Neverending Nightmares isn't very good at scaring you – not in a way that would make you jump or kick your legs in fright, anyway.
Nothing about its minimalist visuals suggest that you'll need to shut your eyes in disgust. The broken chords of the game's background music are somber and more befitting a funeral than an adrenaline-spiked terror-sprint. The slow, deliberate pace of protagonist Thomas makes each step feel like a cautious press forward, like creeping through a house while trying not to let the floorboards creek underfoot. Neverending Nightmares is, in a word, unassuming.
And that is precisely why its moments of horror work so well.
Playing Neverending Nightmares, I never jumped or yelped. Not once. I did, however, check behind me to make sure no one was standing in the dark arch of the bedroom doorway. I did feel a cold presence, a lingering chill, sweep down my spine and stand my hairs on end. I did feel a suffocating sense of unease, and it's because Neverending Nightmares chooses subtlety over spectacle.
The game opens with protagonist Thomas waking from a nightmare in which he sees, from first-person view, a knife plunged into the abdomen of a young girl. It's a brief but shocking vision of violence, yet it's relatively calm as well, since the action of the stabbing has already occurred. By providing the scene without context, Neverending Nightmares catches you off-guard early and sets the tone for what's to come: more unsettling visions, more dreadful calm, more uncertainty.
Once Thomas wakes, there are no explicit instructions, nor a designated goal to work toward. It's up to players to find the resolve and motivation within themselves to soldier on as they explore and experience Thomas' nightmares. Over and over you'll come to the end of a nightmare, only to have Thomas wake up and begin the cycle again. There are no signs of anything ever getting better, and because of that, its sense of hopelessness is pervasive.
Neverending Nightmares is only a few hours long, but I needed to take several breaks thanks to how utterly bleak its portrayal of Thomas' life was. Had there been markers, guides or objectives, I doubt I would have felt the same way. By dropping players into a spiraling descent and giving them not even the faintest idea of there ever being an exit, Neverending Nightmares creates a feeling of being lost. There are no guiding hands here, nothing pushing you forward, and because of that, your emotions end up fully aligned with Thomas: You wander aimlessly, confused and alone.
This isn't to say Neverending Nightmares always succeeds at portraying its atmosphere, though. The game's pace can sometimes plummet, as it often forces you to traverse an abundance of virtually identical hallways. It doesn't help that approximately 90 percent of gameplay boils down to walking down said hallways and opening doors, with only one or two extremely simple puzzles to solve early in the story. As beautiful as the Edward Gorey-inspired scenery is, it would have been nice to see more variety than the three locations you visit. Furthermore, while the horrific imagery is certainly effective, it doesn't always seem to connect with what little plot there is.
Interactive objects are the only things in Neverending Nightmares that feature any color. Since the game only offers two actions – move and "interact" – it became ingrained in my mind early on that I needed to seek out and inspect each and every little thing that was out of place in its monochrome environment.
In this respect, Neverending Nightmares brilliantly plays with the expectations gamers have been conditioned to have regarding shiny or highlighted objects. In many games, a sparkle or special sheen might signify something good that should be picked up. In Neverending Nightmares, I quickly learned that color was something to be feared.
While walking through the forest section of the game, I came upon a gray colored rabbit lying on the ground. When I pressed the interact button near it, the view switched and I could see its belly strewn open across the forest floor, purple, red and blue guts splayed on the ground, its eyes still wet and unblinking. It was grotesque and repulsive, and I quickly moved on.
As I ventured further into the darkness, I saw another creature lying still, this time a deer. I knew that interacting with it would not be pleasant, and the anticipation gripped me. But the deer was colored-in; it was different, standing out amidst the black and white forest. I was compelled to inspect this out-of-place thing, even though Neverending Nightmares' relationship with color had already conditioned me to feel physical discomfort and anxiety whenever I saw it.
Neverending Nightmares suggests wearing headphones for the best experience, and doing so yields excellent results thanks to the use of binaural audio. This special sound processing creates a three-dimensional sensory experience, despite being restricted to two channels, and even with simple $8 earbuds, the difference is palpable.
Low moans, unintelligible whispers and creaking stairs round out the environmental effects, while the game's music often reflects a sort of brokenness. Dissonant chords play in the background, as if from a dusty old music box or church organ. Like the rest of Neverending Nightmares, the sound design is one of quiet discomfort rather than noisy shock.
Neverending Nightmares stands apart from other games in the horror genre, and not just because of its distinctive art style; by focusing its efforts on creating a sense of unease and discomfort rather than outright fright or shock, Infinitap Games has created something unique and special.
That said, the illusion it maintains is easily broken by the lack of interactivity and a plot that doesn't always manage to keep its hooks in you. Where and when Neverending Nightmares fails, the effects are noticeable and jarring. Still, Neverending Nightmares is an atypical horror experience and, when it succeeds, it's one you won't soon forget.
This review is based on an approved Steam download of the PC version of Neverending Nightmares, provided by Infinitap Games. Images: Infinitap Games.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.