Games for Mental Health, Part 5 Working with the Nightmare of Anxiety: Neverending Nightmares

Matt Gilgenbach’s Neverending Nightmares (2014) approaches depression and anxiety from a more indirect angle than the other designers I have discussed in this series. As a sufferer from depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Gilgenbach decided to explore anxiety by depicting his nightmares. This symbolic, as opposed to realistic, representation of anxiety brings some interesting twists to the game experience. Nightmares are usually an expression of anxiety, but in a symbolic, coded fashion. Most adults have had a nightmare at some point, so players can easily identify with the nightmare experience. Moreover, most players have read or watched horror stories, which also brings a familiarity to the game Never Ending Nightmares.

          If most of us have experienced nightmares, most of us experience them infrequently. Those who experience never ending or repeated nightmare suffer from a nightmare disorder or parasomnia. This a rare disorder which the designer may or may not have.1 What matters for the player is what message do nightmares convey about one’s identity and mental health? Nightmares occur during REM or later stage of sleep. They bypass the brain’s censorship mechanism allowing for monsters and other life threatening possibilities to creep into our unconscious causing us to suddenly wake with vivid memories of a frightening narrative. Nightmares often concern threats to our survival- being chased, falling; grief over the loss of a loved one, or embarrassment such as being naked in public. Traumatic nightmares suffered by trauma survivors (combat veterans, rape survivors, for example) are of a special and often recurring nature. Like other dreams nightmares make a patchwork of our daytime experiences, but in an associational fashion. Depression can contribute to more frequent nightmares as can substance use, including legal medications.

          Despite Freud’s exhaustive work on dream analysis he had little to say about nightmares. However, the fact nightmares are unwanted, and recurring suggests, in Freud’s thinking, that they are symbols of the repetition compulsion. In other words, they hold one in a grip of unpleasant reality, which might be one connection between the game and the designer’s OCD.

          Neverending Nightmares represents nightmares through the horror genre. Given the popularity of horror stories and films the last twenty years or so this genre makes sense. It is a clever way to draw the audience, especially a young audience into the game’s story. At the same time, the story does not rise to the level of storytelling one gets in Stephen King or Shirley Jackson. Nonetheless, there are some elements that echo King, and even Edgar Allan Poe.

          You play the game’s protagonist Thomas, a young male- perhaps teenager- who experiences nightmare after nightmare in a large haunted house. Controls are basic. You move Thomas around the house using your finger on an ipad, or mouse, on a computer. A few objects identified by the color red- a nice bright blood red-are interactive and prompt examination, revealing, perhaps, clues to the meaning of Thomas’s nightmares. Unlike other games I have discussed, this game has virtually no dialogue or text. It reads like a visual story or even more like an old black and white silent film. Silent for dialogue, but the haunting music by Skyler McGlothlin with its eerie creaking sounds contributes much to the game’s ambience. The excellent, haunting line art draws inspiration from illustrator Edward Corey (1925-2000), but also reminds me of director Tim Burton’s eccentric, off beat- slightly nightmarish work, animated and otherwise.

          The player does have some choices, in fact, many choices but they are not like interactive fiction where your choice is between presented options. Rather, you choose which door to open. There are many doors. Each door leads to another room, often leading the walking Thomas back to the same room as the house takes on a maze like function. Perhaps, the mostly deliciously ghastly scene is Thomas in a hallway with an axe. It reminded me of Jack Torrance running the hallways of The Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980). Locations are all classic horror tropes: a dark cellar, cemetery, hospital and forest.

Nightmare Screen Shot of Hospital Room or Prison Cell or Both?

          As with any nightmare or dream, you must piece together the narrative by reading the symbols scattered throughout the game. The game begins with a stabbing to the stomach of a little girl. A family portrait suggests this may be Thomas’s sister. Later, in a key cemetery scene, we discover through lifting a colored wreath that indeed Thomas’s sister Gabrielle died at age 6 (1878-1884). The gravestones also indicate the story unfolds in the Victorian Age- rich with gothic tales. In some ways, I see parallels between the game and Edgar Allan Poe’s great story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). The relationship between Thomas and Gabby echoes the fascinating, but twisted relationship between Roderick and Madeline Usher. Is Gabby Thomas’s sister or daughter or wife? Is she murdered? Is everything a dream? Yes, nightmares happen most often to children under ten, but these nightmares are not for primary school kids to play.

