Depression is becoming a topic that finds itself in more conversations today than ever before. Yet, a stigma still surrounds the disorder, with many people feeling ashamed to talk about their own struggles suffering from it. There’s also the issue of other people approaching the subject in ignorance when discussing someone who may be afflicted by the disorder. People who suffer from depression may find others telling them, “Well why don’t you just snap out of it? You’ll get over it.” And depression isn’t the only disorder targeted by such ignorance, for other illnesses also find themselves discussed with a lack of educated regard.
It seems whenever the subject of Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder (OCD) is brought up, it always appears to be the brunt of a joke. “I’m so OCD when it comes to organizing my books,” or “I have to wash my hands, I just get too OCD from touching the garbage,” are just a couple examples of how the disorder gets tossed around. Across multiple forms of pop culture, OCD is typically depicted in a means of someone continuously washing their hands, counting things, or repeatedly checking on something. The visual representation focuses on obsession and compulsion in physical actions, demonstrated in such films like the comedy What About Bob? But while the disorder is always displayed as a compulsion to check on things, rarely is it ever discussed how the mental side of obsession and intrusive thoughts work. Rarely is it ever shared how OCD may force thoughts into one’s head, such as having visuals that could involve harming someone (the individual knowing fully well they would never do such things). Please keep in mind, these intrusive thoughts are not hallucinations, but simply just intrusive thoughts.
OCD is linked to handfuls of unwanted mental imagery, with the thoughts being potentially tied to subjects that the person is hurt the most by; and yet, the ironic thing is that the person would never act in the manners that appear. A few years ago, The Atlantic wrote a great piece about the other side of OCD. The article discusses this side in much greater depth, and explains how people who suffer from the disorder are completely aware of their thoughts. The twist that occurs is that while the person is utterly aware of their moral compass, they would never act in such a fashion; it’s that they are still tormented by the imagery and feel immense guilt (hence creating an obsession of the thought, leading to the compulsion of ridding it).
In today’s day and age, we have much more pop culture that takes a serious approach to mental illness, discussing and properly analyzing various disorders. One thing that acts as a major hurdle in the discussion of mental illness, is bridging the gap from those disorders, to another party’s sympathy (specifically, those who don’t live with mental illness). It’s mentioned that stigma surrounds mental illness since it isn’t a “visual” problem; you can’t point out depression or OCD since it isn’t noticeable like a broken leg. However, it isn’t just a matter of people being able to comprehend mental illness like they would a broken limb, but rather understanding what exactly that person is feeling. With all our depictions of mental illness, there are few that provide some sort of sympathetic depth in feeling.
It’s with this in mind that in more recent years, video games are taking the first major steps outside of film and literature to discuss mental health. Perhaps other than film, mental illness has always been used as a trope in gaming. Think of all the horror and action games with the generic “crazies” that come up while venturing through a mental asylum. It is only within the past few years where we’ve begun to see an evolution in this sort of storytelling, with one of the best examples being that of Neverending Nightmares.
The game was released back in 2014, but has since become available on the majority of major platforms (with the exception of Xbox and Nintendo devices). Developed by Infinitap Games, Neverending Nightmares is the creative journey of Matt Gilgenbach. The developer has stated that the game heavily focuses on his own experiences in regards to mental illness. "Neverending Nightmares is a psychological horror game inspired by the real horror of my battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression," Gilgenbach shared in an interview with Gamespot back in 2013.
When you first start the game, your character (a young man) is having this visual of a girl he has just stabbed. He wakes up to realize it was just a nightmare. As you exit his bedroom, you begin to move about the house, unaware of what may happen. Eventually you find yourself walking outside, finding the grave of that same girl (where it’s revealed that she is the character’s sister). The character wakes up once again, realizing it was just another nightmare. His sister is there talking to him, seeming just fine. As he roams about the halls, a ghostly version of his sister appears behind him, her eyes black with blood seeping from them. He comes to a room with a bloody ax, and upon picking it up, the game transitions into a short video of the character tearing open his arm, pulling out its insides. As the character screams, he wakes up again, realizing it’s just another nightmare.
Neverending Nightmares’ gameplay progresses in this repetitive fashion, emulating the feeling of cycles that is felt throughout numerous mental disorders. The game itself takes a minimal approach to design, keeping the primary colors black and white (minus gruesome scenes where blood and violence take place in red). It moves about in a 2D fashion (left to right) further enforcing the player with minimal direction. All these qualities come together to present this claustrophobic discomfort; there isn’t much the player can do rather than navigate the character throughout his house, with the structure of rooms and lighting shifting in each level.
