There is a reverence for clay or plasticine based stop-motion animation in the UK, what with the Wallace and Gromit short films being a staple every Christmas. I'm aware of very few mainstream entertainment from other countries to adopt this specific medium, one of them being a small game developer called The Neverhood.
Released in 1996, The Neverhood's first game - which also shares its title with the company - received some decidedly mixed reviews. It was experimental, had a strange and unique sense of humour, and had a bizarre, isolating yet simultaneously endearing atmosphere. The main character is Klayman who, for the longest time, seems to be alone on his planet. The only other character you see for a good portion of the playtime is Willie Trombone, a friend who recites the history of The Neverhood through short films. But these glimpses of an expanded civilization are optional and can only be viewed by collecting the tapes hidden in the game world.
The puzzle designs range from obvious to obtuse and some can be downright tedious. Early on in the game, there's a long hallway that takes around 15 minutes to walk down. It will probably take twice that if you choose to read the immense amount of text on each wall. While some may feel that the graffiti is entertainment enough, your only other reward is one of those aforementioned tapes. You'll then have to slowly walk back for another 15 minutes. Is this bad game design, or a twisted attempt at humour?
I'd say it's a daring attempt at comedy and works very well, but only in retrospect. Much like constantly repeating a dull joke ad nausiam will eventually become funny (Family Guy is prone to doing this, though I suspect it's mainly used to meet a contracted running time), you do fall into a trance state during your stroll. While playing through it though, I'd struggle to call this hallway much fun.
Thankfully, few other sections are quite so tedious. Barring the navigation of a wall maze, many of the other puzzles are fun and often inspired. There is such a twisted sense of humour that's not necessary laugh-out-loud but wry and knowing. It plays with you, almost trolling you but in the best possible way.
Outside of the game itself, this is most exemplified in the glorious soundtrack by Terry S. Taylor who, along with other members of The Neverhood team, worked at Shiny Entertainment on the Earthworm Jim series. They range from catchy and infectious jazz riffs to experimentalism with a punch-line. Songs like Potatoes, Tomatoes, Gravy and Peas and An Elf Sings the ABCs sound exactly like you'd imagine with those titles. You'll also discover a sound effects tape where you'll discover what a 'man reading' and 'a mime and his audience' sound like (hint: they're all the same).
The Neverhood remains an oddity in gaming, even 20 years after its release. The flaws which were a deliberate artistic choice saw it gaining some very low review scores. While some journalists recognised the genius here, it wouldn't be until much later that it found an audience. As such the original boxed version can be highly sought after and often commanding large prices on auction sites. I'm sure it will continue to rise until an official re-release arrives. Alas, a 2011 attempt by the original creator proved fruitless.
As it stands, we'll just have to make do with the awesome program known as ScummVM, and the revelation that a spiritual successor is in the works (Edit: Armikrog is out now! And it's bloody good!).
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses ScummVM to allow the game to run on modern PCs. Manual included. Soundtrack available as separate download. Tested on Windows 10.
30.08.2017 - Version 2 - Updated SCUMMVM
File Size: 597 Mb. Install Size: 643 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
The Neverhood is © Dreamworks Interactive
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me