US: 26 Sep 2014
Neverending Nightmares looks amazing, which is what drew me to it in the first place. Set in a dreamscape that resembles an Edward Gorey storybook, Neverending Nightmares is all stark black and white with just a touch of color to indicate that which can be interacted with. Oh, yeah, and much of the game is tinged with red, due to the presence of lots and lots of blood, which seems to stain much of the nightmares of the game’s protagonist Thomas.
All this is all well and good, I suppose. This is a horror game, and it is loaded up with gore and all kinds of unsettling grotesqueries intended to haunt one’s dreams. It also takes its setting quite seriously by mimicking the quality of dream. The first time that Thomas “awakens” in his bed at the game’s opening, you will lead him through one of two doorways that will lead to either a bathroom or a hallway. As you explore hallways and corridors in Thomas’s home, they will look similar, giving the impression of a kind of endlessness, and when you “awaken” again in the same bedroom after some amount of exploring, you will find that where the bathroom formerly was is now a hallway. The door that formerly led to the hallway is now the door to the bathroom. This constant shifting of the geography of familiar spaces gives the game a definite dreamlike quality, where reality seems almost sensible until, of course, it isn’t.
Moments of this sort make the game feel very clever by placing the player very much in the shoes of a character that is experiencing a nightmare that he cannot awaken from over and over again. The gameplay itself likewise has some cleverness to it, as the game is essentially a series of stealth puzzles in which you must flee from various terrors by following slightly different rules each time. One creature might chase you down on sight, so you need to find places to hide from him until he passes. Another might be blind, so getting past him is a matter of pausing when he stops to listen. Another monster will simply barrel down a hallway at you wielding an axe. Since Thomas can only sprint very short distances, the trick becomes figuring out when to begin sprinting so you can reach a door to escape it.
All of these elements amount to a very minimalistic approach to game mechanics. Thomas can move left and right, sprint briefly, and interact with objects that are colored in the world. The game keeps it simple, which in and of itself isn’t a problem. Many of the best games ever made are simple in terms of their control schemes. Mastery of Tetris and Ms. Pac-Man is a matter of practicing and refining very basic movements, allowing you to think about the grander strategy of clearing many lines or completing a maze. The problem with Neverending Nightmares, though, is that there is a real lack of a bigger picture, either strategically or narratively, to motivate the play itself.
While the repetitive nature of the level design seems clever at first, creating a strong correlation between the experience of playing Neverending Nightmares and experiencing a nightmare, the redundancy of images and the actions needed to get past obstacles wears thin fairly quickly. Quite simply put, after you die a few times trying to figure out the exact timing to get past a monster in one of the rooms, the horrors of the game become more tedious than terrifying. Doing everything over and over and over and over again and seeing the same objects and decor (albeit rendered in a very cool art style) in Thomas’s house, in an insane asylum, in the woods, etc. over and over and over and over again, makes the game dull, not scary.
Apparently the game was inspired by game designer Matt Gilgenbach’s own struggles with OCD and depression, so the idea of patterning and repetition being agonizing and horrific makes sense. The game certainly captures such agony in its gameplay, but it doesn’t really offer any insight into it that I can understand based on what is presented here. I did read a post by Gilgenbach on the Steam forums for the game in which he claimed that he wanted to leave the game open to interpretation by the viewer and that he had left its plotline “vague” in order to do so. Unfortunately, this “vagueness” equates to not really communicating much of anything in its story about a man haunted by the image of his sister’s death.
The game offers three different paths to completion and three different endings, none of which amount to much in the way of revelation about who Thomas is or how his fears and struggles with the nightmares of his own mental health are resolved or managed or make ultimately for a battle that he can’t win. There is lots of provocative imagery here, but, again, with no context given for most of that imagery, the game doesn’t really justify any interpretation. It just seems arbitrary.
I would really like to champion this game because its aesthetic is so compelling to me and there are clearly some clever ideas that are part of the design, but I just have to say that I’m glad that this nightmare does end in just a few short hours because the experience of playing it simply does not live up to the promise of its appearance.
// Moving Pixels
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