In the past, going back to those tropes of fighting one’s way through mental asylums, players have been pelted with the imagery of over-the-top insanity. There’s nothing to feel in these cases, for the imagery plays into the theatrics as you’re rushing about rooms with your weapons. In Neverending Nightmares, however, you are constricted to taking your time through somewhat ridged paths. This minimalism forces you to take your time and observe. The changes that take place throughout the game can be fairly minor (such as shadows on the wall), or can be truly horrific (in the moments with violence or monsters).
The game is full of scenes where the character witnesses visuals of harming others and themselves, with those moments being nothing more than nightmares. These sequences accurately depict the sort of mind games that OCD plays on its victims, and how that in turn creates a depression within them. And in regards to the latter, from the beginning of the game, one cannot deny the immediate gloom that is felt. The artwork and score present this chilling, somber element as you slowly move from room to room, on edge as to what to expect.
For those with OCD and depression, such as myself, much of the imagery (with the exception of the more fantastical elements) is quite relatable. In that previously mentioned interview with Gamespot, Gilgenbach goes on to share:
I suffered very badly from 2001-2003, and everything felt completely bleak and hopeless. It was so hard to just walk around and do the everyday tasks like get out of bed and go to classes. I am trying to create that feeling in Neverending Nightmares. The mood of the game is so oppressive that walking around almost feels difficult. In addition, I am channeling very specific imagery from intrusive thoughts that I've suffered from because of my OCD. Intrusive thoughts are these crazy thoughts that your mind comes up with for the sole purpose of upsetting you. In my case, I've struggled with thoughts of violent self-harm. I've actually re-created some of my visions in the game like pulling the vein out of my arm or tearing out an arm bone.
Gilgenbach has successfully created a means to create sympathy from those who may not live with mental disorders. The sympathy is presented through numerous forms, whether it’s the emotion generated from the atmosphere, or the imagery and suffering the character must go through. Since the player isn’t being bombarded with an abundance of fighting or puzzles, there is much more time to soak in the emotion of the game’s story. Neverending Nightmares is a straight forward narrative game as far as mechanics are concerned, but within those mechanics comes an offering much greater than one may expect. It’s a game that requires one to take their time in exploration, observing the environment, and listening to the score as you slowly make your way into each room. The game creates a tension that reflects the hell of OCD and depression. It isn’t always that easy to be aware of what may trigger one into anxiety and/or fear when living with either disorder.
Neverending Nightmares offers this same aura, given that from the beginning you are immediately introduced to not only gruesome imagery, but also the very odd and minimal tone the atmosphere provides. You start things off with a breath of caution, unaware of what to expect as you play the story. And like the random nature of mental disorders, the imagery and horror elements come sporadically. And rather than play out as a thrilling or shocking horror title, the game takes a slow and drawn-out approach to dread. You, as the player, don’t get excited for the next moment, but are intricately, and continuously, given waves of chills and despair. For at the core of the game, the story, visuals, and the main character, are heartbreaking.
Other games are now coming out that speak to mental disorders, continuing to properly discuss the topic and spread education on it, while ridding it of its stigma. There’s something about playing Neverending Nightmares that helps. It isn’t necessarily cathartic, but a reminder that those of us who feel tormented by our intrusive thoughts and agony are sincerely not alone, and that there is a whole world full of people suffering from the same things. These disorders, and the stigma they come with, can force people into lives of loneliness, resulting in self-harm or suicide. It takes having a real educated conversation, and art to connect with, to allow all of us to move in a positive step forward in helping one another. Neverending Nightmares is a sincere work of art that captures the horror and pain of living with mental illness, and presents them in a respectful, brutal, and honest light.
If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Michael Pementel is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Creative Writing Program. When he isn't writing for Film Daddy, he writes full time for Metal Injection and New Noise Magazine. He has also written for Alternative Press, Film Inquiry, and The Curator. He's the Social Media Manager for death metal record label Ultimate Massacre Productions. When not writing, he enjoys a hot cup of black coffee, a good book/video game/film, and to cuddle with his fiancée and cat.
Follow Michael on Twitter @pementelm.