While traditional horror video games seek to provide an exciting thrill, Nevermind is a biofeedback-enhanced horror game that has greater ambitions. It requires you to manage your anxiety in alarming scenarios – the more stressed you feel, the harder the game becomes. The aim, says Erin Reynolds, its creator, is for players to learn how to not let their fears get the best of them in nerve-wracking situations and hopefully carry over their gameplay-acquired skills into the real world.
A Garmin cardio chest strap akin to the ones gym-goers use to monitor their workout acts as a sensor, relaying the player's heart rate information to the game through an ANT+ USB stick. The game calculates the player's Heart Rate Variability (HRV), measuring the change in the duration between their heartbeats to figure out when their "fight or flight" response has kicked in and adjusts the gameplay accordingly. While Nevermind can't zero in on specific stressful emotions like frustration or upset, it's able to detect the intensity of the player's feelings and gauge how deeply they feel stress at any point during the game.
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Instead of having fanged horrors and hordes of zombies jump out from around corners, which might need a learning curve, the game is more subtle in inducing fear and is designed to appeal to non-gamers too. It creates a warped chaotic atmosphere where the creepiness factor is slowly dialed up, with huge screaming heads, blood-spattered doors and thrashing body bags.
Assuming the role of a newly hired Neruroprober at the Neurostalgia Institute, players boldly dive into the troubled minds of traumatized patients who are repressing their most horrific memories. To root out the cause of their suffering, players will need to solve puzzles and be willing to face a host of unimaginable terrors before the patient's subconscious is ready to release its painful memories.
"This psychological phenomenon is based on how some people cope with severe psychological trauma in real life," Reynolds tells Gizmag. "These are individuals who experienced an event so terrible at some point in their lives that their conscious minds locked all memories of that event away completely. Although the patients can't recall exactly what, if anything, happened to them, the repressed memories end up festering within their subconscious and create immense challenges in their attempts to live a normal life."
The sensor detects how scared or stressed the player gets as they move through the patient's subconscious, recovering ten Polaroid photographs that each represent a distressful memory. Once all the photographs have been collected, they'll have to differentiate the false memories from the five true ones and reconstruct the traumatizing memory. If they start to feel more fear, which the game sets out to trigger, the gameplay becomes perceptibly difficult. While some situations impact players more than others, they are all designed to push the player's buttons.
For example, in the "car maze" section players follow the guiding sound of a blaring car horn through a twisting cave-like maze of crashed and wrecked cars full of disorienting imagery. As the player's fear levels rise, the visuals become increasingly distorted until they are barely able to see what's ahead of them.
"Some players become anxious over the car horn, others over the complexity of the maze, some over the imagery – there are a whole host things in this area that can rile up one's nerves," says Reynolds. "The player needs to have a good grasp on how to calm down by this point in the game as it's a nearly impossible challenge to escape the maze while scared or stressed."
In another scenario, the player explores a grotesque kitchen to find an ambiguous writhing mass in an oven and a giant bloodied refrigerator buzzing with flies that offers a puzzle. If the player gets rattled trying to solve the puzzle in this disturbing setting, milk starts flooding the room, pouring in from all over. Sloshing around in the waist-high milk makes it harder to move and the more anxious the player feels, the more milk floods in until it drowns them. If they are able to calm down in time the milk stops pouring in and drains out. If not, they drown and the game pulls them out of the room, returning them to the peaceful surroundings of the Institute until they feel ready again.
Making the game tougher as the player's fear increases might seem counter-intuitive, but its developers were very clear about designing it that way. "We wanted players to become aware in a very real way of when their anxiety levels were starting to become elevated and reward them for being able to manage that anxiety on the fly," Reynolds tells us. "We knew making the environment change so significantly that it would impact what the player was doing would get their attention."
Developed as part of a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) thesis project within the University of Southern California's Interactive Media and Games Division, Nevermind took about a year to build and presently exists as a "proof of concept game." It has one level with one patient's subconscious mind connected to a hub area that's built to support the minds of 10 more patients. A play through takes about an hour. Reynolds plans to get a Kickstarter project going and launch the game with a variety of disturbed patients in late 2014. The team also plans to conduct thorough studies of the game's impact on players and explore its use in therapy.
Will playing the game have us reacting to freaky situations with a Yoda-like serene gaze? Its developers hope it will help.
"Nevermind draws players in with the promise of a fun, exciting horror game that uses some spiffy new technology, but I hope it ultimately leaves them better equipped to take on the world more bravely and confidently than ever before," Reynolds tells us. "In a way, it's the biggest puzzle in the game – how do you solve your gut, knee-jerk reactions to unpleasant scenarios? If you can figure it out in the game, you'll find success. If you can figure it out in life, you'll find success there too."
Check out a video of Nevermind below.