Last month, The Onion made fun of The Evil Within, joking that the game’s idea of horror pales in comparison to what humans actually suffer on a daily basis. In a way, the satirical news site is right; survival horror often focuses on abstract situations that seem silly compared to real-life fears like being in debt. Matt Gilgenbach’s Neverending Nightmares looks similarly abstract with its pen-drawn aesthetics; however, as I was playing the game, I couldn’t help but feel like I caught a glimpse of the developer’s real fears.
This isn’t a conclusion I came up with entirely by myself. Neverending Nightmares began as a successful Kickstarter campaign where the developer spoke extensively on how he was inspired by his real-life struggles with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). As a result, the game is less like a traditional survival horror game. For instance, you won’t deal with awkward controls and scrounge for ammo; instead, you’ll interact with the scenery in order to better understand the main character’s situation.
I had an easy time relating to the main character, Thomas, who constantly suffers from a situation that befits the game’s title. Every night, the poor guy wakes up in a random room located inside a twisted version of his home or a mental hospital. His character model looks similarly to a Saturday-morning cartoon character; however, he has certain qualities that denote his suffering, such as the bags under his eyes or how he quickly becomes exhausted due to his asthma. Although Thomas rarely speaks and never comments on his situation–the voice actors excellently portray the characters when there is dialogue–I learned so much about him as I accompanied him on his journey to find the truth.
They say the Devil is in the details, and in Neverending Nightmares it shows in every meticulous hatch mark. At first, the pen-drawn scenery looks similar to any other horror game: noticeably red blood is spilled all over the floors and walls (sometimes the ceiling), normal tools look like they’ve been recently used as makeshift torture devices, and darkness permeates throughout the house. Thomas is limited to walking and examining key items that stand out thanks to Gilgenbach’s limited use of color. He never picks up these items for later use, and I started to feel like like this was a generic horror game.
Then Thomas suddenly tears out a vein from one of his arms.
These scenes are brutal and intrusive–fitting for a game inspired by the developer’s own experience with OCD. Eventually, I was able to draw the connection that all of these random bloodstains weren’t randomly placed; each of them represents a moment in which poor Thomas suddenly felt compelled to harm himself. After each disturbing scene, Thomas immediately awakens in another bed and simply carries on; he also does this if a random enemy kills him. With these traits, the game truly feels like a, well, neverending nightmare.
Where Neverending Nightmares sometimes falters is when it relies on some more traditional aspects of survival horror. The main character suffers from Asthma–as if he didn’t already suffer enough–which seems like the perfect way to make the character feel helpless, and it succeeds. With the asthma, the main character can only sprint a short distance before he becomes too winded, so naturally a giant baby monster or an axe-wielding murderer decides to chase Thomas at just the right distance for him to reach the closest unlocked door. This mechanic is somewhat cliche’, but it helps make each chase suspenseful, especially when considering how its undersused.
However, Neverending Nightmares has some strange rules for dealing with the other enemies and hazardous situations it throws at Thomas. Certain straight-coat wearing monsters will patrol the hallway, but Thomas can easily bypass them as long as he walks along a different plane. These moments were a bit too silly, and in some cases I no longer saw certain enemies as threats.
The game also presents some situations that are simultaneously frustrating and intriguing. For instance, an enemy blocked a passage in a way that made it impossible for me to sneak by him; so, I had to step on shards of broken glass–bare in mind that Thomas is barefoot for the entire game–in order to lure him away from the narrow passage. At first, I thought that maybe Gilgenbach was trying to emulate some of the painful rituals that patients who are diagnosed with OCD perform in order to temporarily relieve their anxiety; however, considering how easy it is to deal with the other enemies, I’m not entirely sure if that was his intention.
By the end of Neverending Nightmares, you’ll receive one of three possible endings based on the choices you make in the game. The choices are not obvious, and you’ll need to retrace your steps in order to find the discrete paths. Neither path is considered to be the “correct” path, and similarly, no ending is considered better than the other. As with Silent Hill 2’s endings, Neverending Nightmare’s endings only provide glimpses of what could be, providing just enough details to fill in plot-points while leaving the rest of details wrapped in an enigmatic aura so that players can develop their own theories long after they’ve stopped playing.
Infinitap Games truly picked the perfect title for its game. While OCD and depression are treatable and manageable, they never completely go away, much like Thomas’s fate depending on which ending you receive. This is reflected in the way Thomas constantly awakens after each painful death, and the ambiguous endings suggest that he’ll always deal with these nightmares–at best he’ll be able to manage. Even if you’re looking for a more traditional survival horror experience, I highly recommend Neverending Nightmares if only to better understand some of Thomas’ pain.
Infinitap Games provided the PC review code for Neverending Nightmares.