There's an elite brand of horror that, even in these glory days when players are drowning in utterly terrifying interactive experiences, is rare to see, and harder to pull off, and that is the horror of the self. That is, the terror that comes not from a malignant, malicious invader that must be put down, but from witnessing perversions and desecrations beyond imagining, and realizing you're responsible for such terror, and you have to forever change to keep it at bay. This is the territory that Silent Hill 2 occupies, and it's one of only a few games to get it exactly right.
Neverending Nightmares is a solemn attempt to flourish in that territory, and it has the right ideas. It's the story of a young man named Thomas who is stuck in a seemingly eternal Inception-style loop of visceral Edward Gorey nightmares. His own house is slowly overtaken by living, ominous shadows and dolls with frozen smiles whose eyes follow him when he walks by. He finds himself in an asylum overrun by straight-jacketed cannibals and with haphazardly-piled mutilated dead in the hallways. Dead women rain from the sky in a cemetery while birds feed on the corpses. There are common elements in each scenario, but the omnipresent one is the ephemeral specter of a black-haired girl. The girl takes many forms: sister, wife, psychiatrist, daughter, china doll, bride, and, not least of all, bloody, knife-wielding murderwoman. She is both the reason to press on and the reason to want to escape every nightmare Thomas finds himself in. But you don't escape. You simply… persist.
The devil is quite literally in the details in Neverending Nightmares. As you explore, a room might be little more than a bunch of family paintings, or a benign toy chest in a corner, or a sterile bathroom. Returning to that same room later, the wallpaper might have turned into deathly skulls, or the expression on the doll’s face turned to terror; random blood stains might’ve appeared, or you might hear random whispers, crying, and screams off in the distance. When Neverending Nightmares is at its best, it’s a sort of hellish Gone Home, where opening a new door means falling forever, having your Achilles tendons slashed, ripping out your own veins like string cheese; and making progress towards a new nightmare is indistinguishable from abject failure until you notice the change in the air, a different set of taunting voices. It's a perfect storm of fear: You are free to explore yet claustrophobically trapped, all at once.
This dichotomy would create a distressing combination even if movement weren’t so restricted. Thomas' regular gait when walking is a limping shuffle that makes simple walks down a hallway feel like roaming 40 years in a desert. Yes, you have the ability to run, but Thomas apparently has the stamina of a chain-smoker with one lung, and you can get maybe five seconds of sprinting out of him before he’s exhausted. It adds a nice layer of tension to the game's many terrifying chases, but when it takes forever to get from point A to B, tension turns into flat annoyance.
The monotony isn't helped by the fact that Neverending Nightmares is such a sparse game. After knowing what's scattered around each environment, you can go for stretches where you’re walking in and out of doors with nothing happening, nothing having changed, and with nothing new to interact with. The intent seems to be to give the player breathing room before going in for the scare, but it feels more artificial. Bad dreams typically aren't characterized by moments of lukewarm emptiness, and the fact that there are many here distracts.
What dreams do have, however, is abstraction, and Neverending Nightmares excels here. The game speaks in the broken dream language of trauma and internalized pain like few games do, and the facts of Thomas continually murdering himself, being marauded by defective babies, or seeing the girl dead in so many configurations are meant to walk the careful line between subtext and text. You are meant to put the pieces together, and the more the game feeds you on the far extremes of violence and sadness, the less it makes sense. Are you watching a man who killed a loved one and can no longer rest? Are you watching a brother stuck in purgatory for attempting suicide? Are you seeing the aftereffects of a parent grieving a dead child? The emotions are clearly represented: Fear, grief, surrender, self-loathing, and doubt.
What those emotions are in aid of is the pertinent question, and it's a haunting one, which the game's multiple endings do muddled work in answering, to both the game’s benefit and detriment. You walk away with heady questions about what you’ve played. What you might not come away with is satisfaction. Despite being only a one-to-two- hour game, it feels like a long way to get to either of the three finish lines; even trying for a second ending feels like work, and at least one of the endings puts far too easy a cap on what came before to feel true to the preceding hour.
And yet, having slept on it, I find myself obsessing over the questions raised, and the imagery foisted upon me by the encroaching darkness, than I have with any game in recent memory. Its frustrations are many, but they are not what sticks in the mind after it’s done. Neverending Nightmares might be a dream only worth taking once, but once is all it needs to work its ill upon you.