, sister’s room to the east, and a storage closet thing to the west. ###
>? e
You don’t want to go into your sister’s room.

While this doesn’t bother Hughes, different actions in the same hallway will surprise him:

>? s
A mystical veil of magic prevents you from going south! Try west first!
### Um, okay? ###

When the player finds a Memory Shard and puts it in the vase as the game requested,

As you drop the shard into the vase, it seems like it disappears! But suddenly you have this strong memory ...
      	— HIT ANY KEY —
It’s a beautiful spring day. You and your 4-year-old sister are playing at a park near your house. You’re pushing her high on the swings, and she’s laughing and having a great time!
      	— HIT ANY KEY —
### Uff. Um, okay. Okay.
### No. No, I’m fine. It’s just ... shit. It’s coming back to me. Yeah, the game. You don’t know anything about my sister, do you? Yeah. That’s me and that’s her. Look, this—this might turn into a wild ride. Fair warning. I wrote this game when I was thirteen or whatever, and then I ... I went back to it when I was older. Yeah, kinda. Like revising it. I added stuff. I have no idea what version this—no, no. I mean, we’ve known each other for a while, right? I ... I’d like to keep going. As long as you would, that is.
### Yeah. The girl in the game is my sister. She might ... she might show up again. ###
      	— HIT ANY KEY —

As the player gets deeper into the game, Hughes begins to realize that this game is the place where he has bottled up his feelings about the world around him. His grief over the loss of his loved ones, his fantasies of revenge, and what he aspires to be are clearly laid out in the game. A sudden realization dawns on him: he may be in his forties, but he has not overcome his trauma.

Meanwhile, the player is just playing the game he made. Unlike most of the other games discussed here, the player does not directly identify with the traumatized character. They may sympathize, but they’re also aware of the distance because they’re playing an old computer game far away from Hughes.

As a result, it’s hard not to play LAKE ADVENTURE and feel complicit in hurting Hughes. Players may be typing the same well-worn commands they’ve always typed in other text adventure games, but those same inputs are unearthing his darker memories. The game may have the same amount of player freedom and agency found in other parser games, but there are no commands that go outside the parser game framework to calm him down. Unlike the other games described here where limited choices set by the developers immerse the player in the traumatic experience, the players have inadvertently retraumatized Hughes by simply playing the game. Their curiosity as parser players makes Hughes suffer. They can only continue playing Hughes’s traumatic memories as a text adventure game or stop.

Simulations, large or small, are effective because they lay out the choices and let the player choose. The player cannot go beyond what the simulation has offered, so they have to reckon with the consequences. Only then will they begin to identify how trauma affects everyday life.



Sting is an interactive memoir by Mike Russo about growing up in New England and his memories with his twin sister Liz. The game starts like this:

Port Washington, NY — 1985
Mom said you and Liz can play for ten more minutes, because that’s how long it is until lunchtime. Sometimes ten minutes feels very long and sometimes it feels very short.

The player character can check their surroundings, but their interaction is limited by fading memories:

> x swing
Wait, there wasn’t a swing set yet when this happened — my mistake.

Each of the six vignettes is punctuated by a bee sting experienced by Russo. After each sting, the story jumps forward in time to follow the sibling relationship between Russo and Liz.

In the third vignette, the player character is hanging out with his buddies, but he is also very shy about talking to his crush, Laura. She is the central character of this chapter and never appears in the story again, except for a brief mention in the final vignette. Instead, Russo can talk to Liz about how to get the courage to talk to girls. The player learns more about Liz as a close friend, Russo growing up, and the symbolic meaning of the bee sting than Laura herself.

The player also has some freedom to interact with the game but cannot go beyond the contours of the memory. In the second vignette, the player is plunged into a sailing section where Liz screams at or praises Russo’s actions. Whether the player succeeds or not is not really relevant to the story as the scene is more about how these twins communicate with each other and the bee sting.

In fact, the final vignette allows the player to correctly or incorrectly say what Russo thought happened in the second vignette. It’s as if Sting is trying to say that even as we relive these cherished memories, they may be wrong, and that’s okay. What matters is what we make of them.

The final vignette reveals that Liz has recently passed away from cancer and Russo’s family is expecting a child. Liz’s absence is clearly felt by Russo and his spouse because she has made an impact on them. However, her influence can only be guessed at by the player; it is not explicitly written into the work. Russo writes in his author’s notes that “she was an amazing person and trying to pin her down with the few meager glimpses these anecdotes afford would be impossible”7 and he is deliberately avoiding the pitfalls of works that create art out of real life tragedies. Words and stories cannot capture the magic of Liz.

