It is hard to write or talk about Neverending Nightmares without elaborating on the development, including its creator’s personal history and struggles. Normally, I would eschew unfurling this kind of backstory as irrelevant to the gaming experience, but Neverending Nightmares — along with maybe Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight — have convinced me otherwise.
Neverending Nightmares is the very definition of a personal game, the product of a single man’s struggles with failure, mental illness, depression, and OCD. It is so much a result of Matt Gilgenbach’s psyche that it is nearly impossible to talk about the game without making some pretty substantial statements about its creator.
After a highly disappointing release for rhythm-shooter Retro/Grade, Gilgenbach’s obsessive-compulsive disorder — which he thought he had mostly conquered — began to reappear, prompting the sorts of invasive thoughts of self-mutilation that more-or-less ended up in the final version of the game. It is through that lens Gilgenbach’s vision for Neverending Nightmares was conceived and produced.
Anyone who has seen a screenshot or trailer can see the game’s most immediate appeal: it looks amazing. There is a hellish storybook quality to it that never quite subsides, and the fact that the black-and-white landscape is spattered with touches of color — mostly red — makes it even more starkly appealing.
It is subtle in a way many games are not with regard to color scheme, and it makes me wonder why more games have not availed themselves of something so simple and yet beautiful.
The final product turned out to be a beautiful, weird, and unsettling game, nontraditional but playable and engaging nonetheless. Like other narrative-based experiences of the last few years — think Gone Home — the point is the game itself, as metaphor, as explanation, as whatever the creator wants it to be. Or, consequently, what the player wants it to be.
In Neverending Nightmares, players snap awake in a pen-and-paper world akin to the art of Edward Gorey, taking up the role of asthmatic protagonist Thomas. Without much (read: no) exposition, players wander the halls of a house worthy of Poe and search for…something. Escape. Your lost sister. It quickly becomes clear, but that’s not the point.
The point is, Thomas is a fearful guy living in a world of nightmares he cannot escape, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
Without a major objective-based plot to drive players forward, Neverending Nightmares comes to feel very much like an adventure game at heart. And this is how it makes manifest the personal connection to Gilgenbach’s OCD.
In each level, players are presented with a series of hallways, many of them virtually identical, with doors that lead to other, branching hallways, which also look exactly the same, which then makes fastidious gamers like me begin to tense up and wonder how to get back to that original hallway and explore the remaining rooms. The intentional sameness makes it nearly impossible to know just what areas have and have not been explored.
Perhaps you see what I’m getting at with this.
It is frustrating and tedious, but in an interesting way. It gives the players a glimpse into what it must be like to have OCD, but also from a purely horror perspective, it builds tension. Even players who systematically wander the halls will get a stomach-churning sense of deja vu when doubling back to find an item or potential exit. If being chased by a monster of some kind, it is impossible not to feel as though the number of exits have been depleted.
The overly attentive explorer will also feel the tension builds as the possibility for death becomes a reality within the confines of this bizarre other-world.
Speaking of death, it’s not quite like Super Meat Boy, but death is immediate and without many of the normal trappings of dying in-game. The player snaps awake in a bed nearby the last place he left off. However, even with that in mind, stepping out into a world of what I’ll call “identical variety” can be daunting, especially if you’re not entirely sure where you left off.
Also true is the fact that the line between death and progression is often blurred, and death is sometimes necessary to move forward. Players will spend some time problem-solving minor puzzles, but for the most part their trips are unimpeded.
The creatures that wander (and often chase you through) the hallways are extreme metaphors for what the player is experiencing, and they reinforce the tone, which never slides out from under its own dark, unrelenting shadow. There is something to be said for a work that remains intentionally bleak, and Neverending Nightmares manages to do so with only the slightest slivers of actual, outright narrative.
Most of what would be considered story has to be inferred by the player, and that is a risk that ultimately paid off. The game uses its own slight acquaintance with plot in order to augment its surrealistic nature. The music, too, should absolutely be mentioned for adding to the unnerving, bizarre quality of the game without ever attempting to take it over.
If any caveats for Neverending Nightmares exist, they have to revolve around time. Thomas, in his frightened, asthmatic state, moves slowly. Very slowly. He can sprint, but it’s a pretty slow gait, even then, and he wheezes such that it’s almost not worth using. It is an interesting gameplay mechanic, especially where it reveals the main character’s weakness, but sometimes just moving ahead is a slog.
The only other potential drawback is that the game is quite short. I clocked in at just over two hours and was just beginning to feel a groove when the credits started rolling. And though there is an option to replay scenarios, with such experiential games the need for replay is often very low. Outside of streaming it, I don’t see myself replaying Neverending Nightmares.
This is a great fixture in the wave of great new horror games of the last few years. It manages to be scary and meaningful, an interesting statement not just about the creator’s experiences but about the act of experiencing a game, period.
The Final Word: Neverending Nightmares is a game that bridges the gap between interactive story and video game, and it brings not just some provocative art but an attention to subject matter that is often marginalized in the genre.