Neverending story: Mental illness and the crafting of a deeply personal game

Leo McCloskey September 26, 2013 - 7:44 pm

With just days to go until it’s Kickstarter conclusion, Neverending Nightmares developer Matt Gilgenbach talks anxiety, mental illness, past mistakes and how he has harnessed them all to craft a truly unsettling horror experience.

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As we sit just a few days from the conclusion of Neverending Nightmares’ Kickstarter campaign, the game’s future feels as uncertain as each tentative step I took through the game’s wonderful demo. Over $65 thousand has been pledged by backers and interest has gathered pace in recent days – but over $30k is still needed to guarantee its future. Having been admirably open about the failures of his last project Retro/Grade, a game who’s critical reception belied stuttering commercial performance, it’s easy to sympathise with developer Matt Gilgenbach’s situation.

Retro/Grade was good but didn’t sell, Neverending Nightmares, by rights, should have been funded weeks ago, but wasn’t. As we met for the first time, I was half expecting a broken shell of a man barely able to adjoin syllables, never mind craft such a truly unsettling horror game.

“Well, I’m feeling optimistic,” he tells me. “I’m of course nervous. I’m a pretty nervous person in general especially ’cause I have an anxiety disorder: obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s tough for me to not worry about things, but we just saw a big spike in support yesterday which was really amazing. As a developer it was really good to see people getting excited about the project and getting involved. That was definitely a big thing that shows we’re on the track to getting our funding.”

That’s the other thing: Gilgenbach has suffered with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder for a number of years, facts about which he has, again, been honest and open. In fact, Gilgenbach’s GDC 2013 panel addressing Retro/Grade and the effects that mental illness had on its development is all but a must-watch for people interested in the industry. It strikes me that my expectations were misguided; Gilgenbach has, after all, made positives out of his experiences, both professional and personal. It can’t have escaped him, though, that the Kickstarter window is closing.

“Part of the problem is that we don’t have a lot of money,” he explains. “We sort of are running on fumes now and turned to Kickstarter as a last resort. If you’re looking for funding, and this is one of the nice things about Kickstarter, you basically can’t get anyone to give you money in a shorter period of time than thirty days just because you have to have to go through contract negotiation and all that other stuff. It’s going to be very difficult for us if we don’t get the funding for Kickstarter – so I don’t actually know what we’re going to do. But I’m trying not to think about it and stay positive because I think we still have quite a bit of momentum on Kickstarter.”

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I feel bad for bringing it up. I’m reticent to open any professional dialogue with, ‘I love your game, bro,’ so I never do – I kind of wish I’d started on a more positive note. Of course, finding a publisher is an option – but one that takes time. Beyond that, both literally and figuratively, Neverending Nightmares is dark, so dark in fact that Gilgenbach worries about whether or not the game’s content would be compromised as a result of such a partnership.

“My worry with publishers is giving up creative control and potentially sacrificing some of the aspects of the game that are important to me for the purposes of making it more marketable. The game is pretty brutal; I mean, in the trailer there’s all this really grotesque violence and self-harm mutilation and things like that which may seem excessive and a publisher might be like ‘Oh, we gotta clean this up,’ but, to me, it’s a very important aspect of the game because it’s showing what I’ve experienced through my obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Mindful violence

Gilgenbach’s reservations about retaining control over the project ring true. The mutilation scene in the trailer is genuinely disturbing, so much so that it might make you frantically rub your own arm just to make sure it’s still there. Those scenes aren’t there for shock value, though, as much as an example of intrusive thought and how it affects people who suffer from OCD.

“A lot of the scenes of arm mutilation and all the terrible violence are these intrusive thoughts that I’ve struggled with as part of obsessive-compulsive disorder. So basically my mind just comes up with these horribly awful things just to essentially make me miserable. I don’t really know the whole way intrusive thoughts work but it’s actually a big thing for people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s definitely been a real struggle and one of the hardest aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder to deal with. Certainly there’s no good aspects but that one has, for me personally, been the most difficult.”

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This kind of imagery is the kind of thing that people with certain mental illnesses don’t switch off. Since the start of the Kickstarter push Gilgenbach has suggested that approaching a game in this way could stand to benefit people with mental illness. I wonder to myself if it stands to help people like me just as much, blissfully unaware of the weight of dealing with it day to day.

