Neverending Nightmares Preview – A terrifying indie psychological horror game
Four and a half months ago, Matt Gilgenbach’s psychological horror adventure Neverending Nightmares got funded in a close finish on Kickstarter. We immediately took notice of the game and jumped to interview its creator regarding the development process and potential ports, finding out that in addition to Windows, OS X, Linux, and OUYA, there’s also a solid chance that Neverending Nightmares will eventually get ported to iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. As the game is launching in a not-so-distant future, we’ve decided to preview the current early access alpha build available to certain Kickstarter backers via Steam that recently got updated with new levels. So, what is there to tell?
Basically, this demo shows a lot of promise and indicates that Neverending Nightmares will be everything Gilgenbach promised us in 2013. I only got a chance to play three unconsecutive levels that don’t reveal much of the game’s twisted narrative, but that was more than enough for my interest to be peaked and my underwear to get wet. Yes, Neverending Nightmares is a terrifying game. A game in which you’re completely alone and defenseless, surrounded by horrible acts of violence and demonic creatures that aren’t exactly looking to befriend you. A game in which it seems like you can’t win and insanity is inevitable. A game whose subjects and themes are so heavy that I’m still thinking about them five days after I only got a sneak peek of the whole creation. A game that I’ll gladly experience in its entirety once it’s done and probably scar(e) myself for life.
This psychological horror is as immersive as they can get: the slow-paced exploration of a dark and surreal world created in a pen-and-ink art style inspired by Edward Gorey, an American artist with an unsettling portfolio is an incredibly memorable experience. Almost the entire world of NN is presented in black-and-white, save for blood and objects you can interact with. The visuals alone are responsible for a really creepy overtone to the game that’s additionally reinforced by realistic sound effects and sullen music composed by Skyler McGlothlin. As for the things that will screw with your head the most, there are some intelligently placed jump scares and a whole lot of other disturbing scenes that can maybe be partially anticipated, but will nevertheless deeply disturb even the more fearless gamers. Furthermore, the game’s locations tend to change as you backtrack through them while looking for an exit out of your nightmares and you’ll often be wondering whether a certain hallway was really that long, weren’t those dolls in different position the last time you were here, was this room always here, and are you walking in circles.
Gameplay-wise, Neverending Nightmares is all about exploration of a nightmarish mansion and its surroundings. While some simple stealth sequences have been present in the alpha version I got to play, most of the game came down to disoriented walking around unnatural locations, fearing for my character’s life and wondering what the hell is going on. What I especially liked about it is that it’s not a fantasy horror title per say, as it explains its locations, events, and creatures you encounter with the main character’s mental illness. Also, one of the three levels offers a glimpse at that “interactive narrative structure” Gilgenbach was talking about last year: dying in Neverending Nightmares doesn’t necessarily equal waking up inside of the same nightmare (level) again, i.e. restarting a checkpoint. No, based on the circumstances of your “demise”, you might wake up in a different part of a nightmare, a part you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and continue the story from that point onward.
The stealth demonstrated in the early access build is rather simple, but even hiding in closets and waiting for monsters to pass was keeping me on the edge the entire time, as the devilish creatures often behaved unpredictably. Also, while running was always an option, the main character gets an asthma attack (or is just easily tired) after just a few seconds of it, so using the Run button sparingly and saving your endurance for when you really need to flee from the abominations that are chasing you is a must. Gilgenbach even revealed that he’s toying with the idea of giving monsters a sense of hearing, so that you’re easier to detect when you are running. At the moment, my nerves thank him that the atrocities hiding in the protagonist’s nightmares are still as deaf as Helen Keller.
The following two paragraphs contain some (presumably) mild spoilers. If you don’t want to spoil your experience of playing Neverending Nightmares in the slightest, skip them.
While the developers purposefully included only seemingly random fragments of the narrative into its demo in order to make the entire game as mysterious as possible while still demonstrating what they’re working on, some things are still deductible from everything presented in it… or so I think. Anyway, here’s what I gathered from playing these small sequences: apart from having some serious mental issues like clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and possibly even schizophrenia, the main protagonist also seems to have a dead little sister. In fact, it looks like he’s blaming himself for her death, though it doesn’t seem likely that he literally killed her. He’s contemplating suicide and self-mutilation, which I suspect he already performed in the past. He was once a religious man, but no one who has seen what he has can believe in a benevolent god anymore. Now, he’s trapped in his nightmares that are manifestations of his most horrifying and intrusive thoughts, and he can’t seem to wake up. Regardless of whether he evades his fears, faces them head-on, or gets swallowed by them, he always wakes up in another nightmare: slightly different, yet equally terrifying. Now, whether he’ll ever wake up and in what condition is entirely up to the player.
Of course, figuring out which events from the protagonist’s life are real and which aren’t is an almost impossible task to perform based on such a small sample of levels and without seeing at least one of the game’s endings. Because of that, it’s entirely possible that our pajama-wearing guy doesn’t have a dead sister and that he didn’t pull out his teeth, which is heavily hinted at in one of his nested nightmares. One thing is sure, though: replaying Neverending Nightmares several times will be a must for anyone looking to truly understand it. /End of spoilers
Though I am lucky enough to never have experienced serious mental issues (knocking on wood), if Gilgenbach’s correct and the game’s representation of intrusive thoughts, clinical depression, and other disorders is authentic, Neverending Nightmares will certainly be especially interesting to people who have struggled with psychological illnesses, albeit possibly a bit too graphic and heavy for many of them to not risk relapsing, or just triggering many memories of unhappier times.
Though its Kickstarter campaign may be over, you can still back the development of Neverending Nightmares on its official website. It can be yours for as little as $15, and if you’re wondering whether playing the slightly more expensive alpha/beta builds will ruin your experience of it, Gilgenbach himself stated that the team is “trying to design the game to have a slow reveal” in order to actually provide their more generous backers that have and will have access to these builds a more intense experience, and not a spoiled one. Personally, I’m suggesting you go for it, as Neverending Nightmares is one of the most unique indie creations that I got the terrifying pleasure of playing in as long as I can remember, and if you’re a fan of horror games, I really don’t see how can you sit this one out.
As for the release date of Neverending Nightmares, nothing’s official yet. However, the game is currently expected to launch for Windows, OS X, Linux, and OUYA in between mid-summer and holiday season. Of course, we’ll let you know as soon as developers reveal a more precise launch window, so stay tuned on PGR for that. Also, regarding potential iOS and Android ports: as this project pulled some money from the OUYA Free the Games Fund, Neverending Nightmares certainly won’t be coming to mobile devices before 2015, given how it has to be a timed OUYA exclusive (PCs aren’t exclusively gaming platforms, so apparently they don’t count) for at least six months. In a recent conversation, Gilgenbach told me that six months means “we have some time to figure out what we want to do about a portable version”. In any case, expect to read more about this promising psychological horror game on PGR real soon.