[moderate spoilers for Neverending Nightmares]
I like dreams, and stories about them. Though they never capture quite what it feels like to exist in a dream space, though they never quite emulate that constantly shifting boundary that builds itself based on whatever seems appropriate to your internal narrative, there’s always a seed of that familiar space that is universal and lies within each of us. Our dreams may differ, but we all dream – and sometimes it’s hard to tell when the dreams end. When you spend enough time thinking of abstractions and possibilities, they start to blend together with the abstract constructed realms of the sleeping life.
Neverending Nightmares is that kind of dream. When you are overwhelmed with visions of failure and guilt, and these visions manifest themselves into pathways through hallways at-once familiar and unfamiliar. Just trudging, step-by-step, through a series of nearly identical hallways, stared down at by portraits of strangers and more disturbing images, feels like a dream. Ancestral homes that were once a place of comfort twist into unfamiliar passages in the undefined half-light of dream, shift and loop like a snake, become infinite, never-ending.
Antiques and old houses show up a lot in my more unnerving dreams. Is it just that they’re old, and know more of death than us, surviving owners and occupants, witnessing betrayals and murder? Or is it that I fear being forgotten and left behind, as they must have been, so long ago? Whether because of this primal association, or to fit more closely with its chosen Edward Gorey-esque art style, or to make the nightmarish hospital and asylum’s antiquated facilities not seem out of place, Neverending Nightmares seems to take place quite some time ago, in Victorian-style rooms filled with paintings and ornate antique furnishings, lit by candlelight only.
Sometimes the candles placed around are enough, and the rooms are well-lit, but as the nightmares progress this becomes the case more and more rarely, and as the rooms get darker and darker the art style begins to show its teeth, the darkness around you fading into a solid wall of pen-stroke hatch-marks. The jagged edge of the circle of light cast by your candle interacts strangely with the wood grain, wallpaper, and furnishings, crisscrossing to form abstract not-quite objects at the edge of your vision. Though the lighting doesn’t behave like actual flickering candlelight, it captures the sinister illusions of that inconstant light well. And, when the candle goes out and leaves you in the darkness, completely obscuring the world in black, you can still see which direction you’re moving by the motion of the textured pen-strokes that comprise the endless night, something that would be impossible to convey in a purely representational art style.
At times the music seemed inappropriate to me, often harshly synthetic and reminiscent more of horror movies than of dream sounds – but our dreams are formed of our experiences, and movie tropes have their place within them as well. Simply keeping music going at all times helped to soften the edges of the game’s reality, making it feel less artificial and constructed, even if the process to get there was more explicitly engineered. Alongside the music, a number of sounds seem to recur: A woman crying, a death rattle, a creaking of rope or wood… these sounds, played over and over in different contexts, bring to mind the terrible stickiness of post-traumatically seared memory, the flashes of moment that will never be forgotten.
Though Neverending Nightmares would have likely never existed without being funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s hard not to feel like the source of its funding leaves some unsightly marks on the game itself. Since the higher donation levels allow the donor’s name to be put on a tombstone in-game, I was taken out of the moment more than once by seeing a familiar name – I suppose this might not be the case with someone less ensconced in gaming culture, but for me and, I suspect, many of the others most likely to be aware of this relatively small game, seeing these names will be distracting. There are also a series of custom portraits of backers in the game, any of which you can look more closely at: In a game with such a paucity of interaction and density of background information, having unusually detailed portraits of unknown people can also be quite distracting – though walking through a hallway of portraits of strangers doesn’t seem like it deviates too far from the dream logic of the game, and isn’t as distracting to the experience, it is an example of how extraneous detail can reduce the overall impact of a work. It’s fortunate that these are largely relegated to the early part of the game, before the nightmarish spell is wholly woven and distractions come at a critical cost to engagement, but it still demonstrates that the form of a game is ineluctably tied to how it is created and funded, and in some games this can improve it (as with Prison Architect’s custom prisoner profiles) and in others it can derail.
Neverending Nightmares doesn’t rely much on explicit story, using a few short storytelling moments to anchor a web of symbolic significance hinted at by the environments you walk through. The game opens with a first-person vision of stabbing a young dark-haired girl, who we find is named Gabby. Gabby becomes one of the few constant points between the nightmares. You are always Thomas, she is always Gabby, but the relationship between you shifts depending upon the context of the dream. At first she’s your sister, then your therapist, then your wife.
This game has a branching ending system which, paired with the conceit of the game, has an interesting implication. Because the final scene of each story pathway is, at least implicitly, the reality that has lead to the nightmares, his real-world circumstances are derived from the dreams he has about them. It’s an interesting kind of reverse-causality emerging as a natural consequence of the decision to tell a branching story about a dream-world. It implies a certain universality to nightmares, that any one of three very different Thomases could suffer similar acute anxieties. It also implies that whatever decisions you, as a player, make, those decisions were foreordained by the nature of your Thomas, driven not by your choice as a player but by the shape of the reality that haunts his dreams.
