Understanding that this game is about developer Matt Gilgenbach’s struggle with mental illness injects considerable context into Neverending Nightmares. You play as pajama-clad Thomas, who awakens to discover—Inception-style—that he is still dreaming, and with increasingly insidious and nightmarish dreamscapes. When he inevitably dies, there’s only a split second before he reawakens in another dream, and so on. You don’t play this game to win as much as you do to escape from it.
With its monochromatic, Goreyesque art style, it’s obvious from the outset that Neverending Nightmares is bleak. Splashes of color depict interactive objects or, unsurprisingly, blood. Snippets of unsettling imagery also manifest: you devein your own arm, as if unravelling a sweater. While Neverending Nightmares is visually typical of the horror genre, the game’s use of binaural audio creates a uniquely convincing, incredibly creepy, 3D experience when played with headphones.
There are some cheap jump scares, but most disturbing is your constant sense of unease. Interactive objects are rare, so you’re frequently helpless. You wander down endless, virtually identical halls at a snail’s pace, since running renders you a wheezing mess. Combat is impossible against any monsters you encounter: all you can do is run (badly), hide, or pray that you can sneak past unnoticed. You don’t even know how long a level is, since there’s no clear direction. Therein the game elegantly captures the futility that accompanies depression: you feel discouraged, hopeless, and impotent.
Although the game is only about two hours long, there’s replayability value with its alternate endings. Here, Neverending Nightmares gets points for efficiency: instead of slogging through the levels again, you can go straight to the point where the story diverges and make a different choice. The endings make the overall narrative inconsistent, but hey, that’s dream logic for you.
Because of its minimal controls, pace and constant deaths, Neverending Nightmares is potentially frustrating. But this game is about the journey, not the destination. While—or because—it feels unsettling and unpleasant, Neverending Nightmares is ultimately a fascinating exercise in empathy for an important social issue. Keeping this in mind yields a vastly richer and more memorable experience.