*This post was originally published on The Game Bolt in June, 2015*
[“Trigger Warning” – is a piece dedicated to showcasing video games which focus on mental disorders as well as emotional and psychological trauma. It is my hope as a lifelong gamer and sufferer of various psychological disorders to combine my greatest passion with my greatest weakness to benefit the gaming community at large. These pieces are meant to applaud games that I have found to appropriately exemplify such issues in the human condition. Some of them are visceral and violent games that take a liberal approach and are not for the faint of heart. Others take a lighter approach to the whole affair and can apply to a much wider audience. Hopefully, those who do not suffer from such afflictions can look at these games as a chance to grasp at something otherwise intangible. While those who do suffer from psychological afflictions can look to these pieces of fiction for hope and catharsis. Without further or do, enjoy. 🙂 ]
[By the way, this is the trigger warning for the article: self-mutilation, gore]
Never Ending Nightmares, In Summation
Neverending Nightmares was conceived by Matt Gilgenbach, who wanted to create a game that would reflect his struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression. From his creative vision we have a game about Thomas, a man stuck in a seemingly endless stream of waking nightmares. The game opens up with the grim scene of a murder which only turns out to be the first nightmare Thomas wakes up from. The player then takes over and guides Thomas through his beautiful 19th century mansion until he uncovers a grave with a startling name on it and the downward spiral begins.
Each time Thomas wakes up, the environment changes. At first, these changes are subtle. Some wallpaper is peeling away. Pictures on the wall take a slightly more serious tone. Dolls become decayed and cracked. Eventually, everything changes to full blown insanity when one time Thomas wakes up in an insane asylum with the walls coated in blood and gored bodies stacked in the halls. Various monsters stalk the halls and being killed by one only means waking up to try and confront the horror again. Everything becomes more and more off kilter. Even as the player acquaints themselves with the mechanics of the game something new is thrown into the mix to further emphasize the helpless and unexpectedness of Thomas’ delirium.
In terms of actual gameplay, Neverending Nightmares is a side scrolling adventure game with horror elements. The player guides Thomas, whose asthma limits the sprint function, through each nightmare only to come to some scene grim enough to wake him up again. The art style is unique and lends to some great jump scares that work well with the black, white, and red color scheme. Furthermore, the player’s interactivity is limited to movement and one button to interact with vignetted objects in the environment. This might limit gameplay but this simple control scheme is actually used in some interesting and diverse ways. All in all, it’s a simple game that sets out to deliver a message and does so in spades.
Where does depression and OCD comes in?
As stated before, Neverending Nightmares is an artist’s attempt to give form to the trials and tribulations associated with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. Depression is fairly self-explanatory. It’s a maelstrom of factors, chemical imbalances in the brain along with other physiological effects, which cause severe levels of sadness or hopelessness. OCD on the other hand is normally mistaken for simply needing to keep things neat and orderly. However, to put OCD in shortened terms it’s having repetitive tasks that can interrupt daily life otherwise known as compulsions. Both of these factors exist within the game world, the former in the obvious way that shocks the player as they progress, and the latter that is almost imperceptible and fills the player with dread.
Depression plays a rather large part in Neverending Nightmares. Thomas is clearly a disturbed individual whose thoughts become the nightmares the player experiences. The game makes a rather drastic attempt to make the player understand what depression is like. The images and various scenes in the game range from mildly unsettling to downright disgustingly hard to watch. However, people plagued by depression don’t necessarily live everyday haunted by monsters and hell-cursed environments, but these images serve as hyperbolic representation of what a depressed person experiences. The in-game images are meant to invoke the feelings of anxiety, tension, and sadness that might plague someone with depression.
While playing Neverending Nightmares, the player is viewing a construction of emotions and feelings associated with a mental disorder that is at times impossible to describe to those who have never experienced it. Horrific monsters serve as a malevolent presence to avoid. Cracked and decaying dolls are a symbol for innocence’s waning and rotting. Paintings on the walls change drastically from level to level; what might have been a man standing on a stool in one level changes to a tipped over stool with unmoving legs hanging above. The images never stop, just like the disturbing thoughts of a depressed mind. This is referred to often as cycling, one negative thought leads to another, leads to another, and into a downward spiral of hopelessness and negativity that is neigh impossible to escape from. Neverending Nightmares nails this by starting out slow and amping up the imagery with each waking nightmare.
