The Medium sat down with Matt Gilgenbach to talk about the newly released Neverending Nightmares, a video game about his real-life mental health struggles.
The Medium: Why was a video game your media of choice?
Matt Gilgenbach: I think the reason is that there’s an amazing relationship between a player and their character. For example, if you’re playing Super Mario Brothers and you fall into a pit, you say, “Oh, I died”—you don’t say, “Mario lost a life.” I think there’s this amazing connection where, through the language of video games, everyone is already sort of well-versed in putting themselves in the position of the player character, and because of that we can create an experience that recreates the feelings…in the player rather than just presenting a story about them or a narrative where things are happening to a character. I don’t think there’s quite the level of investment or empathy as when it’s happening to you.
TM: There’s so much bravery that comes with sharing a personal story. How did you build up the courage to come out with a game like this?
MG: It was a difficult thing to do and to some extent, you just kind of have to commit to it and take a plunge and hope for the best, which is what we ended up doing. I also gave a talk at a Game Developers convention about my personal struggles with mental illness and it had a very positive response, so I felt like it was something that was worth talking about and something that people would appreciate and sort of recognize rather than ridicule.
TM: Were you ever worried about potential negativity?
MG: That’s true of anything you create. Certainly, on my previous games, it was difficult to read any sort of negative feedback, but I’d say it’s harder [with] this game because it’s so personal. I think going into it, I knew I was creating something that not everyone would appreciate. But I think the people that do appreciate it, it really resonates with them, so I’m willing to put up with the negative reactions for the immensely positive reactions, especially from people who suffer from mental illness and let me know that it really helped them.
TM: Was it difficult to relive all of these nightmares in making this game? How did you overcome the difficulty of bringing these terrifying things to life?
MG: It actually was much easier than I expected and it was almost therapeutic because of the sort of buffer that it’s not me, it’s the character. You know, this is my job and this is what I do, and I’m getting up and I’m making this game. I was very fortunate; for whatever reason, I was able to put enough emotional distance between myself and the subject of the game. It wasn’t super painful to work on, but also I was still able to express a few emotions I wanted to express in the game.
TM: You once said that you didn’t necessarily take offence to games about mental illness that were developed by those who hadn’t experienced it. Do you feel that these video games should be developed solely by people who understand what it’s like?
MG: I think to some extent when you’re creating a video game, you’re not necessarily thinking about how to be sensitive to every person on earth, and how to best capture their experience. A lot of it is just, how can you create a compelling and interesting experience? I’m sure there are possibly offensive or negative depictions of mental illness in some games, but adding an “insanity meter” and the screen goes crazy or something, you know, that doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think I would say to those developers “Don’t do that,” because it certainly can make their games more interesting and more compelling, and I think it’s difficult for people to take that seriously as a commentary on mental illness. Personally, I don’t judge that.
TM: Why did you choose 2D line art over something a little more “realistic”? How did this artistry better capture your image?
MG: I think it works on a few levels: firstly, I think if you see a screenshot of Neverending Nightmares, it doesn’t look like any other game out there. You know instantly it’s Neverending Nightmares, and I think that’s important in our day and age when there’re so many great video games being developed and a lot of indie games are really fantastic, so it’s tough to really stand out in that crowd. I also feel the art style is more expressionistic and we have a lot of leeway with how we draw things and represent things, especially the light and the darkness. We can do some really interesting things that would be more difficult to pull off with a more realistic art style. For example, the darkness in and of itself is animated, so even if you’re standing still, the lines are constantly moving and [it] really creates the feeling that the world and everything is closing in on you.
TM: What are some of the stigmas you believe are associated with mental illness and how do you feel that Neverending Nightmares is helping to rid those stigmas?
MG: I think a lot of it is people judge you; they think there’s something wrong with you. If you’re depressed they think you should just cheer up and it’s just a simple thing, you know, you just have the wrong outlook on life. Or with obsessive-compulsive disorder, they think it’s weird and they don’t understand and they think you have to touch objects or count or something, which is only one way that OCD can manifest itself. With Neverending Nightmares, I’m trying to give people insight or understanding into mental illness and what it’s been like for me, and I hope that especially in talking about it I’m a pretty normal guy and hopefully I come across as a reasonable person, and certainly I think that’s important to understand. You know, everyday people can have extra difficulties but can still live in a perfectly normal life.
I guess that’s more told with me speaking about the game and less through the actual game, but through the game, I want people to have insight and understanding and basically realize that depression is just this bleak way that you can see the world—you can see the world through these terrible filters that make everything feel weird and bad and oppressive. With OCD, there’s all this imagery and terrible things that you just can’t control; it’s completely out of your control. You can’t master your mind and have it think about the things you want it to think about it. Those are the things I want to discuss and illustrate with Neverending Nightmares.
TM: In previous interviews and in your blog, you encouraged those suffering to get help and you acknowledged how scary and tough it is to share personal experiences with a stranger. What words of encouragement do you have for people who are afraid to share their experiences with just one person, when you’ve been brave enough to share this experience with all the people that have and will play this game?
MG: I think the best advice I can give is that you have to work at getting better. It’s not like a cold where it will pass. In my experience, it’s a chronic illness and it’s something that will be with me always. So certainly because it’s so difficult, I think it’s important to get the best and the most help you can. It’s like if you have cancer, getting chemo is difficult and it’s a hard and painful thing, but I don’t think anyone would say it’s not worth it, it’s not worth the risk. I think you have to do what it takes to get better and I think that may mean opening yourself up to a therapist and that may be very difficult for you, but I think it’s very important to be working towards getting better.
This interview has been edited for length. For more information on Neverending Nightmares, see our review.