Matt Gilgenbach’s latest game, Neverending Nightmares, released this week and is far more personal than his previous indie project, the critically acclaimed Retro/Grade. Neverending Nightmares is a 2D psychological horror game inspired by the Gilgenbach’s real-life battle with depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. We recently had the chance to sit down with Matt and chat about the beliefs that motivate his work as well as the hope that can found in the oppressive experience that is Neverending Nightmares.
What are the core beliefs that motivate you as a creative person?
For me its about self expression. I want to be able to share with people how I think and how I feel.
So obviously that comes out in Neverending Nightmares in a very personal way. Why did you feel like you wanted to express your personal story in a videogame?
Was the act of making the game personally therapeutic for you?
Definitely. It has definitely been therapeutic for me because I feel like I am able to sort of open up my head and let some of the negative, horrible thoughts out. Making them tangible causes them to lose their mystique and power–their grasp over me. So it does feel really great to expressing my feelings and help those who are suffering from depression.
Hopefully the process of playing it affirms the experience of those suffering from depression and invites people to share that experience. Some people think of playing videogames as this very isolating thing, but just the fact that you are sharing your experience feels communal even though Neverending Nightmares is not a co-op or multiplayer experience.
Yeah I do hope that Neverending Nightmares allows other people to connect with me on an emotional level. While it is not autobiographical, I don’t live in 1906 and carry a candle around, the emotions and even some of the imagery are very true to my experience. So I hope that I can connect with people and my experience will resonate with them and help them through their struggles or at least help them better understand mental illness.
How did you get into game development? What other games have you worked on?
It is something I have always been interested in. When I was 9, I started programming text-based adventure games and I never really stopped developing games since. It really seemed like a great field for me because I have a number of technical skills but also I have the desire to share creatively. Before Neverending Nightmares, I worked on Retro/Grade, another indie project that is a spaceship shooter but time is rolling in reverse. So it’s a rhythm game. Before that I was in the AAA space and I worked on Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters and other games based on Pixar licenses.
Did you decide to go indie so that you could be more personal in what you expressed in the games you make?
Yeah it just seemed like the best opportunity for me to be able to express myself through my work because while I feel like I had a stamp on some of the AAA games I worked on, its not the same as putting yourself out there and pouring yourself into the game and making something you are really personally proud of.
What do you think about games that address religious, philosophical, or spiritual issues?
I think it’s great. Any game that expresses emotions or thoughts is great because a lot of games are purely escapist or male power fantasies and I feel like the medium in and of itself can be so much more expressive. I appreciate it when games explore other themes than a princess gets kidnapped and we have to save her.
What are some games that you feel like address those issues well?
Honestly I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of games or at least games that I have played that really capture that. I think That Dragon Cancer, which isn’t out yet, to me is one of the best games in terms of self expression and exploring spirituality.
Yeah, I am excited about that game too. I think it has the potential to be a pretty powerful game. On a similar level I think your game has a lot of potential to be emotionally resonant for a lot of people.
I also think that our game is good for those who have actually experienced mental illness. Even today, people who suffer from mental illness have told me that the game connected with them. That is encouraging because, at least in my own personal experience dealing with depression, you feel alone and you feel like no one has ever felt this way and it is just this complete desolation and so I hope that the game will connect with people and make them realise that they are not alone in their suffering.
Do you have a role model?
I don’t know, there are so many talented people in game development, it is hard to say who is like my one role model in terms of game design.
I really like the creative director of Panzer Dragoon and Phantom Dust, Yukio Futatsugi, because it is amazing to me the worlds he creates and how immersed I was able to feel in these games using the terrible Sega Saturn graphics. The Saturn was kind of a dog but somehow I felt like I could get lost in these worlds and I think that sense of world building is somewhat underappreciated in games. A lot of game worlds are just like WoW except with guns or its just like Star Wars except more guns.
I also really like Ryan Green of That Dragon Cancer. He is an amazing person to talk to and very smart and insightful. I really respect what he is doing and I hope that our game will have a similar emotional resonance. Probably theirs will be much more resonant but Ryan is someone who I look at what he is doing and I think that is the type of game creator I want to be.
Have you gotten any feedback on Neverending Nightmares from religious or spiritual people?
I myself am a practicing Catholic. It is kind of a challenging thing for me to figure out how to draw the line and what to express about religion. There are a lot of religious elements and undertones in the game. For example, early in the game you see a Bible and its open to the Latin Vulgate and it is Psalm 22, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” That is sort of an ongoing theme because I felt like I had a close relationship with Christ when I was dealing with my mental illness but I did feel kind of abandoned. And that verse is very interesting to me as a Christian because Jesus is God but somehow God has abandoned Him. It is one of the great mysteries of Christ. I guess it might be my OCD but I often think about that and I never really get any solid answers about what you do when you are blessed with grace and yet you don’t feel God’s presence in your life. I never could quite understand that. I think there are a lot of things, that if you are a practicing Christian, you have to accept on faith.
That phrase, “my God why have you forsaken me” first spoken by David in the Psalms, but uttered by Jesus while suffering on the cross, is one of those great mysteries because while Jesus is expressing intense emotional pain, utter separation from God but at the same time that phrase gives us hope because Jesus is suffering for us.
One of the things about Christianity that resonates with me is that Jesus is 100% human. God wanted to understand our situation so much that He became one of us and experienced all the joys, all the hardships, the full range of human experience. That is so compelling to me that even if Christianity were proven untrue, that is something that I want to believe in. I want to believe that there is a God out there that loves us so much that He suffered for us. I think that is a really powerful idea and an idea that I want to believe in. Even if there is definitive proof it’s not true, it doesn’t matter to me because that’s how I want to live my life.