Instead, Russo invites players to join him in reflecting on his life, processing his grief, and his coming of age. The bee stings mark the beginning and end of Russo’s story with Liz. For the player, the intentional omission requires speculation about the depth of their relationship and how Russo has learned to grieve. What they don’t see paradoxically becomes more concrete. The bee stings take on new meanings, and what’s already on the page helps the player contextualize what’s being paved over. Brevity allows the unwritten to speak louder than words.

This is elliptical writing, a method of skipping over a portion of the narrative to heighten its significance. When used in interactive fiction, the transitions (or lack thereof) force the player to make sense of what the story is trying to evoke through that absence.8 Its interactive elements suggest that there must be something relevant in them.9 The player is forced to speculate about what is unwritten.

Sting relies on this style of writing to talk about how important Liz is to Russo without overtly sentimentalizing their relationship. Her presence and absence are clearly felt through the passage of time and the glimpses the story has provided. And yet, it can only be felt, not written. To write something down is to limit interpretations to one way and leave a solid trail. Grief cannot be described by prose but by absence, by what might have been. It has to be opened up by the players who are willing to engage and participate in processing the loss together.

After the Accident

There are other works about trauma that employ ellipsis in different ways. After the Accident by Amanda Walker features episodic and elliptical storytelling segmented by parser input. After the intro, the game starts out like this:

Side of the Road
The sunset is laid out before you, throwing gold stripes on the black asphalt, the pink and gold and soft blue light swirling against the mountains, the barren landscape, touching the scrub grass, the roadside litter, the barbed wire fences, lining the road with fire. You don't know why you are here, your skin stinging, eyes fixed on the sunset.
There's something trying to get into your head. Or out, you're not sure. Something pressing on you. It's a memory, but you can't catch hold of it. This is wrong, something very wrong here, what is it, where is it.
>x memory
You can't see it, but you can feel it, brushing against you, coiling on your shoulder, whispering in your ear. You want to tame it, to remember...
>remember memory
You try to remember, but your head is aching and you can't quite grasp it, not yet, you're not ready for it, there's something wrong with you, with your body, pain as if from some distance but coming nearer, sharp teeth snapping.

The player needs to explore their surroundings before the player character can properly remember their memories. For example:

>x myself
You look down at yourself. Your hands and arms glitter, the last rays of sun catching like diamonds on the hundreds of tiny shards of glass bristling from the sleeves of your cornflower blue angora sweater, from the backs of your hands. Your bare feet are bleeding.
You weren't here. Now you are, with a memory fluttering around you, whispering softly.

Once enough observation is done, the player can proceed to

You shut your eyes and squeeze them tight, tears of effort slipping from them, groping at the memory. Grasping.
Finding the edge of the memory.
Pulling at it with the fingertips of your will.
Until it breaks over you…
In the Car: One Hour Ago
The echo of angry words hangs heavy. It's cold in here. The heater is broken and the day is chilly. He's driving, hands caressing the wheel because even though the car is a piece of shit, he bought it, it's his, he loves it. He's saying something to you, an edge in his voice, and you can't quite hear. The sun is going down through the windshield, the impossibly bright winter light making you squint to see the road ahead, unfurling like a ribbon under you, the speed blurring the barbed wire fences you pass.
He's talking to you, but you can't quite hear.

This is the first of several flashbacks that tell the story of the accident and the relationship between the two characters. The main goal is to find the commands that further clarify the scene:

You turn to him and strain to hear. He sounds irritated,
(that's right you were fighting sniping at each other working up a conflagration)
his voice a weapon, saying "... must be cold. It's freezing. Where's your sweater? Can't you at least pretend to have some sense?"
And the memory widens: your sweater is here.

The description will also point out important objects to interact with:

>x sweater
A cornflower blue angora sweater, soft and thick.
>wear sweater
(first taking the angora sweater)
You put on the angora sweater, soft against your arms, a gift from him after an earlier fight so that it's both a haven and a trap. He says, "Find a song on the radio so we don't have to talk anymore."
And the memory deepens: you can see the radio in the dashboard.

The player will have to follow a few more instructions from the player character’s partner before he asks for his sunglasses.

