Starting 2015 with a horrifying stare into the dark core of the human psyche is a look at “Neverending Nightmares”, a game developed by Matt Gilgenbach and born out of his struggles with OCD and depression. This is a new one for me- I can’t think of a game I’ve played that so openly deals with its creator’s issues, and if nothing else it’s to be commended for the undeniably brave piece it is, and I feel compelled to thank Mr Gilgenbach for releasing it. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s also a damn good experience.
You are Thomas- a man who, as the title suggests, spends the game in a series of increasingly dire nightmares that he cannot escape from; waking into said nightmares repeatedly regardless of how many times he is killed or attempts to wake up. The other key recurring character is his sister Gabby, whose affect on the plot changes depending on the path you take through the story. The plot is quite simple and is told predominantly through imagery and context, and deals with issues that many people may find disturbingly familar; gruesome self-harm, anxiety based around children, the thought of being locked in an asylum, and the idea of having to protect (and spectacularly failing to protect) someone you love. Different people will get different results from the game, but I’m willing to admit that a lot of it rang true for me, and in one case actually alerted me to an issue I hadn’t ever really acknowledged until that point. The point is it’s imagery and concepts that will make most people feel uneasy in a “Silent Hill” sort of way, and as a horror game it’s very effective in that regard. The three different endings work well, but achieving them is down to being in a certain direction rather than criteria or skill- one of them I achieved by accident, while one was actually linked to a nicely symbolic choice. As seen in the image above the graphics are done in the style of black and white, 2-D line drawings which works beautifully, and the environment is utilised to great effect- exploring Thomas’ house, for example, sees the hallways and rooms become increasingly shabby and dilapidated, and one section involving running away from a swift enemy through similar-looking corridors and attempting to find holes leading down to the next area was genuinely tense.
Gameplay is rather simple- you move on a 2-D, sometimes 3-D plane avoiding monsters and occasionally interacting with plot items. There aren’t any puzzles except finding where to go next, but the simplicity of the game’s design works in its favour. Thomas suffers from asthma and as a result can only run for a few seconds at a time before he stops and breaks out into laboured pants like a chain-smoker attempting to chase Barry Allen, which means the majority of the time you’ll be taking things slow and as a result are entirely at the mercy of whatever the game throws at you. The atmosphere is heavy from the very start- the sense that something is very wrong but you can’t figure out what, and by the time you do it’s too late and no one is going to pull you out of this horrible situation because it’s a creation of your own tortured mind. But you push on, and are repeatedly rewarded with horrifying sights that are not for the squeamish. The only real problem is that the game is rather short, but it’s a very intense experience in a way similar to “Lone Survivor” (which I am planning to review soon) and doesn’t feel rushed.
The biggest problems I had were technical- I played the GOG version which had frequent sound-skipping, absent music and the screen cutting to black temporarily, but none of it interfered with the game too much.
Overall, “Neverending Nightmares” is a great example of a bleak, dark horror story very personal to its creator while being relate-able to other people. It’s graphically beautiful, its imagery is horrifying and its tone is spot-on: it’s not for the squeamish, and will have some disturbing sights for those with psychological issues of their own, but if you can handle all that it’s definitely worth a look.
By James Lambert