Neverending Nightmares is an interesting experiment in horror games. Developer Matt Gilgenbach takes his experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression and turns it into a looping game, exploring variations of the same world over and over until some form of reality is established. What still draws me to this game is that attempt to explore mental illness without demonizing it in the typical "crazy people in an asylum" style that most horror games use. The story concept is simple. Thomas wakes up from a nightmare where he kills a young woman in his life. He begins to explore his house where nothing is quite what it seems. He can try to run away from what scares him, but he quickly runs out of breath. He can try to interact with his world, but everything has been reduced to black and white. The sudden pops of color are terrifying but essential for survival. Only when something intrudes upon his fragile mental state and breaks the patterns of his nightmare does he have a chance of changing his reality and waking up.
Conceptually, the game is excellent. The art and animation style is moody and overwhelming. Everything is done with linework and crosshatching and it's just plain unnerving. The subtle shifts in patterns and sequential framed artwork only adds to the experience.
The first world, set entirely in the house, is brilliant. It's the constant confrontation of Thomas' worst fears and anxieties brought to life again and again. Each time Thomas dies, he winds up in a very typical (but seldom illustrated) anxiety dream, such as his teeth falling out of his mouth or his body ripping to shreds. Gilgenbach clearly designed a game that's close to the bone and gets into the experience of having OCD.
The second world, the asylum, is where things begin to go astray. The sudden shift to stealth gameplay works as a psychological element but isn't as intuitive as the exploration in the first world. Other inmates move in very long, specific patterns and are attracted to sound. You have to absorb their patterns and plan against them. However, the environment is designed to stop you from ever taking the easy path. It's a frustrating shift that could leave players clicking for the menu screen and walking away.
If, however, the second and third world mechanics were flipped around, Neverending Nightmares would probably be a much stronger game. The third world is a more typical horror motif, escaping the villain, forcing you to remember the layout of the environment and anticipate where you assailant might appear next. That leading into the most OCD-driven concept in the game would most likely have flowed better. Taken separately, the three worlds are all well presented and engaging; stacked in this order, it turns into a less than enjoyable gaming experience.
Still, the visual style and narrative of the game is very compelling. There are three possible endings so wildly different from each other that your opinion of the game will greatly change depending on which one you achieve. On my first playthrough, I got the most realistic ending and was admittedly disappointed. The alternate endings feel more rewarding to the type of horror I'm attracted to.
Neverending Nightmares is most certainly worth a try. Gilgenbach's inclusion of OCD in the core of the gameplay is remarkable. It feels much like it does in real life. It is a blanket of anxiety that dictates every move you make in your life. Deviating from the patterns is bad and Neverending Nightmares consistently shows those worst case scenario thoughts you anticipate if, for example, you don't check every lock in the house three times before going to bed. I'm strongly encouraging my friends and family who can handle horror to play this game just so they have a better understanding of the condition I've lived with my whole life. Seeing is believing and Neverending Nightmares forces the player into the mind of anxiety.