Neverending Nightmare’s director, Matt Gilgenbach, isn’t shy about sharing what inspired him to create the game: his personal struggles with depression and mental illness. A product of Kickstarter, the experience is meant to be an examination of depression and horror in an interactive environment, and it succeeds in making the player feel an uneasy sadness in a terrifying setting, even if it falls short on compelling gameplay.
Neverending Nightmares is an atypical video game experience. The closest genre it could be related to is a point-and-click adventure, but even that isn’t entirely accurate. You explore a two-dimensional environment, avoid occasional enemies, move from room to room, and attempt to escape your horrific dreams through every door. The experience of participating in a surreal nightmare is the goal, rather than beating the game in a traditional sense.
You are Thomas, a mentally unstable man with an obvious appreciation and love for his sister, Gabby. In his nightmares, he discovers his sister dead, but wakes to find her alive. From there, the house you explore gets twisted and increasingly disheveled as you find yourself constantly awaking from nightmare after nightmare, sometimes in foreign locations. It’s never clear exactly when Thomas is awake (he may never be) and the unsettling spiral only extends deeper as you explore the constantly shifting environment.
Inspired by the drawings of Edward Gorey, Neverending Nightmare’s art style is gothic and heavily reliant on a minimal use of color against its predominantly black and white aesthetic. When blood appears (which is often), it’s a stark contrast against the background and characters. It forces you to take notice and appreciate the violence from a distressing perspective. The uncomfortable gore is pushed further with each chapter, punctuated by scenes of self-mutilation and violence. Gamers are familiar with this sort of carnage, but set against the art and with its quick editing and framing, the violence is highly unsettling and affecting.
Neverending Nightmares is a horror title. It has jump scares with monsters and sadistic images flashing in the darkness, but the experience is far more psychological in its attempts to make you squirm. I felt slightly off-kilter throughout the whole experience as opposed to being traditionally scared. A steady reverberating chill ran down my spine throughout the whole game; the fear is different than that of a classic Resident Evil or a Dead Space title. I wasn’t scared about what was going to happen and at any minute – I was uncomfortable with the whole experience. This is thanks in large part to the impressive sound design. The scant music is off-putting, but it’s the faraway voices and unidentifiable noises that make you uncertain of what lies beyond the darkness.
With such an oppressive environment, Neverending Nightmares is a mercifully short game. Experiencing it in its entirety only took about three hours, including traveling down every story branch to witness every ending. Light on gameplay, progression boils down to moving from one location to another. Encountering one of the few enemies kicks you back to a reasonable checkpoint, but getting past these obstacles is only a matter of avoiding them.
As I played I kept studying the environment looking for clues, sure I would need to retain something seen in the backgrounds to solve a puzzle or figure something out, but it never happened. Walking to your ambiguous destination as the environment shifts is your only means of progression. In one sequence, I walked from the bedroom to the kitchen to get a glass of milk, but on my return trip, the hallways had changed and moved. Its intention might have been one of confusion, and to create uncertainty, but I just felt like I was lost and unsure where to go, rather than feeling disorientated.
Neverending Nightmares is an emotionally resonant experience. I felt fully empathetic towards Thomas’ struggles, which is an impressive feat. The limited interactivity holds it back from taking full advantage of its medium, but I understood and was affected by Thomas’ inescapable depression.
Neverending Nightmares is available on Steam and Ouya.
Neverending Nightmares is an interactive examination of inescapable sadness and horror.