>give sunglasses to him
You hand him the sunglasses and he fumbles them, the light streaming in, and it's blinding, and the air is filled with noise and you hear a snatch of the song about a landslide, about an avalanche, and then you are in the avalanche and your eyes are filled with stars and light and dark and you are floating and then and then and then

Following that command will return the player to the present:

Side of the Road
The sun is almost down, the last light like gold stripes scattered on the road, the sky above you darkening, the cold snapping at your bare feet. You were in the car with him. Now you are here. Something happened. It's behind you on the road, the thing that happened.
You can see a backpack, an empty bottle and some sunglasses here.

The player may then interact with the object and remember to go back in time. However, instead of remembering important details of what just happened, the player character goes further into the past:

Kitchen: Three Months Ago
It's Autumn. He's standing by the window, watching the rain stream against the glass, looking out to the fields glassed over with water, flooded, impassable. You're stuck here in his father's farm house with him, and the fight last night was so terrible, such unforgivable things said as the rain roared and the wind shrieked and you hissed and spat at each other. But you have to forgive him, forgive yourself. You're making up and there's that feeling of capitulating, of losing something, losing yourself. But you want to fix it, so here you are at the counter, with a bowl and ingredients for making bread, your gift of atonement.
The memory shows you the sink, the cabinets, the refrigerator, your own hands putting out the ingredients: flour, milk, yeast.
He's standing by the window, watching the rain stream against the glass.
The rain roars on the tin roof.

The player must now follow the player character’s instructions to make bread. This may seem like a strange change of direction, but this memory will prove to be very important. If the player character and her partner are arguing, they can reconcile by giving each other gifts: the player character gives him freshly baked bread, and he gives her the angola sweater she’ll be wearing in the first memory.

After the player returns to the present and gets into the car, the next memory to be recalled takes place six months ago. And later, when they first met seven months ago. Rather than exploring the accident, these storylets and the elliptical connections players make flesh out the characters’ troubled but resilient relationship.

Focusing on their everyday life together means that the trauma of the accident carries more emotional weight. Instead of writing out gory descriptions of what happened, the work makes players think about how those days can only be memories and nothing more. It is the aftermath, not the accident, that defines the traumatic experience for the player character, and the aftermath is presented as the culmination of all these fragmented memories.

After the Accident is a visceral game because it knows that the acts of remembering and connecting memories are real struggles that trauma survivors have to go through. What seems random at first is actually poignant to those who have experienced the whole game. The car crash forces the player character to reevaluate her life with her spouse. However, the immediacy of this traumatic event does not result in a neat narrative sequence of events. Memories are fractured and do not make chronological sense. After the Accident situates the sudden loss of a loved one in the context of a violent accident, and shows how grief in these situations is impalpable. Without explicitly writing it down, the game manages to replicate the feeling of something irreplaceable being gone through the clever use of ellipsis.

My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition

On the other hand, My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition is a virtual museum that tells its entire story through curated artifacts. Players encounter notebooks and photographs that represent the author’s time in mental institutions; they move slowly through each exhibit and have to create connections between objects that catch their attention.

This creates an affective distance that is not present in something like Winter in June. Instead, it’s most similar to LAKE ADVENTURE where players are given some distance to observe the game elements. As Mike Russo writes, “it’s a reflective distance that invites the player to engage with what they’re seeing and reading, and then think about it.”10 It is up to the player to decide how much they want to understand the symbolism of the stamps, old bags, and artwork.

For example, the player may encounter a “little plushie” of a fictional band member given to the author by his twin:

I brought Little Seki everywhere with me during my time at every single facility, carrying him inside of my bag. When I got stressed in group or therapy, I brought out Little Seki to both think of Eliana and use his fluffy head as a stress toy. Having that plush helped me think of the person who loves me most in the world, and was an anchor for me, especially when things got really hard.

North of the Little Seki exhibit is an art display called “Sailor Souls Forever!”:

While at TR, I developed a new story concept, based around the idea of fictional bands (like Gorillaz, for example). I drew these four characters who were brought together to be in a band called Sailor Souls, all of whom have their own inner demons that are finally able to be dealt with, thanks to the power of found family.

The introductory statement in this section of the gallery doesn’t refer to fictional bands. Other objects include a notebook, sketchbook, and “the first of many, many recovery folders”. However, there is a group of paintings titled “Leo Tolstoy Was Right About Families”:

One of the projects I devoted myself to was painting all 4 of my family members—or at least⇨, my family members in the ways that I saw them—which included myself. Each of us is represented by a different color: I’m sea green; Eliana is orange; my mother is bronze; and my father is blue.

The text goes on to describe the author as “a phoenix rising, with a shining center that is painted with the transgender & nonbinary flags”, his twin as a musical note with the text “do no harm, take no shit”, his mother as “a stethoscope” whose “heart is dark & murky, with clawed hands coming out of it, which make wounds that make a river of blood”, and his father with the same darkness as his mother but disguised as a “happy, smiling face”.

