Developer: The Neverhood
While the recent resurgence of the adventure genre has led to a bit of a debate in certain gaming circles over whether or not the genre ever really “died,” it’s hard to deny the fact that it suffered a marked fall from grace in the ’90s. Once upon a time, the likes of King’s Quest, Monkey Island, and Leisure Suit Larry were major releases warranting significant media attention and a great deal of gamer anticipation. Along with flight simulators, real-time strategy games, western RPGs, and early first-person shooters, point-and-click adventure games were one of the big reasons to be a PC gamer back in the day. Sure, even the NES had a handful of them -- Déjà Vu, Princess Tomato, and that port of Maniac Mansion in particular -- but outside of a scattered few titles, the PC was where you needed to be if you wanted the likes of funny, well-animated titles such as Sam & Max Hit the Road or more involved pseudo-RPGs like Quest for Glory.
But, as is often the case in the gaming world, the relentless march of technology eventually pushed the genre to the fringe. With the advent of wide-open, free-roaming (albeit ugly and empty) 3D worlds in so many games, the prospect of wandering back and forth between a handful of screens hoping to find the chicken they needed to put through the meat processor in order to get the bone they could use as a lock pick to open the door to the room where they could find the map they needed to decode in order to track down the man who would give them the clue to the whereabouts of the diamond they could trade for the antique sword that revealed the villain’s true identity just didn’t appeal to players the same way it once did.
As such, titles like The Curse of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and Leisure Suit Larry VII stand as some of the last great games of the point-and-click adventure game era. And with them stands another, significantly more obscure title: The Neverhood.
The eponymous first release from the aptly named and sadly short-lived The Neverhood, Inc. was a pretty bizarre game, even in a genre which prides itself on its bizarre scenarios. For starters, the entire world was made of clay. Combining traditional 2D art and video footage of sets build in clay, The Neverhood resembles nothing less than an interactive stop-motion movie. It’s a very unique look, and the only other game I can think of that uses this technique (apart from The Neverhood’s own sequel, Skull Monkeys) is the poorly received shooter Platypus.
Since almost every area the player explores has been crafted by hand, each environment is not only fascinatingly unique but also tactile in a way most videogames, especially the sterile 3D games that were flooding the market around the time of The Neverhood’s release, are not. Each screen of The Neverhood oozes personality from every bump and crevice in the background where one can detect the impression of a hand that carefully sculpted a wall or a doorframe. After playing mere minutes of The Neverhood, you simply can’t deny the fact that it was a labor of love for its creators. You don’t sculpt an entire mini-world from scratch when you’re making a videogame unless you’re very, very attached to the project. And while having developers totally devoted to their game isn’t a guarantee that it’ll be good, that affection does go a long way towards that goal.
The claymation style helps establish the comical tone of the game. Outside of the South Korean tearjerker Doggy Poo, I can’t think of a single stop-motion film that wasn’t at least somewhat attempting to get a laugh out of its audience. The Neverhood is no different. From the way its limp, floppy hero Klaymen lopes around the screen to the bizarre “hints” players can find left in a mailbox on a tiny island suspended in an empty void, The Neverhood wants to make you smile. And unless you’re truly dead inside, you can’t help but grin after scenes like the one where a girlishly shrieking Klaymen is chased around by a lumbering crab monster to an intense but nonetheless bouncy version of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
Speaking of the music, The Neverhood’s soundtrack must be mentioned for both its brilliant composition and for effectively supporting the game’s irreverent, playful tone. While not a sweeping, epic score like those of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Halo, or Final Fantasy Tactics, Terry S. Taylor’s work on The Neverhood is nonetheless among the greatest videogame soundtracks of all time. From blues to jazz to Dixieland, the individual tracks featured in the game utilize a variety of musical styles, each perfectly suited for the areas where they’re featured. Collectively, the massive soundtrack has an easy, upbeat feel to it, peppered as it is with banjo chords and nonsensical lyrics, and it sets a relaxed pace for the onscreen action. Describing music as “fun” is usually a copout, since it doesn’t say anything about the tempo, the style, or the kinds of instruments involved. In this instance, though, considering the eclectic unity of The Neverhood’s score, the element that binds it all together really is its sense of fun. The songs endlessly loop in your head after you’ve heard them, but not in a maddening way; in fact, they’d leave you wanting to sing along, if only the words weren’t such gibberish. It’s really good stuff. And, again, only a hollow shell of a human being could fail to laugh when the mush-mouthed vocalist mumbles about his intense affection for tomatoes, potatoes, and peas.
