First posted on 29 April 2009. Last updated on 11 August 2009.
"Consider three things, and thou wilt not fall into transgression: know whence thou comest, whither thou art going, and before whom thou art about to give account and reckoning: before the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."
- - Aqabia ben Mahalallel
This quote from the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinic discussions on Jewish law, ethics, and customs, is the story of The Neverhood in a nutshell.
The Neverhood is a point-and-click adventure game created by famed animator Douglas Tennaple (best known as creator of Earthworm Jim) and published by Dreamworks Interactive. The game has been hailed by critics as a classic in the making almost immediately upon its release in 1996. Since then, it has become a cult favorite among adventure game fans for its quirky humor and astounding animation.
The game tells the story of Klaymen, who sets on a journey to return order to his world, called the Neverhood, and save its king and ruler Hoborg. Along the way, he encounters some of the Neverhood's unusual residents and learns of the deep history and mythology about it. While the exact reason for his journey is not fully disclosed until the very end, hidden between the lines is some sort of personal journey that metaphorically explores our capacity for deep thoughts, dreams, and wishes.
Installation of the game is straightforward: simply insert the CD, select the install option on the opening screen, and enter the license key provided.
The title sequence also serves as a preview of the game, both visually and aurally. It features the quirky animation and music that are the game's trademarks. The game starts immediately afterwards. The main menu, accessible by clicking Esc, includes the usual system options: New Game, Load Game, Save Game, Delete Game, Resume Playing, and Quit. Music can be turned on or off. There are no subtitles.
Navigation is simple, using an intuitive point-and-click interface. The game is node based, so exploration is limited to preset locations. Most of the items Klaymen will collect are information disks that contain parts of the story of the Neverhood told by his friend, Willie Trombone. Klaymen will store the disks and other items he finds in a special compartment inside his body. There is no direct inventory handling, unusual for an adventure game for its time. Whenever Klaymen encounters an object which has to be maneuvered (for instance, a balloon that has to be popped), clicking on it will make him take out the relevant inventory item and use it. This saves the burden of trying out every item on an object when it is unclear what exactly needs to be done. On the other hand, this takes out much of the fun of trying to devise creative ways to use the items to solve the puzzles in the game.
There is an in-game hints system, disguised as "letters" sent to Klaymen by Willie. Hints are always useful, at least for the beginning of the game. However, the hints system itself is cumbersome to use: Klaymen has to first get back to his room, climb down a ladder, and then check his mailbox. There is no shortcut. While the system is useful (and amusing to use) early on in the game, the routine becomes tiresome and annoying as the game progresses. Fortunately, by then, most players will already have become familiar with the game's logic, making the hints unnecessary. Perhaps the system is designed this way on purpose to discourage players from using the hints indiscriminately.
According to the developer, the game world is literally created using over 3 tons of clay. Everything is made of clay, including the main menu and every written word that is (or appears to be) etched in it. Even the text that describes the history of the Neverhood is etched on the seemingly endless clay walls of the Neverhood Hall of Records, some of which is written with a definite biblical undertone. The use of clay gives an intimate and warm atmosphere to the game, combined with a sense of familiarity to any gamer who has played with clay as a kid.
The world of the Neverhood is colorful, imaginative, and seems to be governed by its own rules. Nothing is too weird; everything is exciting. It is very much the way a child looks at the world of grownups. Even Klaymen himself has childlike qualities. He is consistently curious about and fascinated by his surroundings. He is also very friendly, innocent, playful, and always happy.
True, the Neverhood seems empty and devoid of habitants. However, the developer has cleverly leveraged this premise for the story so that it becomes part of the reason why Klaymen sets on his journey in the first place.
The animation in the game is top notch. Each character is painstakingly animated frame by frame (over 50,000 frames of animations in total) in a process known as stop-motion. It is the same process used to animate King Kong or Wallace and Grommit. To the animators' credit, the movement of the character is surprisingly smooth (Klaymen's gait even reminds me of Groucho Marx's). The animation makes for many funny moments. For instance, at a point in the game, Klaymen is sprayed with goo by an angry insect. He then literally wipes his face. His head remains featureless for a second or so, until his eyes, nose, and mouth pop back to their correct anatomical positions.
A quibble I have with this game is that Klaymen cannot be made to walk faster than he does or run. At times, the lack of speed can be quite frustrating. In general, however, it fits the overall relaxed nature of the game.
Another quibble is that the cut scenes and transitions in the game are very pixelated. The low video quality is likely due to storage and memory limitations of the hardware at the time. Sound quality is not affected, though. There is also a barely noticeable flash in the beginning and end of each transition from gameplay to cut scenes, and vice versa, as well as when transiting between nodes. These are the only technical problems I have encountered in the game.
The music, written by singer and songwriter Terry Scott Taylor, is superb. It ranges in mood from utterly hilarious to downright funny. The unusual orchestration (consisting mainly of brass instruments, guitars, and percussion) makes the music sound at times like a country folk band. The vocals, sung by Taylor himself, include a mix of gibberish singing, yodeling, or Tom Waits imitation. There is always a good measure of fun thrown into the music, mixed with an air of tongue in cheek. In fact, a tie-in soundtrack, Imaginarium: Songs from the Neverhood, that includes music from both The Neverhood and its sequel Skullmonkeys (also known as Klaymen Klaymen 2), has been released by Taylor separately. This is quite unusual for a video game and serves as another proof to the quality of the game's music. In Japan where the game is known as Klaymen Klaymen, it has also gained a rabid fan base among Japanese gamers, perhaps owing to the widespread taste in anime in that country.
The sound effects are great. From taking a seat in a rusty cannon chair to the angry mutterings of a tiny creature to the world's most articulated burp, it is clear that a lot of attention has been paid to the game's soundscapes. Though there are no verbal exchanges during gameplay, the voice acting wherever exists is superb. The dialogs during the endgame cut scenes have a deep emotional depth to them and are very clearly delivered. Lip-synching is also excellent.
The usual gamut of puzzles (over 60 puzzles as claimed by the developer) is present, with an occasional twist. There are some sound puzzles, a maze, and a slider puzzle. There are no inventory puzzles per se; rather, clicking on an object will automatically trigger Klaymen to perform the correct action, assuming that the inventory item necessary to do so is available. Difficulty ranges from easy to medium. Some puzzles use hints or devices found in other locations, so the player needs to be very attentive to details. Some puzzles are more logical (in a loose sense) than others. Also, there is a particularly frustrating puzzle that will challenge even the best of adventure gamers. Thank heavens for small mercies, there are no timed puzzles.
The game allows for an unlimited number of save slots. Each game save can be given a descriptive title. This is a very helpful feature. Note, however, that saved games are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of progress. Different onscreen text colors are used to differentiate between save and load screens.
Depending upon the player's choice near the end scenes, the game ends with 1 of 2 possible endings. Death is not an option (no pun intended). During gameplay, there is also a lurking funny ending. It is preceded by a specific warning, and it is final. The game ends right there and then, and the player will have to manually start over from the last game save.
A brief "The Making of" short can be accessed by choosing the About option from the main menu. Sadly, the short is only in black and white and plays in low resolution in a small window. Still, it is interesting to learn about the creative process and get a peek behind the scenes during the game's development.
Has time been kind to The Neverhood? It certainly has. On many levels, the game is superior to more contemporary counterparts that may be technically superior. The claymation in this game is pure eye candy, and the artistry demonstrated in it alone is reason enough to give this game a try. In other words, it is still as fun to play today as years ago—and fun is, basically, what gaming is all about.