Some games deserve obscurity; titles of poor quality, of bad ideas and of low production values are rightly thrown onto the scrap heap of worthy ignorance. The Neverhood was never one of those games. It's quite upsetting, then, that Iím writing about one of my favourite games of all time under the banner of ďObscurityĒ, how wonderful it is to try and tell you how good the game is, and how scary I find it that I may fail to express just exactly why it is that this is one of my favourite games of all time. Terrible sadness, beautiful joy and paralysing fear, a fantastic way of explaining why The Neverhood means so much to me, and why I feel the need to share it.
The Neverhood is a game of such brilliant imagination and fantastically bizarre personalities that it truly feels like nothing else I have ever played. Itís a game with a long, detailed lore that you can completely ignore, a world that consists of only five characters yet has plenty of personality to each and graphics made from clay. Thatís right, The Neverhood was not restricted by processing power or rendering software, it was bound by how much clay was around at the time. In an utterly inspired move the gameís creator Doug TenNapel (the mind behind Earthworm Jim) decided to simply create the entire world out of clay and animate it as if it were a film with lots of options. This move in no way inhibits the game either, you never feel like you are playing an interactive video or that you are bound by restrictions, by making the game a point and click adventure the developer manages to make the game feel like it is delivering every option possible without resorting to cheapening the graphics. This decision was utterly commendable and extremely original. Unfortunately it was a gambit that only sold 46,000 copies and as a result the game has never been truly re-released or remade. Like I said, beautiful joy, terrible sadnessÖ
The look of The Neverhood is only one aspect of the game that pours originality into the lap of the player. The game has the most unique and engrossingly unnerving atmosphere Iíve ever encountered. Itís difficult to explain directly, so Iím going to pull up some screenshots and annotate them in a way I feel helps sell why this game is so fantastically funny and uncompromisingly scary.
From the above annotations Iím sure you can see why the game is so effective at being both chuckle worthy and utterly terrifying. Those were also the first three screens of the game, all of which can be seen in less than 2 minutes. In that short time The Neverhood was etched into my mind, and I found myself inexplicably drawn to it. When I first played The Neverhood it was at a young age on a demo disc that came with my first Windows computer. The bloodcurdling evil laugh that opens the game dived deep into my subconscious and actually became the subject of a few recurring nightmares. Yet that laugh may be the whole reason I hunted this game down years later and finally got to play through what turned out to be a brilliant title.
That title, it turns out, came with one of the most astonishing soundtracks ever committed to PC. Some games define themselves through careful sound design, every bar and note is carefully examined and timing is given great consideration. Anybody who has played a Halo game can assure you that the sound is perfectly handled to match every moment. The Neverhoodís soundtrack is absolute chaos. From frantic, bouncy guitar pieces to jazzy, slow trumpet tracks, no songs in The Neverhood remain consistent with each other, yet the ďfeelĒ of each of the songs hold with the games visuals and atmosphere. The lyrics are mumbled and slurred, the songs often ďbreakĒ halfway through with the band descending into chaos. Even timing is occasionally completely off, with mistakes left in to show us how raw the feeling in each song is. Below is a link to The Neverhood theme, give it a listen.
Click to listen
Itís amazing isnít it? The band constantly breaking down and rebuilding itself, the singer getting more frantic and desperate with each nonsensical verse, the final saxophone solo that comes from nowhere and has no relevance, even the moment where the singer comes in too early feels part of the whole chaotic mess of the track. It truly reflects how I feel about the game; itís chaotic, stupid, extremely funny, a bit messy and also quite scary. It sounds like nothing else and despite it almost definitely being horrible in some places it manages to pull through and even make those dreadful moments more fun and even more memorable. This track is almost like a measure of what the game is; a beautiful mess.
This brings me to the unfortunate truth. The Neverhood is hilarious, itís unnerving, itís beautiful but itís also pretty obtuse in it's puzzle design. Thatís not to say it is a bad game, but it isnít exactly helpful at explaining what to do next. As part of the tail end of that period of 90s adventure games The Neverhood displays some of the most self indulgent and unfair puzzles ever devised, including a matching pairs game of an 8x6 grid that if you mess up on just once it resets itself entirely, leading to a grumbling resentful drawing of the grid on a nearby notepad in the real world. The constant too and frowing around the world to write down symbols, the fetch quest of the tapes, the 38 screen long hall of records you have to walk through to get one sodding tape, it all adds up to a game with good intentions but sadistic design. Some of these puzzles are great, one puzzle involving making a dynamite version of yourself in is a great little brain teaser, and the opening puzzles stick with me to this day. But when a game almost requires a walkthrough guide you know there are problems with difficulty. Itís not something I like admitting, but outside the clay, the atmosphere and the music, The Neverhood really doesnít like the player too much.
But that doesnít mean you shouldnít play it. What it means is you should get a walkthrough, get the game and just plough through it. If you get stuck, go to the guide, and then carry on. The Neverhood is an unfortunate case of designers getting ideas and not really explaining them to you. Yet any break in the gameís atmosphere to explain something would have been a horrible mistake. The Neverhood isnít ďfunĒ at times, but it doesnít need to be. It knows what it is doing, and you need to get it otherwise it will leave you behind. Itís cruel, itís unfair, but itís worth it.
The Neverhood is a game that deserves a second chance. There is currently a movement going to get the game on iOS and Android, and the game really needs to make it there. The interface feels like it would already be perfect for touch controls and the introduction of this game to new players can only be a good thing. Itís a fantastic title which encapsulates unnerving joy like nothing else, and manages to be equal parts Earthworm Jim and Shadow of the Colossus. Itís a light hearted romp through a world that doesnít seem entirely finished, but might be the only thing that exists. And thatís just wonderful.
P.S. Oh, yes, and the game has a hidden ending that I think may be the most petrifying end to any game ever: Enjoy.
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