It may be a stretch to associate fictional bands with unhappy families in most circumstances, but phrases like “found families” seem to suggest a connection. These three exhibits read like a longing for relationships beyond the nuclear family. The doll captures this tension because it represents the author’s only ally and the fantasy of found families in anime bands. This reading may not be expected by the author, but what is certain is that the game provides an environment for contemplating these objects and their connections.

There are only elliptical connections in My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition and that is the work’s greatest strength. After walking through the museum, the player is only left with their own interpretation. Not only are their readings likely valid but they are all engagements in the author’s terms. The game harnesses the freedom of interpretation to help clarify the dimensions of trauma.

The power of ellipsis, then, comes from the player’s own ability to make sense of what they have just played. They have to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions without realizing they’re being guided by the author.

Conclusion: On Games About Trauma

When it comes to interactive fiction titles that explore trauma, developers and critics hope that players will have an experience that redefines their understanding of trauma.

This hearkens back to age-old debates about the impact of art on us. For example, the literary theorist Wolfgang Iser sees something emancipatory in the way we read novels. Iser argues that when authors allow texts to develop ambiguity, they are actually guiding readers to fill in the blanks. As readers try to grasp for meaning, the text may surprise them with a twist and force them to rethink the situation. What was once familiar became unfamiliar, especially in the field of realistic literature where they interrogated the norms of their time. This mental activity of reconstituting the “reality” of novels again and again according to new discoveries allows readers to begin to see norms for what they are.11 This includes how readers see themselves, because literature, by allowing readers to be someone else, provides the necessary distance to judge one’s own behavior.12 Fiction thus has practical value: readers will not only learn to examine the social construction of reality and knowledge but also develop self-awareness.

A similar optimism is shared by Mary Ann Buckles in her dissertation on the first interactive fiction title, ADVENTURE. She recognizes that “the process of reading interactive fiction is morally grounded and can be a playful way of gaining a deeper understanding of oneself.”13 The world that the author constructed can be read in different ways by the potential reader because “readers must make the text happen.”14 Interactive fiction is not complete without an active reader whose “fairly sophisticated assumptions” will complete the text. Otherwise, they are simply disconnected puzzles. It’s why Buckles argues that

Many readers get intensely, emotionally involved in fictional events because of their step-by-step activity in exploring the fictional world and mastering the fictional events. This can unlock strong feelings and memories of associated events from their own lives which they then build into the imaginary world they are creating.15

Both Iser and Buckley claim that the way readers and players engage with media causes them to bring something from the world they’re in to these texts. Perhaps then, they’ll think about the world they’re in. They could, in Augusto Boal’s words, participate in a “rehearsal for the revolution.”16

It’s not surprising then that creators like swanchime see the potential of trauma IF “to humanize the most vulnerable to systemic and pervasive dehumanization.” These games are worlds: “the dev’s autobiographical world. the world of their experience. the world of their life.” If players “choose to believe”, their “heart [will open] to the depth of breadth of human experience beyond [their] own.”17 This brief moment when players can imagine what it would feel like to be traumatized and oppressed seems to be a glimmer of hope in communicating the unspeakable.

But while I am touched by these games and there are indeed people who have reformed their outlook, I doubt its impact on the larger community of players who play mainstream games and occasionally encounter these titles. These are the works that are “caught between ‘everything is horrible’, ‘everything is survivable’, and ‘this is too hard to talk about'” in the first place18. Not only are they difficult to discuss in public but their subject matter requires faith and trust from players. In fact, there’s a good chance that the game will actually succeed in making trauma legible and the players will choose to reject it. It is easy to imagine them playing these games and getting nothing out of the games or, in exceptional cases, being so effective that the games are heavily censored. Knowledge and understanding are not inevitable conclusions; on the contrary, we should expect hostility because trauma is still a stigma in our world. No amount of theorizing will convince a hostile world to think otherwise.

But while these games may not elicit empathy, they do achieve a more important goal: they shed light on the invisible pain of trauma. Whether one accepts or rejects the message of these games, they have to read it. Rather than wishing for some transformative experience for the player, I argue the power of these games comes from rendering trauma legible. Silence becomes unacceptable; we have to face these issues and talk about them. Even the denials imply some recognition of the trauma.

