The fourth installment of an ongoing series on games/interactive experiences that deal with depression and mental illness.
For as long as it’s been around in literature and film horror has been fertile ground for artists seeking to tap into the fears and anxieties of the society around it. Sadly it has a less interesting history gaming (with a few notable and noble exceptions), more often than not created simply to whip up a few scares and make for ‘hilarious’ youtube reaction videos. Neverending Nightmares aims to contribute to the wider horror tradition by capturing the essence of OCD and depression by pitching itself as something like Inception in a haunted house.
If you went into Neverending Nightmares unaware that it was made partly to raise awareness of mental health issues then it’s unlikely you’d notice. It may instill the player with a gnawing sense of dread and terror but it’s more akin to that of a slasher flick than of an anxiety attack. In some ways this is to creator Matt Gilgenbach’s credit – he did after all raise $100,000 from kickstarter to produce Neverending Nightmares so the slightly dry experiences offered by more straight forward (not to mention free) depression themed games like Depression Quest and Elude were unlikely to satisfy his many backers. He had to create a commercial product first and foremost, which in gaming means one thing – it had to be fun. And fun and mental health problems aren’t the most likely of bedfellows.
However if you were to whip up a Venn diagram of fun and mental illness (as you do) then the area in the middle would most likely read ‘horror.’ Being scared witless may not be everybody’s idea of a good time but the world always seems hungry for media that makes people jump in their seats like they’ve just had a thousand volts shot into their rear ends. A cursory look at the number of horror franchises clogging up the multiplexes or the alarming number of Five Nights at Freddy’s games/clones available on the web show that we’ve as much of an appetite for fear as ever. And the statistics on anti-anxiety pills and anti-depressants are testament to the fact that there are a troubling number of people desperate to medicate the fear away. It’s a bizarre state of affairs – and a paradox that makes for fertile ground for Gilgenbach’s personal trauma’s to be explored without alienating the average gamer.
Neverending Nightmares starts, appropriately enough, with a nightmare. We witness the stabbing of a woman in first person quickly followed by our protagonist, Thomas, waking up with a start. Soon we’re out of bed and in control, wandering through a house of seemingly endless corridors. Seriously: if we weren’t dealing with dream logic then the house would be around the size of Birmingham. But, as the title suggests, the nightmare isn’t really over. As you wander the house things quickly reveal themselves to be ever so slightly wrong. I’ve read many reviews which praised the game for it’s lack of jump scares, but this isn’t quite accurate – in fact it’s choc full of them. Things will fly into a window when you least suspect it. A cup will fall off a table of it’s own volition. Something will quickly dash past the window, casting a shadow on the floor. They’ll be accompanied by loud orchestral hits – just like those you’d find accompanying any horror movie jump scare. Then sooner or later you’ll run into an end point, a shocking moment, some kind of horrifying vision – and then Thomas will find himself back in bed, once again waking up terrified of the horrors his mind has conjured.
This pattern continues through a series of nightmares. The house begins to fall into disrepair a little more each time – the wallpaper starts peeling, the furniture lies in disarray, cobwebs appear on the walls. As the house sinks into decay the music starts to warp to match the increasingly disturbing surroundings. The soundtrack must have been a ball to record; it’s full of OTT drones, wails, cries, eerie broken melodies, shrieks, whispers, weeping. It’s all standard horror fare perhaps but it’s performed with such gusto it works, and the ramping up of intensity as the scenery gets more and more squalid and horrible is unsettlingly effective. Visually artist Joe Grabowski does a spectacular job with the distinctive Edward Gorey influenced black and white style. The game looks like a demented version of a Victorian children’s book, sullied by increasingly common and vivid splashes of red blood. Thomas’ movements are oddly charming amidst all the horror – the way his eyes constantly scan around the screen is a lovely touch, albeit one that does feel at odds with the brutal and shocking imagery they often behold.
We move on through staple horror locations – through dark of the woods, a run down cemetery, a Victorian era lunatic asylum full of straight-jacketed escaped patients. Towards the end of the game the levels start to blend together – the house and the asylum and the woods start to occupy the same place. There are enemies along the way but, as troubling a sight as they are, with no combat to speak of they’re only there to be avoided. And as the controls are so simple – you have basic movement, an interaction button and a fairly useless run button (Thomas is asthmatic – he’ll slow down and sound distressed after a few steps) – that these don’t take much dealing with.
Eventually, depending on our choice of path, we reach one of three ambiguous endings. Once the nightmare ends don’t expect any sort of closure. Each ending contradicts the others and offers a different explanation relationship between Thomas and the girl we see stabbed at the beginning – though it’s not even made clear whether or not the stabbing was real or a dream. Which ending, if any, is real is left to the player to decide.
The key to understanding how Gilgenbach’s mental health issues fit into this fright fest lie in the brief but disturbing images that act as punctuation at the end of the nightmares. Take the above image – after the first nightmare ends we once again take up a first person vantage point to witness Thomas picking at and then yanking out a vein from his arm. Similarly we see him digging into and wrenching a bone out of his other arm. And putting his fingers through a mincer. It’s harrowing stuff. Gilgenbach has spoken about having visions of self harm like these himself following the poor commercial performance of his previous game Retro/Grade, which inspired him to make Neverending Nightmares. It’s this form of OCD – known as ‘Pure O’ OCD – that intertwines with his depression and sits at the heart of the game.
