Thursday, January 15, 2015

Neverending Nightmares - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Neverending Nightmares is a neat game. It's not a very complex game, or thematically deep one for that matter, but it's an interesting ride while it lasts. It occupies the same "atmospheric walker" genre as Gone Home and Kairo, although it obviously differs from those by being a 2D title obsessed with doors. There are some things I think it does well, some things I think it does poorly, but overall I'm really glad it was made (and that I played it).

The very first thing (and the very best thing) about Neverending Nightmares is the grisly, unforgettable art style. The hand-drawn backgrounds mesh well with the elastic characters, and any time the color red is applied onscreen, it immediately grabs your attention. The most notable uses of blood are in the handful of zoomed portraits the game has, whether it be pieces of glass in a sink, an eviscerated animal, or unknown meat ground-up on a table. These are often shown at off-centered angles and it's a shame the game doesn't have more of them, as they were what I was looking forward to the most (the meat grinder remains the most disturbing part of the game to me). The deterioration of Thomas' house slowly over time is also a sinister implementation—the numerous arrangements of minor details makes every room feel uniquely crafted, despite how often the setting repeats.

And the game repeats plenty. Insanity isn't something that's high on my phobia list in games, and Neverending Nightmares leans into that particular fear pretty hard. There is a certain appeal in wandering similar hallways over and over (and over [and over]), although some sequences can go on for so long without an interruption that you'll forget you're playing a horror game. After the first hour or so into the game, a lot of my dread had dissipated and I was mainly marching on just to see what else was in store for me. And some of it was fantastic (like Gabby's corpse falling out of the sky), while other sections (the dolls) did nothing for me.

I've stated this before in the Lone Survivor summary—the narrative in horror games is of paramount importance, due to the seedy influence the story & lore can have on the player. A game like Silent Hill 2 thrives off of the grotesque symbolism of its monsters, and even without that, the desperate tale it weaves can upset the player tremendously. I struggle to say Neverending Nightmares has a story though, as it's too muddled behind interpretation and red herrings to allow decrypting; despite how hard the player can try to identify the relation of Gabby to Thomas, there's too many distractions and vague statements to know precisely what the author was aiming for. The ending you receive can drastically alter their relationship, and perhaps allowing for interpretation was the point, but I still find some factors to be misleading (for instance, if she is his wife in "Final Descent", why are the first few segments about Gabby being his sister?).

After completing Neverending Nightmares, I looked into its origins a bit more for some explanation. Being a kickstarter-funded title, there were reward tiers promising to incorporate different elements into the game depending on the pledge level. While some stuff like the tombstones and backer sound effects are unique additions that don't impede with the atmosphere, the nightmare creation and backer portraits were things that seemed to clash with the story. Granted, I can't tell which nightmares are specifically backer-made, but having a hodgepodge of ideas added to the lack of cohesion (the portraits could've contributed a lot to the narrative too!). It's a shame too, considering that there's such strong, disturbing imagery in the game that could've had some utterly terrifying explanations behind them.

Neverending Nightmares is worth a playing just for how maniacal it gets at times, but don't expect any kind of unsettling genius that will keep you up at night (outside of the monstrous things Thomas does to his limbs). The handful of brilliant moments become a bit buried by all the monotony, although you could argue that the directionless wandering and trepidation of the next big event are all a subversive part of the horror. The aesthetic is gorgeous and there's nothing really like it—I wish more games aimed to be this distinct. Though I gripe about the backer influence, I'm glad this twisted nightmare got to exist.

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