Horror gets visceral in ‘Neverending Nightmares’

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

When it comes to horror, movies and video games tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between “startling” or “disturbing.” Jump scares are cheap, but effective ways to give the viewer a temporary jolt of adrenaline, while a psychologically unnerving experience is longer lasting, more intricately crafted, and harder to come by. Neverending Nightmares falls far more toward the “disturbing” end of the scary spectrum.

You play as Thomas, a young man in pajamas wandering around an increasingly unsettling landscape in search of his missing sister. Every new area begins with Thomas waking up from one nightmare into a fresh one, like a infinite version of the movie Inception, but far more twisted. The world of the dream is drained of color, with only specific elements of the world given hues, such as blood streaks on the wall.

Though it features a visually fascinating monochromatic art style reminiscent of Edward Gorey, at its core Neverending Nightmares is a horror exploration game with some stealth elements. As is the recent trend in scary games, players will find themselves helpless against the monsters they encounter in dimly lit, decrepit hallways; combat is not an option. When faced with one of Neverending Nightmares’ host of horrors, players’ only recourse is to run, hide, or try to slip silently by.

Neverending Nightmares' monochromatic cartoon art style clashes with the violent and gruesome scenes you will happen upon in it.

Neverending Nightmares’ monochromatic cartoon art style clashes with the violent and gruesome scenes you will happen upon in it.

The trope of the helpless protagonist in the horror game is taken even further here. Not only can you not fight back against monsters, but even running away will only get you so far. Thomas seems to suffer from asthma, and a few seconds of sprinting will leave him doubled over and wheezing in fear. Another nice touch: our pajama-wearing hero is also shoeless, so walking on stuff like broken glass in his bare feet will make him cry out in pain, possibly alerting nearby monsters.

The black and white aesthetic works well with the tone and art style, but also has a functional purpose to game design. The occasional use of color helps draw the player’s attention by highlighting objects they can interact with. A candlestick you can pick up, for example, will be a different color from the mostly bland room you find it in.

Getting caught by one of the monsters means you’ll wake up suddenly in a nearby bed, which serve as checkpoints, but not before seeing poor Thomas get horribly dismembered. Don’t mistake the Shel Silverstein-looking character designs for a light subject matter. Very adult topics and story themes are discussed, and chunks of flesh and viscera are strewn about the increasingly unfriendly world. Some very disturbing images of self-mutilation bookend each chapter of the story, but they also play into the theme of the narrative, which becomes more clear over time.

Neverending Nightmares is part of an emerging series of games, like Papo & Yo or That Dragon Cancer, that are partially creative therapy for the author. Creator Matt Gilgenbach has been very open about his process and reasoning behind working on Neverending Nightmares. After Gilgenbach’s last game, a unique reverse-rhythm-based-shooter named Retro/Grade, was deemed a commercial failure, he regressed into a period of depression and suffered from intrusive, self-destructive thoughts. Some of the more disturbing scenes in the game are inspired directly by those dark images.

Though it features a few jump scares, glimpses of horrifying scenes in the dark are Neverending Nightmares' bread and butter. And it is a very scary butter.

Though it features a few jump scares, glimpses of horrifying scenes in the dark are Neverending Nightmares’ bread and butter. And it is a very scary butter.

My first playthrough took about two hours, but the story features branching paths that send players to radically different areas near the end. Subsequent playthroughs are streamlined thanks to a “Nightmare Select” option that will let you jump directly to points where the story branches and search for another route. However, I still had experienced all the available routes after about four hours.

The sound design is phenomenal, a crucial element for a good horror game. Ambient noise, an unsettling soundtrack, and distant moans and howls all lend to a frightening atmosphere. The dialogue is awkward at times, but seemingly intentionally so; every strange conversation is just another piece of dream logic in the increasingly bizarre world of the subconscious.

There are no items to collect or speed runs here, Neverending Nightmares is purely about the journey. While $15 might seem like a lot, the game provides genuine chills that should be welcome to players looking for a spooky experience that explores themes seldom touched upon by video games. It’s an excellent way to spend an evening with the lights turned off this Halloween season.

Neverending Nightmares is available on Steam and OUYA for $15. Infinitap Games provided a Steam code for the purposes of this article.

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