‘Pure O’ OCD is defined by intrusive thoughts and by the sufferers reaction to them. Everyone has such thoughts from time to time, be it the the sudden urge to jump when looking down from a great height or perhaps the thought when stood behind someone on a train platform that you could so easily push them off into the path of a coming train. Most people can shake these ideas and urges off and get on with their day. OCD sufferers will dwell on them. demanding to know what they mean. “Am I a psychopath?” they’ll wonder. “Am I broken?” They’ll contemplate this at tortuous length. It can severely affect their self-image and cause them to avoid situations similar to those where they’ve had such thoughts for fear that they may act on them. They can’t dismiss them as idle musings like the majority of people can.
Depicting this phenomena using nightmares is a clever trick. Bad dreams are the intrusive thoughts that everyone has – a nightmare is something created entirely by your own mind after all. No matter what the terror you face, the horrors or humiliations you suffer, it’s scripted entirely by a part of you. When you wake up you might have a moment of thinking, “where did that come from!?” but after a short while it’s easy to think of it as something random, not of you, even though it was all created by your own mind. Neverending Nightmares asks you to imagine if that started to bleed into the everyday, if you had horrible thoughts and ideas that came to you unbidden while you awake. And if they stayed with you no matter how much you tried to dismiss them. How that would feel? How you would cope?
Knowing about Gilgenbach’s struggles opens up new interpretations of the game. To me it seems that the stabbing in the introduction is an intrusive thought so disturbing that Thomas spends the rest of the game ruminating, sinking further into depression as he struggles to come to terms with the increasingly violent thoughts his mind creates. It’s interesting that the first vision is of violence towards another person whereas the rest are towards himself. Self-flagellation for the sins of his unconscious brain perhaps?
Both OCD and depression can feel like the mind going to war with the body, or the unconscious part of the bran attacking the conscious. When a person starts to question his character, believing that some part of him is capable of unspeakable things, depression can easily follow. And once you’re stuck amidst the smog of depression it can become a permanent companion. It sustains itself. Neverending Nightmares is a game of relentless, unremitting bleakness, that after a while starts to grow weary. Even boring. It’s not a long game, even if you take the time to work through and see each ending, but still there are long stretches of corridors full of nothing. The enemy mechanics repeat a few times too many and eventually it starts to feel like you’re trudging between jump scares, waiting for the next arresting image to appear and rekindle your interest.
This is, unavoidably, a shortcoming of the game – perhaps they padded out the game for the sake of longevity to make gamers, ever concerned with the price-to-game-hours ratio, feel like they got their money’s worth. Or perhaps they could only afford so many assets and so reused what they had a few times too many in order to get the game finished. Personally, in reading the experience as a metaphor for mental illness, I wonder if it isn’t actually intentional. The sameness of it all starts to feel oppressive, much like the ceaseless grey of a bout of depression. The horrors become mundane; you learn to live with things no one should have to live with. You can get used to anything and call it a life – it’s one of the great strengths of humanity. But it can also lead us to enduring things for no reason – we can suffer something so we see no reason not to. The nightmare becomes reality so you learn to live with the nightmare.
If that is the case then Neverending Nightmares is essentially using boredom is a game mechanic – which would be decidedly risky tactic. In any medium realistically depicting tedium is something of a taboo. The idea that we partake in any form of media to avoid boredom is a powerful one, in videogames more than any other artform – we do, after all, ‘play’ games. The language of gaming is still tethered to the idea that it should be fun first and foremost.
In all honesty there’s a very good chance I’m reading too much into it either way.
Whilst I enjoyed neverending nightmares for the most part I feel I got more out of the game afterwards, thinking about it in the context of Gillenbach’s struggles, than I did while playing. Whether or not games have more of a duty to entertain than other mediums is an enduring question at this point in gaming’s evolution – many people seem to thing they should. You only have to spend a short while in the comments section on any ‘art game’ or ‘walking simulator’ to see how much wild-eyed frothing comes from the “NOTAGAME!” crowd. Perhaps due to the limitations of our language in gaming we’re locked in to that idea of play, of fun above all else, which is why why it seems more acceptable to like a book or a movie more in hindsight than at the time. Gaming needs to provide instant gratification and anything further is an added extra, a nice bonus.
Me, I value the short time I spent walking those dilapidated halls waiting for the next scare more in retrospect than I did at the time. And that’s just fine. The enemy interaction may be limited and simplistic and the pacing may have been the game version of the quietquietLOUD formula we see in most modern horror movies, but the hours I spent afterwards musing on the relationship between the game and it’s creator, between it’s creator and his illnesses, between his illnesses and the game, were every bit as worthwhile. It’s not a contradiction to say that Neverending Nightmares is both a flawed game and an impressively realised experience.
It’s also very much a personal experience more akin to Actual Sunlight than to the more clinical Elude and Depression Quest. It’s a far better game than Actual Sunlight, in the traditional sense, because it uses horror tropes to mask it’s limited player interaction. But it does so at the expense of clarity. No one who plays Actual Sunlight comes away unsure of what the game is about; something that can easily be done with Neverending Nightmares without having done any background reading to colour the experience. But the images and the unsettling sensation of something being terribly wrong are strong linger on the mind whatever you bring to the game. Anyone who plays Neverending Nightmares will come away with a sense of having experienced something horrible – even if they’re not quite sure what it is.