With the success of the free Silent Hills playable teaser (P.T.) and the upcoming The Evil Within, it looks like horror is returning to mainstream gaming in a big way, likely a result of its proliferation and success in the indie scene. Hits like Outlast and the Amnesia series have shown that clever mechanics and atmosphere trump the necessity for a large budget, paving the way for even more minimalistic experimental projects like the currently trending Neverending Nightmares.
The game, which sought backing on Kickstarter, puts one in the head of Thomas, a young man having undergone deep and affecting trauma trapping him in what appears to be childhood memories. Roaming the endless hallways of what was once a happy home, he’s confronted by disturbing images of a dead sibling and impossible corridors that twist back in on themselves, evoking The Shining. Neverending Nightmares uses an unusual and unique cross-hatched art style that suggests the union of children’s drawings and Edward Gorey’s work, illustrated nearly entirely in black and white. Color is used sparingly to highlight interactive items, and to depict disturbing scenes of horror involving self-mutilation and child murder, which are all the more disconcerting courtesy of the juvenile art style and iconography.
Neverending Nightmares purports to give the player the experience of suffering mental health problems like depression, and does this cleverly utilizing every aspect of the video-game medium: Thomas’s controls are minimalistic, limiting his ability to do much to help himself in this horrible world; even sprinting for more than a few seconds tires him out, and his pathetic, helpless wheezing adds to the unpleasant, nearly oppressive atmosphere of the game. The sound design, which includes a special mode for headphones, adds a layer of sickening depth to the proceedings as the game’s disquieting sound effects and moody ambiance immerse the player. Disturbing imagery of familial abuse and suicide victims are used sparingly to keep each visceral depiction of loss and suffering powerful and unsettling, and it’s to the game’s credit that it rarely relies on anything approaching jump scares. Unfortunately, Neverending Nightmares is somewhat let down by its pacing: There are few things as creepy as a young boy being stalked by porcelain dolls with smashed faces that wish to bathe in his insides, but this scene, among many others, is stretched out and repeated to the point where its effectiveness is diluted.
Neverending Nightmares features some clever branching paths that offer different ideas about the nature of Thomas’s suffering, but its multiple endings all dissatisfy with overdone horror tropes, and one is left with the feeling that a more ambiguous conclusion would have both been more affecting and identifiable for its audience. But the journey remains a memorable one, especially for the ways in which Thomas’s fears physically manifest in his twisted world, and the ways in which they can change across further playthroughs. Consider scenes where the darkness follows Thomas through his house, cross-hatched blackness obscuring everything but occasional bloody flashes of his dead sister, or a third-act twist where in one pathway Thomas regresses to childhood and is forced to flee from unspeakable things as a helpless infant. It’s to Neverending Nightmares credit that images like this are hard to shake, and are made all the more effective in an interactive medium.
Neverending Nightmares is now available on Steam from Infinitap Games.