While depression conquers over the visuals of the game, obsessive compulsive disorder shows up in a more subtle manner. As stated earlier, OCD is a disorder consistent with having routines that are unreasonably obsessive. These compulsions are considered a disorder if they inhibit daily life. In the case of Neverending Nightmares, Thomas himself does not necessarily exhibit OCD in an outward manner. So where does all this come in? The gameplay in Neverending Nightmares is an exercise in the futility of Thomas’ actions. He repeats his attempts at escaping his tortured thoughts to no avail. Every level in the game consists of getting Thomas to the end of the level to view some horrific vision that wakes him up into another nightmare. It’s exhausting. It’s soul shattering because it means that progress is two steps forward and three steps back.
What can one gain from Neverending Nightmares?
Well, perspective for starters. People with OCD, depression, and other mental disorders often get caught in the term “cycling” I brought up earlier. It can be hard to describe why getting out of a negative train of thought can be difficult or almost impossible. Really, it’s a combination of two factors. The first is the already existent state of mind of a depressed or disorderly person. Colors aren’t as bright. Food is tasteless and undesirable. Social contact can cause panic. Self-deprecation or anxiousness are the status quo. It’s a mind that is a slave to apathy and anxiety. The second is if you take that mind that is already in a negative state, all it needs is a little push and it’s a downward spiral. It becomes impossible to not fall into the next “logical” step of such a train of thought. “I’m not a good person.” “I’m a terrible person.” “Why should I even bother?” “Who cares about me?” And often, these thoughts are unfounded or hyperbolic but it doesn’t seem this way to the afflicted. This is what playing Neverending Nightmares is like.
Thomas has no way out of his nightmares. He is forced to clamber his way through increasingly dark, violent, and evil dreams. And if he were to ever stop he would be accepting defeat and living in constant desolation and turmoil. So to those who might not be afflicted with mental trauma, take this game as a chance to gain perspective on what it’s like to live in a daily cycle of monotony and hopelessness. Take it as a chance to learn, while playing a decently scary game. For those who might suffer from mental orders, this might be a game for you to gain some sort of catharsis. It really does a great job of expressing the dread of having to fight against the odds of depression. But do be careful with its imagery and take a look at the trigger warnings below if you’re susceptible to triggers.
Your dear writer’s thoughts on Neverending Nightmares…
Depression is one of the many diagnoses I’ve received but it’s definitely the one that’s haunted me the longest, about 12 years. It’s something I’m very vocal about because I abhor the stigma that comes with mental disorders. Yes, we are a more accepting society in America at times, but there are still a great deal of people out there who are quick to judge. That being said, I think Neverending Nightmares is an absolutely amazing expression of what the day to day monotony of depression is like. I felt deeply for Thomas’ struggle and a lot of the imagery resounded with the parts of me that know what it’s like to hurt.
However, this game is NOT for those who are susceptible to easy triggers (see trigger warning section below). I’ll cite one instance that almost turned me off because of how visceral it was for me. [SPOILER WARNING] After completing the first act, you’re greeted with a view of Thomas looking down at a gash in his arm. He digs his fingers into his open flesh and rips out a vein, tearing his skin all the way to his wrist while letting out an all too human scream. [END SPOILER] I nearly had a panic attack at the sight and had to stop playing for a few minutes. Never had I seen such a violent representation of self-mutilation. But, I pressed on. And I’m glad I did. After completing Neverending Nightmares I felt vindicated in all of my past feelings of dread, anxiousness, self-loathing, and apathy. It felt good to know that I’m not alone in the world and that someone had created a piece of artwork that reflected on the deepest levels of my depression.
So if you’re up for it, I would highly recommend Neverending Nightmares. It’s a sorrowful tale but an eye-opening one that’s well worth playing both as a horror game and awareness raiser.
Trigger Warnings for Neverending Nightmares: self-mutilation, addiction – alcoholism, graphic violence, suicide, blood and gore. (Despite the alarming nature of some of these they are used with a great deal of tact and purpose to convey an important yet sad truth about mental disorders.)
(If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please, please seek help from your country’s suicide hotline. Furthermore, if you believe you may be suffering from a mental illness, seek the professional help you need. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Just the same as a man with a broken leg needs a cast and crutches, you may need some help as well. And remember, someone out there cares about, at least, your dear writer does.)