“I think that there’s a couple different ways I feel like the game can help people,” Gilgenbach continues. “Certainly in terms of the content of the game and the developer diaries and stuff I think helps raise awareness of mental illness and what it’s like which I think is important because I would like to work towards removing the stigma associated with mental illness. I think just by being open with it people can have a better understanding of it and understand that it’s a thing that people go through and it’s just part of their lives.”

“But also I feel like by including my experiences in the game it will resonate really well with people who have also suffered similar things and I think that’s extremely helpful just because when you’re suffering with depression and you feel so alone, you feel like no-one has ever felt the way you did before but that’s not entirely true. Everyone’s mental illness manifests differently, everyone goes through different issues but a lot of the core experiences are the same and that’s what I’m trying to create in the game and reach out to people and touch them. The worst thing you can do when you say ‘Oh, I’m depressed,’ [is when] someone just says, ‘Oh, well cheer up.’ It’s like you clearly don’t understand where I’m coming from because the point of depression or the core aspect of the illness is that I can’t cheer up.”

Allow me to pause for a moment: All this talk of depression and mutilation might look grim on paper, but speaking to the man face-to-face doesn’t come across that way. In fact it’s educational and oddly uplifting – perhaps because Gilgenbach is so proactive in turning these grim-sounding things into something inherently positive.

“With Neverending Nightmares I decided that we’re not going to compete [with big-budget titles],” he says. “We’re going to get our own art style, our own look that’s so unique and so different than every other game that we can’t be compared. That has actually worked out really well for us: At PAX we showed off the game at the indie mega booth. There were a ton of very exciting, very interesting games but a lot of people would just come over and take a look at the TV because there’s a bunch of other games with colour and here we have this very stark black and white game with these harsh penned sketch lines.”


The Press Corpse

Gilgenbach is aware that his mental illness makes for more interesting copy. Any thoughts that this might be in any way disingenuous or targeted to help shift units would be misplaced, though. If anything, Gilgenbach’s willingness to discuss the press’ interest in his personal story speaks to the fact strongly.

“It’s not just the game that the press is interested in, they’re interested in the story,” he says. “The development story and the game are linked just because so much of the game is about my personal experience. I think I’m speaking very openly and honestly about the struggles of making the game and about the struggles of everyday life and I think that human element makes the game more appealing, it makes it more interesting.”

Let’s not forget Gilgenbach is making a game – a flipping creepy one: There’s a deep unpleasantness to be inferred from the game’s backgrounds; there’s a restrictive pace and simple but uncomfortable choices that have to be made; and there’s subtle and disturbing use of colour – plus less subtle and even more feather-ruffling use of jump-scares and well-timed audio. Gilgenbach wants to make a game that lives with you, the player, beyond your time in front of the screen.

“I don’t want your relationship with the game to end when you stop playing,” he explains. “Leaving things open to interpretation and putting deeper levels of things is great because you can continue to engage your player even when they’re not playing the game. They’ll keep thinking about it and trying to make sense of what was going on and trying to see the psychological meaning of the different scares and how that reflects on the protagonist or how that reflects on the story of the message of the game. I think it’s really great to continue your relationship with the player outside of the game itself. I think creating these sort of deep and interesting ideas that are open to interpretation is really great for doing that.”

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“I think the real strength in games over any other medium is in the interactivity; interactivity is the core of what we’re doing when we’re creating a game. It’s definitely really important to me as a game developer and the thing that I’m hoping to do is present the user with some choices and actually have the narrative change based on that. We’re planning sort of a branching narrative structure where your actions put you in different nightmares and then they’ll lead to completely different endings. I think that’s really great because then there’s sort of a shared authorship – it’s not just the game telling you a story, the game holding your hand, you feel like you had some control, some impact on that.”

Neverending Nightmares’ blend of macabre design and unsettling imagery might not yet make make for a successful Kickstarter. Whether it does or not, Gilgenbach’s willingness to craft a product so openly confessional is hard to fault.

“I feel like I’m an interesting person outside of my struggles with mental illness but I think because I’m one of the few people who are very open about it I think it makes me a more interesting person to talk to,” he says. “I think that also ties into the game that it’s something special, it’s something unique, I’m really putting myself and my experiences with mental illness into the game and I think it shows.”

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