The Pleasures of the Comatose and the Tedium of False Awakenings

Neverending Nightmares (Infinitap Games, 2014)

I have found that I am not looking for games that are relatable and expressive of my own problems, so much as the ones that more ideally promise progress and solution to some unspecific ones.

I hate sleep. Maybe it's because I'm just so bad at it.

I've grappled with insomnia for all of my adult life. At this point, much of it is my own fault. I pour copious amounts of stimulants into my body all day long (caffeine, nicotine, and the like). However, even before I developed my addictions, I never slept well. I resist sleep. It seems useless, an interruption to getting things done, and my brain tends to mull over thoughts endlessly, aiding in my resistance to falling into unconsciousness.

Which is interesting, I guess, because when I do sleep, I sometimes find that I can go for days or weeks of dreams that are known as false awakenings. A kind of dream that tends to place me at least in a cyclical, repetitious state, kind of like my waking thoughts when they circle around a particular issue endlessly.

False awakenings are dreams in which you dream that you have awakened, then you slowly become conscious of the fact that you are still dreaming. Usually when I start having them with regularity, I have a series of these dreams that repeat themselves over and over in a single night. I dream that I awaken, I become conscious that of the fact that I am dreaming (usually because my movements in the dream are molasses slow), then I dream of awakening again, and the cycle continues. I often physically shake myself awake from these dreams by consciously focusing on my body and then jarring it awake through actual movement of my real body. It's kind of unpleasant throughout, though. The best way I can describe a cycle of false awakenings is that it is like being conscious of being trapped in your own head. Your skull is your own cage.

So, I think I may have been projecting a bit when I came across a description of a free-to-play game on Steam that sounded as if it was a horror game that used false awakenings as its central source of horror:

Minds Eyes brings you to a world of dreams. You wake up from your slumber to constantly discover you are still asleep. You venture throughout your own home as well as some pieces of your imagination to discover who or what is keeping you at sleep. Will you ever wake up? will you ever finish the journey?

I can't think of anything more horrible than false awakenings and the endless cycle of discovering that you are still asleep and hoped maybe the game would either give me some insight into this strange form of dream or, at the very least, be very clever about simulating the experience for the player. Again, I think I was probably projecting.

Minds Eyes is more like a beta test for a tech demo than a game. It seems like its developer wanted to play around with the Unity Engine to see if he could create some eerie imagery and a few jump scares and somehow got this rough draft of a rough draft green lit on Steam. The game sort of mimics the idea of false awakenings with a series of explorations of a dimly lit, seemingly single-story, small house that are broken up by several reawakenings at your starting point -- in your bedroom. It also sort of mimics the frustration of not really feeling you are making any progress in your effort to awaken by forcing the player to endlessly circle the same spaces waiting for odd events to be triggered that progress the next awakening. However, by the time the game had me platforming in first person across an abyss on narrow beams of light, I just quit the game in frustration. Like I said, it really feels like someone learning how to create horror sequences in a game engine than an actual effort to create a fleshed out experience. Waking up didn't seem worth it, so I just alt-tabbed and “jarred myself awake” through a hard shutdown of the program.

Which frustrates me because as someone who finds sleep vaguely appalling and false awakenings truly distressing, this seems like fertile ground for horror. I know other people grapple with insomnia and false awakenings, too, and could probably relate such simulation to their own real life horrors. Then, I remembered that I had already played a game about false awakenings. I reviewed Infinitap Games's very aesthetically appealing, but mechanically and thematically shallow game, Neverending Nightmares, two years ago.

According to Infinitap's Matt Gilgenbach, Neverending Nightmares was inspired by an effort to represent his own experience with OCD and depression. However, doing so takes the form of replicating the endless cycling of false awakenings, as the main character awakens at the beginning of the game in his room, explores a few hallways of his house, before awakening again, finding the house ever so slightly changed as he explores it once more, and then awakens again, etc. All of which actually works pretty well for a little while, but ultimately gets tedious as I noted in my review:

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. (Neverending Nightmares Is More Tedious than Terrifying", PopMatters, 20 October 2014)

All of which might suggest that the horror of not ever feeling like you are getting somewhere and then endlessly repeating monotonous cycles is horrible personally, but not really any good for horror as a genre. Instead, perhaps, I should propose that I have been right all along, sleep and dreams are really quite awful and a better exploration of sleep is found in stories of the comatose, people not experiencing the endless frustration of breaking from one dream into another, but those who simply seek to awaken and then miraculously do.

I have had notably better luck finding interesting games about sleep that place returning to consciousness as a clear and positive goal for the sleeper. Thomas Brush's rather pretty and rather mellow little adventure game Coma (free-to-play at NewGroundsand Devespresso Games's clever, little hide-and-seek inspired survival-horror game The Coma: Cutting Class (available on Steam for $9.99) both posit sleep and dream as the enemy. However, in each game, dreams and their tendency to sometimes defy logic and expectation or be downright scary in their imagery are resolvable problems, puzzles that can be solved and moved forward or enemies that can be evaded and eventually banished. Both games value waking as the solution to the sometimes frustrating, sometimes deceptive, and sometimes horrifying worlds of sleep and dream and actually move you forward towards that solution in a fairly deliberate fashion, less repetitious fashion.

Basically, I have found that I am not looking for games that are relatable and expressive of my own problems with cyclical dreaming, so much as the ones that more ideally promise progress and solution. I guess my hatred of sleep remains, but at least, I can now appreciate the pleasures of those that I can't relate to, those that deeply sleep, the comatose.

Or maybe I should just stop drinking so much caffeine before bed.

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