Horror games need to balance a very fine line. Too slight and it makes little impact. Too many jump scares and the intended vibe is lost. But when some of them get it just right, they can instill a sense of dread like no other media can provide. Even then, they can branch off again. Some of them drench the player in so much foreboding it can be difficult to continue moving forward. Fortunately, a good story can help with that.
That’s where Neverending Nightmares hits the axe on the head. It’s one of the most compelling games I’ve played in years. Filled with disturbing imagery and fascinating mystery, this incredible-looking experience pulled me along with very little reason to slow down. I had to keep playing to peel back all the layers about a man named Thomas and his (maybe) sister Gabrielle.
Like the title says, Thomas continues to wake up from an endless series of nightmares that increase in despair, body-horror and regret. The developer, Matt Gilgenbach, has battled depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder and this was his attempt to convey his sense of hopelessness into a video game. He has succeeded by leaps and bounds. The darkness is constant and is bristling with the unknown. The one time I saw a door marked EXIT, I thanked my lucky stars. But as expected, it only led to more terror.
There are two towering heads of Neverending Nightmares. Firstly, the distinctive art style. Using a pencil-drawn look, the splashes of colour leap out from the screen. Not only is it used to direct the player to interact with objects, it also highlights some of the more haunting imagery in the game. A dusty portrait, broken doll’s face or the results of self-harm in a padded cell. Conversely, the darkness is just as powerful. A deep hallway or shifting figures in the corner of your eye sprinkle just the correct amount of chills along your spine. It is tremendously original.
Secondly, Skyler McGlothlin’s unsettling soundtrack is one of my favourites of the year. With track titles like “Impending Doom” and “Screaming Darkness”, you’d think it could risk being too intrusive to the gameplay experience but it’s not the case. For the most part, it emerges under your skin without your knowledge. Creeping, crawling and sometimes even pounding towards the next inevitable horrible vision within Thomas’ mind. The sonic mindscapes of McGlothlin’s work must have required him to go to some dark places while creating every note but the results are superb.
There’s never any sense of tangible reality throughout every area. Rooms change locations, doors disappear and reappear elsewhere. Almost every painting on the wall reflects some twisted view of Thomas’ memory. The creatures that roam the halls and rooms of his fears seem equally terrifying and filled with sadness. Except for one. There’s an enemy late in the game that has laid dormant for most of Thomas’ nightmares but comes to life in a truly horrible fashion. And its gruesome actions make me want to run for my life. Whatever controls that particular creature doesn’t have a hint of sadness. Just evil.
Whatever depression Gilgenbach has dealt with (and no doubt is still dealing with), I imagine it’s the kind that commands his every waking hour. Pushing it aside as best he can just so he can feel human. It is the worst feeling in the world and affects not only yourself but your loved ones. He created a game born of these emotions. Its endless sense of the macabre is constant and never allows Thomas a moment of respite. As all good horror games should.
2014 was a year that made gigantic strides forward in the horror genre. People seem to be embracing this type of game with open arms like never before. Thankfully, this is translating into more developers taking risks and reaching outside their comfort zones to create amazing new games. This game feels like it came from a very dark and grisly place but also a supremely personal one. It exists because of one single person’s life experiences and as such, defines the very essence of a unique game. This isn’t a game created to satisfy shareholders or meet financial quarters. For every step of the way, it is refreshing and horrible in equal measure. But more importantly, and especially in light of the ending I got, Neverending Nightmares is hauntingly beautiful.