Neverending Nightmares Review: Pinch Me, I'm Dreaming
The best ghost stories leave something to the imagination: the monster’s origins, a victim’s fate, whether or not the haunting cycle begins anew, the like. Neverending Nightmares ‒ a product of Matt Gilgenbach's OCD and depression ‒ obeys those maxims, crafting several separate endings but letting players fill in the preceding holes with their own metaphors. The narrative conforms to the psychological side of horror, rarely resorting to startle tactics to shake genre fans, yet I lingered on the edge of my seat from the atmospheric beginning to each ambiguous end.
Neverending Nightmares spider web of a plot originates from an anchored prologue. The protagonist, Thomas, remains trapped in an endless sleepscape of terrifying visions. Dolls twisted by their cracked porcelain smiles, blind cannibals in straight jackets, ground-up meat I hoped came from an animal, and messages of “My God, why have you forsaken me?” appear routine. Through all the 2D nightmare fuel, Tom must locate his sister, Gabrielle, whose gravestone he uncovers in the game’s formative moments. Is her death absolute or another fabrication?
As mentioned, the conclusions vary according to your conscious decisions. In one scenario, Gabby and Thomas were strangely betrothed; in another, she played his psychiatrist. Each death, scripted or accidental, returns Thomas to his bed to “wake” again, though the mutilations and executions run red with crimson. Watching Thomas literally rip a vein or pry bones from his arm may be too much for sickly viewers. While Neverending Nightmares strikes an animated likeness to the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark children’s books, the game’s effect loses none of its squeamish factor. Thomas’ screams were soon muted by my escalating utterances of “No! No! No!”
Neverending Nightmares is at its best in the audio department, to the extent that Infinitap Games includes a menu option for headphone users. While speaker owners get the same visual experience, the unrest recedes rapidly once ear-piercing scrapes of a knife or the lumbering steps of a giant beg for attention over background noise, be it whirs of computer fans or siblings fighting. When the wails of a dying child sound like they are in the room with you ‒ next to you ‒ this auditory purity is not easily passed up by horror extremists. Muffled creaks and moans caused me to unwittingly clench my fists, though the dialogue remains stilted. Tom and Gabby hold awkwardly rehearsed conversations that players would expect of people dreaming.
Perhaps it was intentional? Neverending Nightmares follows nightmare logic to a degree that requires personal reflection. Several rooms and hallways rearrange themselves once you leave, decaying while you backtrack. Trust nothing here. Thomas cannot sprint more than a few meters before panting from exhaustion (a phenomenon dreamers commonly suffer), and every encounter I survived ‒ escaping from an axe-wielding doppelganger among them ‒ I did by the skin of my teeth. Death is not a release; it is a murky descent into the human psyche. Why can abominations not open doors, yet blink in and out of the ether?
Even without generous checkpoints ‒ since monsters cleave, squeeze, and rip intestines from Thomas’ body if he barely grazes them ‒ you will not get lost wandering about 2D mansions, penitentiaries, and forests. But convoluted as the story may be, these allegories for mental disorders make better tales than puzzles. Use broken glass to distract predators, find an axe to remove boards blocking doorways ‒ these obstructions are not of the challenging sort, and I wish Infinitap Games applied an identical ludicrousness to these distractions as it did the narrative. I pleaded for a couple monster closets at one point, just to minimize the impression that I was revisiting five or six Xeroxed rooms in different conditions of disrepair.
That complaint is nearly amended by the succinct plot. Three hours to stick a knife in the narrative forks, three hours to put a disorderly, blood-stained bow on this grisly game. You could take the story at face value, an incoherent menagerie of familiar horror settings, or search a while longer. I delighted in picking apart the scenes, but even with my psychology savvy, were my interpretations wrong? Do conflicts with a murderous clone suggest we all have demons? When chased by an angry goliath with an infant’s head, might you say Thomas cannot let go of the past? Neverending Nightmares presents ample excuses for introspection, though I could have used more clarity, too.