Dream Catcher: Matt Gilgenbach
When mental illness took over his life, indie developer Matt Gilgenbach fought through by letting players do the same.
Matt Gilgenbach knows how fast dreams can turn into nightmares. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Gilgenbach spent five years developing games for other studios before achieving his dream of launching his own titles. He even had a groundbreaking idea—a reverse shooter gamers would play backwards. Thinking the project would only take six to 18 months, Gilgenbach and his development partner invested 80 hours per week writing code and erasing it, designing concepts only to scrap them for bigger ones. When Retro/Grade was released in 2012, four years after the project began, Gilgenbach knew that he would never recuperate the $140,000 in savings and family loans he and his business partner had invested or the time and energy the game had taken away from his marriage.
That’s when the nightmares intensified. Despite critical praise, Retro/Grade’s breakneck pace and commercial failure sent Matt spiraling into depression. Already diagnosed with Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, Gilgenbach spent months fighting the dark places of his mind.
Now he’s turning those experiences into fodder for a new kind of game. Neverending Nightmares is a horror game designed to emulate Gilgenbach’s experiences with depression and OCD. Based on actual nightmares Gilgenbach had, the project’s goal is to both provide gamers with engaging play and to shed light on how it feels to battle mental disorder.
Gilgenbach candidly spoke about mistakes he’s made in the past, personal risks he’s taking with the project, and the need for more empathy games.
Matt Gilgenbach: Right now we don’t even have that many game mechanics in the demo. We mostly just are focusing on establishing the mood and sort of the atmosphere of depression and of anxiety. When you walk around the game through music and sound and art, it feels really depressive. It feels difficult to move around the world and that’s something that, when you suffer from depression, it can be tough to get up in the morning. It can be tough to even just brush your teeth. I feel like we’re sort of creating that feeling where everything is challenging and everything is so tense and you’re afraid of doing things. We also have these disturbing graphic images of self-harm in the game trailer and those are actually things that I’ve struggled with. These thoughts have just popped into my mind because of OCD and they tormented me and haunted me for years, so I’m able to sort of put them into the game and show people, “Hey, this is what it’s been like.”
MG: With Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, I find it sometimes difficult to let the little details go. Since I’m directing other people, I can be very nit-picky to the point that potentially I’m spending a lot more time on things that other people don’t really care about.
I think to some extent that was one of the problems with Retro/Grade. I let my OCD takeover and we ended up with a four-year project. At that point, it’s very difficult to make the money back when you’ve been developing [a game] for so long, which is always a challenge with indie game development. Definitely it’s the little details, but it’s also difficult to deal with frustration just because whenever I feel frustrated, that’s usually an opportunity for my mental illness to blow it out of proportion and say, “Oh, you’re bad at game development” or “Oh, you don’t know what you’re doing” and things like that. It’s definitely a struggle, but I’ve learned what my thought process is like and so I sort of have to try and keep my mind in check.
MG: I think to some extent we missed the bubble because it took us so long to develop. When we started, we had Guitar Hero controller support and that was sort of the big thing. We thought, “Hey, it’s great! People have these extra guitar controllers and we’re going to come up with a new game designed around them.” Even though we supported regular controls, I think we really pushed the guitar control aspect of the game too hard. When the game came out and no one had a guitar controller, they weren’t really as interested in the title.
MG: I think the main thing that’s appealing about the community for Neverending Nightmares, for members of the community, is that I am 100 percent honest and 100 percent genuine, and I think that’s refreshing. I think to some extent, a lot of people are interested in game development either because they love games or because they want to get in game development.
I’m really putting myself out there. I’m really showing people who I am as a game developer, as someone who struggles with mental illness, and as a person. They find it really refreshing. I think that’s the best way to foster a community is to be yourself. It’s tough really putting yourself out there just because the negative feedback can really sting, but on the flipside it’s easy because you don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to try and represent yourself a certain way. You just do what comes naturally to you and I think people respond pretty well to that.
MG: I do have reservations, but so far the community has been very kind and very understanding, which has been really great and has sort of allowed me to open up even more. I do expect there to be backlash. I do expect that there will be mean comments, but I think what I’m doing is important and I think that outweighs the potential hurt from people who just are mean-spirited or enjoy trolling.
MG: There are two main reasons I wanted to do this. The first is because I feel like video games aren’t really taking advantage of their full potential for interactive storytelling. A lot of times it’s just Choice A or Choice B or good ending or bad ending, but I feel like video games have the opportunity for almost like shared authorship with the player. The player helps define the story. I think by giving multiple endings and multiple branches, the player will feel like they have more of that authorial control.
The other thing is I think it goes a long way to establishing the dream-like state of the game. Because it’s a game that’s in nightmares, we want it to feel unreal and really have you question reality and what’s going on in the game. I think having multiple endings really contributes to that because they will essentially invalidate each other. Then when the player finishes all of them and sits back and figures out what the game is about, I think it will cause them to dig a bit deeper and to look at the themes and emotions [the game] explores rather than just the discrete ending.
MG: I definitely think there’s more of a market for those games just because I think gamers are looking for new experiences. In the AAA industry, due to the rising budgets, publishers can’t afford to take risks. In the indie space, we can take risks and create things very personal and we don’t need to get six million people in our audience. We just need to reach out to enough people to keep developing indie games.
MG: I think the most important thing when making a deeply personal game is to be true to yourself. Pour all of yourself into the game because otherwise I think you’re doing both the game and yourself a disservice. By committing to it and really putting yourself in the game, it will both make the game better but also serve your eventual goal—to help people understand you, help people understand what you’re going through, and your thoughts and your feelings. If you sort of double down and commit 100 percent to the idea of creating something personal that’s true to yourself, I think that’s the best way to approach it.
MG: Certainly I’ve had bad luck with that, given that we self-funded Retro/Grade and it was unsuccessful and we’re turning to Kickstarter now. But I think it’s important to create a core experience that can get people excited if you’re trying to raise funding. What we created for Neverending Nightmares, it doesn’t really have the game play we want. There are no enemies. It’s not exactly a good picture of what we want the final game to be, but it is very effective at showing that we can create a horrific mood, which is really important to sell the game. Even though we created a fraction of the overall game experience, we did that really well and gave people something to be excited about.
I think you really have to figure out what makes your game special and then focus on getting that to a state where people can really get excited about it. No matter what funding avenues you’re pursuing, if you don’t have a core nugget that is really exciting, you’re not going to be able to get any funding. Don’t write a story before you’ve really nailed the essential game design because you may have to change your game design and then you have to throw out your story. Just focus on creating the special sauce for your particular game.
Neverending Nightmares’ Kickstarter campaign ends September 29 at 10pm EST.
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