All Gamers’ Eve II: Neverending Nightmares Review – The Game ‘Depression Quest’ Should’ve Been

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In the run-up to Halloween, this author will be producing a series of reviews of particularly notable recent horror games, both AAA and Indie. This is part II of that series. Here is Part I.

When it comes to explorations of mental illness, horror has almost always been the genre of choice. If you want to get extremely academic, you could say that this goes all the way back to Freud’s conception of the unheimlich, or uncanny, encompassing everything including even that which is most familiar (in fact, things that are familiar often end up being even more disturbingly uncanny in a horror context). Certainly, it says something that many of the great horror writers have struggled with mental illness in some way or another, afflicting such high profile authors as Guy de Maupassant, H.P. Lovecraft, and the contemporary (and nightmarish) writer Thomas Ligotti.

What’s more, horror games have consistently mined mental illness and the psychological with terrible effectiveness. The isometric puzzle game Sanitarium functions as an exploration of the hallucinations of its protagonist. Dead Space 2 opens in a mental ward. American McGee’s Alice and its sequel Alice: Madness Returns serve as metaphorical journeys to mental health on the part of their protagonist. Silent Hill 2 (and most of its fellows in the same series) comes off more as a journey to the center of its protagonist’s guilt-ridden mind than as an actual exploration of a physical place. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, based on the short story by Harlan Ellison, makes the delusions of its protagonists into entire levels. Some games, like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, even use their sanity mechanics to break the fourth wall and mess with the minds of the players as well as the main characters. And, of course, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and its many imitators use sanity as virtually a second life bar.

Yet despite the fascination of horror games with insanity, it is a peculiar fact of the genre that no game has actually set out to make the player experience the sensations of mental illness. Enter Neverending Nightmares, an indie game developed by Matt Gilgenbach, which bills itself as “a terrifying horror game inspired by the developer’s battle with mental illness.” Gilgenbach himself explains his inspiration in this video:

Ironically, like the creators of the maudlin and thoroughly-mockable Depression Quest, Gilgenbach’s motives were as much educational as they were designed for entertainment, if not more. “If I can help just one person through a difficult time, it would make all the horrific suffering and all my struggles, you know, worthwhile,” Gilgenbach says in the video.

Well, Mr. Gilgenbach, mission accomplished, because Neverending Nightmares is not only terrifying, but engaging and aesthetically inspired, and while it suffers from a few issues that keep it short of perfection, it is a horror game that no fan of the genre can afford to miss. On top of that, its atmosphere of dread and hopelessness perfectly captures the feeling of depression. There are issues that prevent it from achieving perfection, both in its story and its gameplay, yet it nevertheless is worthy of adulation for the number of things it gets so unequivocally right.

So let’s start with what it does perfectly. To begin with, the visual style of Neverending Nightmares is one of the more original and well-executed aesthetic choices in all of gaming. Gilgenbach seems to have smartly realized that as an indie game developer, absolute photorealism would be beyond his grasp. Even if it were not, it would most likely detract from the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere that he sets out to create. As such, Neverending Nightmares looks more like a fully animated etching by Edward Gorey than anything else, with the game’s copious shadows depicted merely as drawn lines, and its environments all appearing to have been drawn by hand. What’s more, the game is almost entirely in black and white, save for the occasional splash of vivid color (usually blood red) thrown in to emphasize the danger of a situation.

…The game doesn’t feel the need to over-advertise its darkness with unnecessary sound cues, allowing the visuals to speak for themselves.

Moreover, the game’s level design is pitch perfect, given its nightmare setting. Even without any horror elements at all, these levels would give cartographers nightmares. Doors that lead to one room will sometimes change to lead to others for unclear reasons, and even when the game does follow a linear pattern, its repetition of identical rooms often renders the player unsure whether they are really advancing or just walking in circles. Furthermore, the game frequently makes the pathways to succeeding levels appear to be the most dangerous, undesirable places to go. In the case of the first level, one advances through by continually walking down the creaky stairs of a poorly lit basement. In the second level, one can leave by jumping off a cliff into total darkness. The almost total lack of windows in the game’s indoor settings create an oppressive sense of claustrophobia, and even in the game’s outdoor settings, the narrowness of the paths the player can take achieves the same effect. What prevents this design from becoming overly frustrating is that a moderately canny player will probably find themselves switching environments relatively often, and will constantly notice small differences being gradually introduced into the environment, which both unsettle and tantalize.

Click “Next” to hear more about Neverending Nightmares, including our final score.