Review: Neverending Nightmares
When Neverending Nightmares was announced in the fall of 2013, I was really drawn to the project. From the Edward Gorey inspired visuals to the developer’s personal story behind the game’s inception, it immediately became something I was deeply excited for. Neverending Nightmares is a game born from its creator Matt Gilgenbach’s personal struggles with depression, mental illness, and obsessive compulsive disorder. It is an exercise in taking the deepest and darkest parts of a person’s subconscious and turning them into a horror game. Now the game has been released to the world, and it’s time to discover whether or not this is a nightmare worth riding out.
Neverending Nightmares begins with its protagonist Thomas waking up from a terrible nightmare. Though for Thomas “waking up” unfortunately does not mean gleefully coming to the realization that “it was all just a dream”, it means he’s simply exited one nightmare and entered another. The driving force of the story is to delve deeper into the nightmares in order to discover what’s happening to Thomas and the world around him. That is really all I can tell you about the story without spoiling the conclusion or inserting my own thoughts as to what it all means. Neverending Nightmares features a branching narrative, a system where the ending you receive is determined by actions you take as you progress through the game. Now a lot of games have branching narratives, but with Neverending Nightmares each of them are wildly different from one another and may recontextualize much of the imagery and events that took place earlier in the game. I would highly recommend replaying the game several times over ’til you see all of them. Which should not be time consuming or difficult as the game takes roughly 80 minutes to complete and there are only 3 endings.
Your enjoyment of the story is probably going to depend on how much time you spend reflecting back on the whole ordeal. The game utilizes a lot of environmental storytelling that will help you piece together what the various endings allude to. Although, upon replaying and experiencing all the branching paths and endings, it remains is a bit too obtuse for my liking. It is a noble ambition to want people to look back on a game and really think about the narrative, but in this case I don’t think the writing gives the player enough hooks to stay invested. Your reaction to the endings is likely to be one of bewilderment at just how vague and sudden they are.
What makes Neverending Nightmares stand out from many of its indie horror game contemporaries is the art style. The whole game looks like a black and white hand drawn children’s picture book come to life. Darkness in the game has this sort of chalked on quality that really exacerbates the sense of dread. In some instances when you gaze into the darkness, you can notice hidden shadowy figures lying in wait. Even when you have a candle to help light your way, its range is quite limited and you cannot see much coming. Though the darkness isn’t isn’t just pitch black, as I mentioned there’s a sort of chalked on filter quality. There are slits in the darkness that help you see enemies coming, which is a fair trade as literally every enemy in the game will kill you in a single blow should they get close.
Now despite the game primarily being in black in white, it does feature some colour. All items in the environment that you can interact with are in color, which eliminates the need for pixel hunting in the environment. For example there are several instances where you are faced with a patrolling enemy, and you must take shelter in a large dresser to hide from it. The dresser stands out in the environment, because its brown as opposed to black and white so you’re naturally drawn to it. It’s a really smart system for interactivity that removes the need for button prompts or anything of that ilk. Of course, though, the color you are going to be seeing the most is red – blood red to be exact. Any sort of gaping wound or gory imagery will be caked with these beautiful blood red colors. Out of all of the games I have played in 2014, Neverending Nightmares very well may be the most visually impressive. It is a wonderful example of how excellent art direction is all you need to make a game beautiful regardless of any technical limitations.
My only real complaint with the art style is that it is rough on the eyes after a while. If you’re like me at all, you play horror games with the lights off to amplify the atmosphere and make the experience more frightening. The trouble with that in this case is being in black and white makes it hard to look at after a while. The brighter environments in the game that feature a lot of white that really illuminated the room I was playing in, and after a while I had to turn on a light just because the contrast was a bit jarring. Though I’m sure that most people won’t have this problem and it was just something from my own experience.
Accompanying the excellent art direction is some pretty fantastic audio presentation. The world of Neverending Nightmares is an unsettling cacophony of a soundscape that becomes what you will probably fear most about the game. In particular, the desperation you hear from Thomas as he gasps for air while running really made my hair stand on end. There’s a very harsh yet natural quality to a lot of the sounds you hear in the game; the violent imagery in the game is really made that much worse by the sound design.
The actual gameplay of Neverending Nightmares is sure to be a divisive element. Most of the time you’ll just be walking from point A to B without any real substance or in depth gameplay mechanics to speak of. That’s OK in my book, as you really should be playing a horror game for the atmosphere in the first place. However, the trouble with this game is it feels a little too drawn out and there is a good chance you will become bored quickly. A lot of the environments in the game feel like the same 5 or 6 rooms altered slightly. It creates this effect where you are indeed progressing through the game, but it feels like you’re going in circles cause most every room looks exactly like one you saw 30 seconds ago. This repetitive nature to the environments really hurts the atmosphere and things start to feel like you’re going on the same short amusement park ride over and over again. What’s worse is the game is littered with rooms that have nothing in them. No monsters, no other characters, no items to interact with, nothing new to look at, just an empty room you have probably already seen 5 or 6 times already.
Enemy encounters in the game are yet another thing that adds to how dull the game can feel at points. Despite the fact that every enemy in the game will kill you in a single blow, they are just not threatening due to how easy it is to avoid them. There’s a large baby monster that’s pretty creepy when you initially cross paths with it, but almost immediately you realize that all you have to do is hide in a dresser until it patrols away. Sure it will probably end up chasing you, but even despite the limited stamina for sprinting in game you can outrun it easily if you don’t throttle the sprint button. This is the problem with basically all of the enemies, their attack patterns are too simplistic and easy to deal with.
The highs and lows of Neverending Nightmares are pretty extreme for the most part. The visual and audio presentation is some of the best I’ve seen in a game this year, while the story and gameplay leave much to be desired. Despite its shortcomings though, there’s more good about Neverending Nightmares than there is bad, and it is one of those games that will probably spur on a lot of discussion among those that take the time to accompany Thomas on his journey.