Screen Shot of the Family

          The game has three possibly endings: Wayward Dreamer, Destroyed Dreams, or Final Descent and each ending represents a quite different storyline, but dreams always have shifting uncertain meaning and this game represents that uncertainty well. Although the nightmares are gripping and reasonably immersive, they do not shake one in the same way as a good Stephen King novel or Wes Craven movie. Still, the game effectively conveys the experience of anxiety through nightmares and how nightmares reinforce anxiety. Best of all, the game’s central Groundhog Day (1993) like mechanic whereby Thomas suddenly finds himself back in bed waking up from yet another nightmare traps the player in the recurring terror that severe anxiety engenders.2


          Since most students will have experienced a nightmare at some point, they game allows for a general discussion of what might cause a nightmare. Even experienced therapists rarely know how to decode dreams. However, what causes nightmares for us allows for powerful discussion about our anxieties. Writing this blog, for instance, I had a nightmare where I was running through a grocery store, ending up in a pitch black section of the building that had been cordoned off. I was lost when a mummy like figured reached out and grabbed me causing me to wake up thrashing, nearly kicking my little dog. Earlier in the day I had become increasingly agitated at not being able to find a common item at Home Depot and frustrated at the lack of customer service. Clearly my nightmare made use of the day’s material, but in a much more amplified and horrific fashion out of proportion to the day’s event. Analysis is beyond the scope of the blog and my own capabilities of understanding the nightmare’s ultimate meaning, but the anger that prompted the nightmare would be rich material for counseling, or introspection. In school or college, sometimes, serious emotional issues can be disclosed indirectly through discussion, writing, literary analysis or game play and if that results in one student going to therapy that is a positive experience.

          There are two more direct ways to use the game. One of the most common nightmares concerns test anxiety. People often have nightmares the night before a major exam: perhaps a final, or an SAT. How can you help students negotiate the nightmare pressure and consequences the culture has placed on high stakes tests? Not only can high stakes tests cause nightmares, they are nightmares, which leads to use number two.

          We use the word nightmare as an adjective to describe generally unpleasant experiences. That visit to the department of Motor Vehicle was a nightmare. Work with students on the use of metaphors and symbols which are common properties of dreams. The game also has a companion magna written by the designer Matt Gilgenbach and penciled by Kata Katoh. The magna reads vertically down the screen and includes a prologue with 9 short chapters. The written story includes much more material and context than the game does. For instance, in the game you see a bunch of bloody pulled teeth in a sink. The comic shows that the teeth have been pulled out by plyers. You can describe how art transforms the material of daily life and the very act of writing a comic or making a short game or illustrating one’s monsters can tremendously benefit students’ self-esteem and general well-being.  Art often proves the best therapy. Neverending Nightmares is a very good game for raising awareness about how anxiety can cripple people who suffer from a disorder, while additionally allowing all students an opportunities to explore their anxieties and how best to cope with them.


1. The best clinical definition and information about nightmares is provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine,

“If you have nightmare disorder, you may fear going to sleep or worry that each night you will have another nightmare. You may also feel anxious and scared when you wake up from a nightmare and be unable to fall back to sleep. Sleep loss can cause you to have even more intense nightmares. As a result, you may experience daytime sleepiness,”

2. The classic Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day (1993) staring Bill Murray has Murray play weatherman Phil Connor who wakes up on February 2 every day, day after day in Punxsutawney, PA. It is a never ending nightmare that plays to the audience as a never ending comedy.

Works Cited

Neverending Nightmares. Infinitap Games, 2014. Gilgenbach, Matt. Lead designer.

Gilgenbach, Matt and Katoh, Kata. Never Ending Nightmares. Magna,

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