For my part, I’ve made my fair share of games like June 1998, Sydney, and Chinese Family Dinner Moment that explore uncomfortable situations and repressed memories. I don’t see myself as someone who wants to make these games forever, but they allow me to communicate something I can’t express in plain language. Very few people will connect with my games, but I’m happy when players write what they think of the game and notice the effort I’ve put into it. People don’t just want to be heard – they want to be recognized as peers.

And in the context of these games, recognizing trauma as a real thing that exists requires strategies that make it legible. Through the use of simulationist and elliptical techniques, trauma becomes something concrete and perceivable. Simulation techniques constrain the player’s actions while elliptical techniques allow space and freedom for the player’s imagination. In other words, trauma-informed games simultaneously minimize and maximize their depictions of trauma for the player to experience. This paradoxical approach recreates what it is like to hyperfixate on some details while ignoring others, leading to a better understanding of what can and cannot be talked about trauma. Trauma is everything and nothing at the same time. It is a peculiar dynamic that can only be explored through contradictory strategies.

Our interaction with the game mechanics fleshes trauma out, rendering it more and more legible. They make it impossible for players to avert their eyes without closing the game, and they allow stories to respect the indeterminate nature of trauma without sacrificing clarity.

We cannot deny the existence of these traumas because the games are designed to make us think about them. The conclusions that players reach may not be what the developers anticipated, but they are an understanding that has grown organically from playing the games. Whatever the outcome, they are responses to traumas explored within the games.

What comes next is beyond the scope of this article, but it is this first step — legibility — that starts the whole discussion. Once the word is out there, the status quo cannot resist the need to say something about it. No one can predict how toxic or productive these discourses will be, but one thing is certain: people will always want to speak up about how they have suffered from trauma.

The next step is to respond to what’s in front of us.


1 https://indietsushin.net/posts/2023-05-21-Taylor-McCue-Fuglekongerige-HFTGOOM-en

2 McCue says the intent is to prime the player “to not view it as like porn, but as like, disorienting.” https://www.xrmust.com/xrmagazine/taylor-mccue-he-fucked-the-girl-out-of-me/

3 https://emshort.blog/2015/11/17/a-couple-examples-of-dynamic-fiction-and-why-they-work/. I thank Aster for bringing this connection up as editorial feedback for the article.

4 Indie Tsushin interview with Taylor McCue.

5 I am thinking of Ian Bogost’s “procedural rhetoric” found in books like Persuasive Games. While I agree that games can persuade players by making them go through procedures, I find this analysis lacking and could be supplemented by theories on how people experience art.

6 Indie Tsushin interview with Taylor McCue.

7 https://intfiction.org/t/sting-authors-notes/53479

8 I am greatly indebted to Staging Memories: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness by Abé Mark Nornes and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh, which analyzes narrative techniques such as ellipsis in the film. Wolfgang Iser, in The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading, has also described this feature as “blanks”, “vacancies”, and “places of indeterminacies” depending on the context. While I find this distinction useful, indeterminacy doesn’t feel precise when applied to writing techniques.

9 In hypertext, Tosca discusses how links can indicate to the player that “there is meaning here: explore the context.” I extrapolate this insight to the broader world of interactive fiction. See: Tosca, Susana Pajares. “A pragmatics of links.” Hypertext ’00: Proceedings of the Eleventh ACM on Hypertext and Hypermedia, 2000, https://doi.org/10.1145/336296.336327. pp.80.

10 https://intfiction.org/t/mike-russos-if-comp-2023-reviews/64792/135

11 These are the key insights I’ve gleaned over from The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading by Wolfgang Iser.

12 Fluck, Winfried. “The Search for Distance: Negation and Negativity in Wolfgang Iser’s Literary Theory.” New Literary History, vol. 31, no. 1, 2000, pp. 175–210.

13 Buckles, M.A. Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame “ADVENTURE”. pp.4

14 ibid., pp.178

15 ibid.

16 Augusto Boal’s famous quote found in pp.98 from the 2008 edition of The Theatre of the Oppressed.

17 swanchime, “A Working Thesis on Traumatic Interactive Fiction”. https://pancreas.gay/a-working-thesis-on-traumatic-interactive-fiction

18 This description originates from Nathalie Lawhead. See: http://www.nathalielawhead.com/candybox/real-talk-games-about-trauma-art-caught-between-everything-is-horrible-everything-is-survivable-and-this-is-too-hard-to-talk-about


Kastel is a Chinese Indonesian writer who writes on Japanese subculture media and other interesting things. Their interactive fiction includes Chinese Family Dinner Moment, June 1998, Sydney, and Your World According to a Single Word.