The rise of smaller independent games is by far my favorite tread of the last generation, and continues to be so going forward into these new expensive boxes. Developed by smaller teams, indie products tend to be more unique and personalized experiences that have given me some of my favorite moments in video games in years (Yep, I’m that guy here at Hidden Audio Log!) This creative freedom also allows indie developers to tackle much more interesting and sensitive subject material that larger studios would either be too scared or risk adverse to tackle meaningfully.
Developer Infinitap Games takes advantage of this fact with their latest release, the Kickstarter-ed Neverending Nightmares. Pitched as a title heavily inspired by Infinitap Games developer Matt Gilgenbach’s personal battle with mental illness, Neverending Nightmares sets itself up to tackle a very touchy and hard hitting subject that hits home particularly close for me. I’m happy to report though that Neverending Nightmares crafts a sympathetic and harrowing tale of an individual suffering from extreme mental sickness in honest and heartfelt fashion, even if sometimes the product feels a little too nervous about trying to justify its sale price with increasingly wonky pacing that directly impacts its atmosphere its ultimate, definitive message.
Neverending Nightmares is 2D horror-adventure game where you step into the pajamas of the deeply disturbed boy, Thomas. The experience begins with Thomas suffering from a quick, rather violent and potent nightmare of him killing his sister. Seemingly screaming himself awake, Thomas quickly realizes that he is in fact still sleeping, suffering from nightmare after nightmare after nightmare that disguise themselves initially as reality until pulling the rug out from under him, as any effective nightmare does. Knowing that the only way out is through, Thomas pushes through these horrific torments, hoping that eventually he’ll force himself through his psychological terrors and wake-up.
There are two primary methods that Neverending Nightmares builds its horror, both of which are directly tied together to its production values. Firstly the game builds tension and atmosphere with a very effective, if slightly generic and overdramatic score (Seriously, I’ve been kinda over scary readings of children’s lullabies since the first Dead Space) that moves along with the flow of the levels at a good pacing, escalating and softening at the appropriate junctures.
More effective though is the game’s monochromic visual style which is deeply inspired by children’s book illustrator Edward Gorey's work. The highly detailed yet sparse color artstyle is incredible, by far one of the best artstyles of this year, and does the heavy lifting in terms of building the worlds and atmospheres of the various nightmares in the game. The relatively cartoony visual style proves alarmingly effective for communicating some of Neverending Nightmare’s most disturbing and grossest sequences.
These deeply unsettling moments of violence -- the most profound of which being the violence inflicted upon the self -- are downright shocking. Thankfully these come and go very quickly, brilliantly avoiding the trap of becoming “gore porn” and indulging way too heavily in its own intense violence, which too many other horrors products get unfortunately and disturbingly caught-up in. But despite the relatively quick length of them, these moments are still incredible effective and left a bloody scar upon my psyche, the images and their implications I doubt I’ll be able to shake off for a long time coming.
Mechanically there’s very little going on with Neverending Nightmares beyond extremely simple movement and interaction commands. Despite this though, the game does a great job in providing new and radically different enemies, obstacles and interactive setpiece moments for each new nightmare level. What’s even more praise worthy is that the game handily avoids reusing enemies or other interactive objects from past levels in future nightmares, which leads to an increased focus for each nightmare to stand out by different interactive means. Nothing here is mind-blowing or game changing, but it’s all rather well-done and satisfying to encounter and experience.
What might frustrate players is that Neverending Nightmares is a very short experience at one hour for $15 USD. I’ve always been strongly supportive of paying premium price for premium experiences ever since the Playdead's masterpiece, Limbo. So why I bring this up specifically is because I believe that Neverending Nightmares is too long and sometimes distracting unfocused and unsure of itself.
There’s a lot of useless chaff in this game where you’re moving through a nightmare and nothing of consequence is happening and the atmosphere and horror fails to develop in these overly extended sections. The further you get in the game, the more needlessly longer nightmares become with too many empty rooms, repeating items or scenes you can study, way too many repeated enemy encounters, and generally long stretches of doing and feeling absolutely nothing. With diligent editing, this would’ve been a much shorter game, but also a much more honed and potent experience. Because right now, Neverending Nightmares feels padded for no good reason other than to make customers feel happy about how much money they put down, which I still don’t think it even succeeds at as it is still very short, making this whole issue feel like a lose-lose situation.
Neverending Nightmares also includes two alternate endings which you can unlock, which the game pointedly explains to you after the credits roll. But unlocking them involves playing through the longest, most annoying section of the game two more times, and I honestly don’t see the value in it. Not to mention that the other two endings are actually rather needless, with the initial ending which I unlocked being extremely satisfying in terms of the game wrapping up its narrative and thematic through-line. The other two, in comparison, mainly seem to exist to unnecessarily complicate an otherwise well-done narrative.
With some editing and clarity of vision, there’s a brilliant game inside Neverending Nightmare. The artstyle is easily one of the more effective and memorable ones of this year, the scares are extremely terrifying and shocking and the game has some rather simple and satisfying interactive experiences that really had me hooked. But some unfortunate padding of level length, playtime and content made for some rather boring extended sections of not much going on. While still a good game, its lack of focus keeps it just shy of the tightly paced independent masterpieces like Limbo, Bastion, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, among others.
But if you are indeed willing to stick it out for some of these duller sections and are willing to pay the premium price, Neverending Nightmares is an extremely potent experience that successfully talks about troubling psychological subjects and mental health issues. And the list of experiences, not just video games, that accomplishes such a feat is a very, very short list indeed.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)