How ‘Neverending Nightmares’ Aims for More Than Cheap Scares

NeverendingNightmares

Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy

On the surface, Neverending Nightmares appears to be a standard, exploration-based horror game, one influenced heavily by the art style of Edward Gorey. In a dreary, black-and-white world, a disoriented protagonist walks along picture-lined hallways, descends into dank, opaque basements, and wanders through blood-spattered rooms, only to be transported, at the height of tension, to the bed where the player begins the game.

It is a series of overlapping nightmares – hence, the title – and horror fans will have plenty to delve with regard to the game’s dread-inducing tone.

In fact, people who come to the game for the art style and the horror will have nothing to complain about, says game creator Matt Gilgenbach. “I like the idea that, on the surface, it’s just a horror game, and people can enjoy it, and if they just want a horror experience, then that’s fine.”

And the surface is impressive. Neverending Nightmares feels almost like a picture book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Shel Silverstein in one of his darker moods, and because the indie marketplace is pretty crowded these days – especially with horror games – having a look that set it apart was one of Gilgenbach’s early design decisions. “I wanted to be able to point to a screenshot of our game and have it look different and have people get really excited about it,” he said, adding, “so it actually didn’t take me much time to realize that Edward Gorey’s art style would be a great fit for the type of game we wanted to do.”

But game creator Matt Gilgenbach wants players to see well below the surface of the art style and the mechanics, to see the underlying themes. “I’d like to give everything levels and more meaning,” he said, “so those people who give some thought to it and really explore it and want to understand it will have extra content and will hopefully learn something.”

What Gilgenbach aims to give the audience is not a super-minute set of codes (a la Fez) but a surreal glimpse into the experiences of someone dealing with severe depression and OCD. (Gilgenbach suffered a serious case a little over a decade ago.)

The themes about depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are not hidden within the game, but neither do they take center stage. And yet, Neverending Nightmares is clearly the work of a man who is working through his issues, and wandering in and out of darkness or stumbling onto horrific and unforgettable scenes of gore are clearly manifestations of Gilgenbach’s major struggle.

How does one create a horror game that both expresses some pretty deep-seated anxieties about the bleakness of life without then settling into standard horror-cliche fare?

The answer? Very carefully.

One of the difficulties, he has found, was developing a horror game that avoided throwing gallons of blood at the screen for the sake of shocking the audience but also having it authentically portray the sorts of issues he’s faced with his condition. Due to one aspect of his OCD, Gilgenbach experiences intrusive thoughts of extreme violence – usually involving some form of self-mutilation – and though he wanted to keep the graphic violence and gore to a minimum, he also knew that at certain points they needed to be featured in the game. He said, “I felt like I couldn’t be true to the themes of the game and true to my experience without adding in some of those disturbing images.”

With regard to mechanics, Neverending Nightmares will focus primarily on evasion as a major means for dealing with enemies, though there will be some inevitable combat, also. He cites both Amnesia: The Dark Descent and early Silent Hill games as touchstones for thinking about vulnerability and evasion as major tactical decisions, though his game will attempt to also use the environment as a way of keeping players off-balance. “It’s a very difficult line to tread,” Gilgenbach said, “just because we don’t want it to be frustrating, we don’t you to be genuinely lost and not be able to progress, but we want to try to evoke that tension of ‘Where do I go? What am I going to run into?’”

Since the game is still being developed, there is still plenty to be added to the game, and, therefore, plenty to expect out of the game before its late 2014 scheduled release date. Gilgenbach and his collaborators want to design the scenarios to focus on more closely aligning the player’s experience with the inconsistency and surreality that usually occur within a nightmare. Since nightmares themselves obviously can change environments or meanings and disorient the dreamer, then so, too, should a game about nightmares.

Gilgenbach is also toying with the idea of individualizing the scenarios to keep players on their toes. “One of the things I’m also trying to play with is every scenario having its own feeling, whether it’s mostly real or completely unreal and then sort of adjust the knob there, just so people can’t get comfortable,” he said.

Neverending Nightmares reached its Kickstarter funding goal on August 27 and is currently on Steam Greenlight, where players can download the demo for free. Interested parties can also still support the game through PayPal donations on the main site, neverendingnightmares.com.

And as far as crowdfunding goes, Gilgenbach takes a fairly positive view of his experiences with it, hoping the added feedback will have a positive impact on the game: “Especially because of my mental illness, I obsess over little things, so now I sort of have these people checking up on the game, and I think it will keep me focused on the important things, and I can always ask the backers what they think is important.”