So, yes, The Neverhood is a fun, funny game. But as the years have gone by, I’ve come to think that there’s more to its appeal than that. Sure, there are burp gags, and there’s a part where a headless giant robot jump-kicks a monster in the face for decapitating his teddy bear. Yet there are also parts of the game where the player can’t help but feel a yawning sense of isolation. By and large, The Neverhood plays like a typical 2D point-and-click adventure game, with the player viewing the action from a side perspective. However, when Klaymen wanders outside, the music cuts out and the game suddenly switches to a first-person perspective. Here, the only sounds apart from Klayman’s own footfalls are a few haunting drumbeats and a whispering wind. It is in these moments when the player realizes that Klaymen is truly alone on his quest.
The Neverhood’s story takes a note from Myst in that it simply drops the player into the action with no real explanation. Klaymen wakes up in a house and must solve a handful of puzzles to make his way outdoors. Once outside, things open up and he can begin exploring other parts of the game’s world. Since the Neverhood itself is so unusual, it’s easy enough to get so caught up in the world’s exotic nature that you ignore Klaymen’s solitude; his blank stare makes it hard to attach feelings of confusion and uncertainty to him. But play through a few times, to the point where the strangeness of Klaymen’s surroundings start to wear off, and suddenly you’ll be struck by just how lonely a figure he really is. He never really meets up with other characters until the very end of his quest. There are no dialog trees like those found in other adventure games. For the rest of the time he, and thus the player, is left to makes sense of the strange things he encounters all on his own.
The puzzles in The Neverhood are also fairly different from those in other point-and-click adventure games. Rather than being primarily inventory-based, they instead rely more on observation. For instance, the player may come across a series of strange symbols scratched onto a wall. Later, the player may find a terminal that allows him to input those same symbols in a sequence. The clever player, having written the previous sequence down, would input the symbols in the same order he saw scratched into the wall. Other puzzles include matching a series of musical notes, building a dummy out of dynamite, and discovering the proper sequence for several colored crystals. Klaymen obtains very few items to assist him on his quest, and instead must depend upon his powers of observation to solve the challenges he faces. This forces the player to pay attention to every little detail as if truly trying to make sense of an alien world.
In a typical point-and-click adventure game, puzzle solutions are at least loosely based on your eventual goal. If a character who is blocking a doorway wants a lollipop, chances are good you somehow need to get them a lollipop. You may need to take several circuitous steps to get him that lollipop, but your goal gives you at least an inkling of what the puzzle solution should be. But in The Neverhood, Klaymen, like the player, has no idea of what he needs to do. He is simply trying to discern meaning in the world in which he finds himself. His only hints as to what he needs to accomplish are found in tapes that he’ll begin to find scattered around the Neverhood. Each of these tapes plays a snippet of a long message recorded by the bizarre Willie Trombone, and locating them all reveals a tale of betrayal not unlike the story of the biblical fall, a betrayal which has the potential to happen again depending upon a decision Klaymen makes at the game’s conclusion. And while it may be a bit heavy-handed, it’s at least thematically consistent that making the more selfless decision ends Klaymen’s isolation, while taking the greedy way out continues it in a fairly dark fashion.
The biblical similarity is no coincidence either. In one of the buildings Klaymen encounters at the start of his journey is a lengthy hallway, and carved into the wall of that hallway is the entire history of the game’s universe available to be read at the player’s discretion. Loosely based on the biblical book of Genesis, the history stretches for over thirty-eight screens and takes hours to read, even at a fast clip. You don’t have to read it in order to finish the game, but doing so reveals significant backstory for the events of The Neverhood, as well as some very amusing parodies of several biblical stories. My favorite of the bunch is the equivalent of the story of Joseph where instead of tossing him in a hole to be sold into slavery, his brothers staple-gun him to a yak and send it out wandering the countryside. And instead of being able to read dreams to predict the future, the Joseph character can read bed-head to similar ends.
Apart from being funny, this history reveals how invested in the concept of the universe The Neverhood, Inc. was. The creators developed enough material to develop dozens of games, but fate regrettably conspired against that possibility. Despite the game’s commercial failure, it had received enough critical praise that the developers felt a sequel was warranted. However, realizing that the day of point-and-click adventure games had passed they decided to switch gears and turn it into a platformer, as that was a genre they felt still had some legs to it. Unfortunately, they neglected to realize that the type of platformers which were flourishing at the time were relatively open-world, 3D collect-a-thons, not tough-as-nails 2D platformers. Poor Skull Monkeys was torn apart by reviewers for being technologically primitive despite the fact that by 2D standards it actually still looks quite nice. After that miscalculation, the Neverhood franchise dead in the water -- a real shame, considering how much potential it had. But who knows? Maybe with the recent resurgence of the likes of Monkey Island and Sam & Max, a Neverhood rebirth could be in the works. Probably best not to hold your breath, though.