There’s a number of different thematic elements that repeat themselves in background elements, found objects, and enemy design. Birds are commonly portrayed in the paintings you walk past: Frequently what appear to be albatrosses, tying into the theme of guilt and loss, but vultures and crows also seem to be portrayed. Additionally, several times you walk past a long dinner-table set for a holiday meal, and among other things the table is set with a large turkey – and, in darker iterations of the nightmare and in paintings, the turkey on the platter is rotted and hollow. This image neatly echoes the guilt of the albatross, the death-imagery of the crows and vultures, and the familial betrayal and unease that seems to underlie the anxiety between Thomas and Gabby.
Suicide and murder, betrayal of the self and betrayal of those close to you, are portrayed as roughly equivalent. Gabby is so closely identified with Thomas that any harm that comes to her seems almost indistinguishable from harm done to Thomas himself, and they both harm themselves as often and as brutally as they harm each other. There’s a truth here that is rarely expressed about violence in games or, indeed, much of anywhere: Past a certain point, hurting the ones we care about most is the same as intentional self-harm, and often arises from the same impulses. Those who are close to us actually substantially define who we are, and if their perception is shaken or ceases then the person we believe ourselves to be exists a little bit less. We become orphaned from existence. We become castaways.
The floors of the hospital are littered with broken glass, and in one branch of the nightmare you find a broken bottle sitting in a sink, blood on its edges, teeth with traces of blood beside it. The teeth are there in earlier iterations without the bottle, but the bottle is unique to that branch, perhaps implying alcoholism in the reality of that nightmare – an interpretation amply supported by its conclusion. The teeth are in the sink for all paths and, perhaps along a similar theme, misshapen and grinning slit-mouths and bleeding or missing eyes are common thematically, most of the enemies having one or more of these, but it’s not clear to me whether this is intended to represent a specific anxiety (blindness, helplessness, self-harm) or are merely raw nightmare-stuff, the kind of thing that every human finds generally disturbing and which thus tends to find its way into horror games.
There’s also an ongoing gender motif. Visiting Thomas’s childhood bedroom, we see toy soldiers scattered about, and in Gabby’s there are dolls. Also, aside from the pictures of birds and of food, plus the occasional landscape or violent death, there are many paintings of women in wedding veils or shrouds or hidden mothers holding children, and even more portraits of men in military dress. Together, they hint at Thomas’s struggles with traditional masculine and feminine identity and the history of violence that comes with them, both as perpetrator and as victim. This is echoed by a recurring motif of the bloody axe and the bloody meat cleaver, the painting of the huntsman standing behind the girl with an axe and the tolling clock’s mechanical diorama of headsman and victim, and the stuffed bear – both the fluffy kind, kept in Gabby’s room and standing in for her in several places, and an actual bear, stuffed and mounted, Gabby dead again in effigy.
Interestingly, one of the three endings shows the stuffed bear in Thomas’s bed, just before he goes to kiss his sister goodnight: The world still seems nightmarish, damaged dolls and missing doorways, but it seems to give Thomas some measure of peace anyway – whether by healing the conflict in his mind that leads to such terrible dreams, or merely succumbing to them and joining Gabby in endless sleep, it’s impossible to say.
Religious imagery is also commonplace throughout. This is made extremely explicit by the stained glass image of Christ near the end of one of the paths, emphasizing the connection between the fifth wound of Christ, the spear stabbed in his side, and the wounds that Gabby and Thomas suffer in many branches of the nightmare. There are two bibles lying open on lecterns at different points in the game. The first, in one of the early nightmares, is open to psalms 21, likely because of this line: “Deus, Deus meus, respice in me: quare me dereliquisti”, or “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?” The second is open to Matthew 27, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: “Et circa horam nonam clamavit Jesus voce magna dicens: Eli Eli, lamma sabacthani? hoc est: Deus meus Deus meus ut quid dereliquisti me”, or “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabachthani?’ which means: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” These messages are referenced in numerous places throughout the game, found scrawled in blood on the walls of insane asylums and bedrooms. Even aside from this obvious connection, there’s an interesting implied connection between the guilt of Judas at spilling the blood of an innocent leading him to hang himself and all of the hanging imagery in the game, as well as the name of Thomas, the Apostle “Doubting” Thomas who refused to believe in the resurrection of Christ, and the similarly recurring text scrawls, “Everything is a lie.” Continuing these biblical allusions further, Gabby likely represents Gabriel, the messenger of God, sent to guide Thomas out of the nightmare world he has created for himself. Unfortunately, I am far from a biblical scholar so I’m sure a lot of more subtle allusions and connections have evaded my notice, but together this suggests a crisis and collision of faith as well as of identity.
It’s difficult to say anything concrete about games that embrace ambiguity and mystery, but I love the feeling of having as much fun thinking about a work of art afterwards as I did while actively experiencing it, and Neverending Nightmares has delivered on that. Though it’s a lot of work sometimes to analyze a game like this, it’s also deeply rewarding in that it pushes me to take a closer look at the veins connecting a piece’s ideas and meaning, and in so doing think more deeply about what lies under the surface of my own work. It’s a powerful experience just to exist in a world like this, however distantly and abstractly, for a time.
Though I may or may not play it again, I’m sure I will revisit Neverending Nightmares – perhaps just a moment of doubt or a flicker of black hair at the edge of my vision, perhaps as a dream, perhaps as an inspiration. It’s in my head now.
[next: Lone Survivor]