Crowdfunding can be a fantastic leveler, allowing creative projects to be made even if they wouldn’t pass focus testing, don’t follow industry dogma, or if their cultural value is higher than their contribution to the bottom line. However, it can be just as fickle as an executive board, and getting funded requires a lot more than just having a good idea and the ability to follow through–it requires a strong advertising campaign, healthy early momentum and a dose of luck. I’ve seen plenty of projects that I thought would be an instant success go unfunded, and Nevermind is one of them.
Nevermind is a biofeedback horror adventure game. I had the chance to play the demo level, without the biofeedback technology enabled. Trying to avoid spoilers and realizing that the content is subject to change, what I played was reminiscent of a cross between the old computer game Morpheus (or for a less obscure example, The 7th Guest) and modern psychological horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I was a Neuroprober, a new breed of psychoanalyst. My job was to delve into the unconscious of patients suffering from PTSD and attempt to identify the root of their repression. The sample level offered a nice mix of scares (a veteran horror gamer, even I jumped a few times), puzzles, and a mystery-style story of identifying what really happened in the patient’s past, versus the story they’d invented to cover up the trauma.
Nevermind‘s Kickstarter campaign was wrapping at the same time Entropy was launching, and Erin Reynolds, the game’s lead designer, was one of the first people I reached out to for a possible interview. We were both excited about the prospect, but Erin was unable to share many details about Nevermind‘s future until recently, when she made the official announcement that development of Nevermind will be moving forward in partnership with Intel to highlight the features of their new RealSense 3D Camera. I’m thrilled that the game has been granted a second life, and that I can finally probe the mind of the creative individual behind it.
What is Nevermind?
Nevermind is a biofeedback-enhanced horror adventure game that, essentially, aims to help players habituate stress management techniques that they can then use “in the real world.” While playing Nevermind, players must explore the haunting and deeply surreal landscape of a psychological trauma victim’s subconscious. Doing so requires players to subject themselves to an array of terrifying and uncomfortable scenarios and landscapes.
The trick is to bravely confront the horrors of Nevermind and try to maintain your cool under pressure. Ultimately, the more scared or stressed you become, the more challenging the game will become. The only way to return it to its easier state is to relax–which is easier said than done in Nevermind (and, let’s face it, when stressed in real life too).
Can you talk about how the project took shape? What was the original inspiration, and how did it evolve into its present form?
Nevermind started as a project that was developed by a student team and me as part of my Masters degree thesis. Going into my MFA thesis, I knew that I wanted to create a game that would benefit the player, leverage biofeedback, and fall within the horror genre. Each of those goals sounded like they could almost be mutually exclusive, but after bouncing ideas off of mentors, faculty, friends and family, the concept that became Nevermind started to really take shape. In the course of an academic year, we were able to create one full-featured level–we call this a “polished proof of concept.” It is this version of Nevermind that has since gone on to be showcased at industry events and festivals such as IndieCade, Games for Change and SIGGRAPH, amongst others. Recently, we announced a partnership with Intel that will enable us to revamp the current level, create additional content, leverage the exciting capabilities of the Intel RealSense Camera, and officially release a full version of Nevermind!
Many of Entropy’s readers are gamers, while others are interested in the possibilities of electronic games but don’t know where to start. I’d assume that some of Nevermind’s core audience are similarly inexperienced in playing games. What steps have you taken or plan to take to make sure Nevermind is accessible to a novice gamer?
That’s a great question and one we’ve had in mind from the get-go. We wanted to ensure that players of all gaming backgrounds–from the “hardcore gamer” to “I installed my first app today”–could potentially play, enjoy, and benefit from it. To achieve this, we eliminated as many of the trappings of more traditional video games as we could–things like HUDs, twitch mechanics and complicated button mapping, for example. In their place, we tried to make things like navigation, interaction, conveying important information, etc. as intuitive as possible. We also avoided many of the elements that are often expected in survival horror games, such as “traditional” enemy encounters, combat or punishing death scenarios. Our goal was to ensure that someone who had never picked up a controller before would be able to easily figure out how to play the game and have a shot at completing it, while someone who has been playing games for his/her entire life would be able to enjoy just the same. As a result, the game has a more moody, exploratory thriller atmosphere to it than the high-action freneticness found in many horror games.
I’ve always greatly admired games like Myst in how their challenge existed less in the mechanics and more in the puzzles–in the player’s mind, so to speak. Nevermind’s challenge lies primarily in the player’s ability to solve puzzles and mysteries in the face of the terrifying; and, of course, his/her ability to keep his/her cool while doing so.
Nevermind’s most unique feature is the inclusion of biofeedback technology to monitor and react to the player’s emotional response, which is now being accomplished via Intel’s depth-sensing camera. What are some ways that Nevermind might harness technology to enhance the interactive experience?
Unique biofeedback-based experiences will still be at the core of Nevermind, and the original, overarching creative vision for the game will remain completely intact. Intel’s RealSense 3D Camera gives us a powerful toolset with which we can really enhance the immersion, interactivity and impact of Nevermind through things like gesture sensitivity and other features that we may not be at liberty to speak about just yet. Essentially, Intel’s technology offers things that we never dared to dream about when originally designing Nevermind, and we now feel more creatively empowered than ever! Of course, we should disclaim that no one–neither our players nor our team–wants an experience where the technology feels “tacked on” or implemented for no other reason than “it’s cool.” As such, we’re dedicated to leveraging the technology in a way that further enhances the experience rather than becoming a distraction.
Can you describe in a bit more detail how the biofeedback response works? In what ways does the game get harder depending on the player’s stress levels?
In Nevermind, the environment dynamically responds to the player’s fear and stress levels. When the game senses that player is starting to feel a little anxious, a few things might happen. First, there is a universal indication that the game is detecting fear–that is, the screen becomes more staticky. This visual noise doesn’t harm the player-character in any way; rather, it simply serves as a warning indicator that the player may want to take a few deep breaths before proceeding further.
On top of that, there are areas in the level where the world around you will respond by viciously impeding your progress when it senses that you’re getting scared. Different areas of the level respond in vastly different and unexpected ways.
One of my favorite examples within the current level takes place in a kitchen-like room. When the player starts to become scared, milk starts pouring in from places like the cupboards, toaster, knifeblock, etc.–flooding the room for as long as the player stays in that stressed-out state. If the player can’t calm down soon enough, the milk will start to impede his/her ability to easily walk, causing the player to have to slosh his/her way through the room. If the player still can’t calm down, then the milk will eventually reach his/her sight-line – making it very hard to see anything. If the player can’t calm down still, then the milk will eventually “drown” the player.
In Nevermind, players don’t “die” in the traditional video game sense. What happens is that the player’s inability to relax within a certain amount of time is an indication to the game that the player may be too scared or stressed out, and as a result, the game will remove the player from that area and place him/her into a calmer section of the level. Once the player recoups, he/she is welcome to pick up where he/she left off. Of course, if the player were able to calm down at any point while in the kitchen, the milk would subside and drain out of the room, allowing the player to proceed normally. So, the key is to learn to recognize your own internal stress signals and figure out the best way to manage them so that you can take on even the most horrific and challenging things that Nevermind can throw at you!
Nevermind is two things: it’s a traditional horror/adventure game, on the one hand, but it is also a therapeutic tool to help players learn to control and conquer their anxiety.
Exactly! The current version of Nevermind is intended to help people learn and practice which stress-management techniques work best for them while also giving them the opportunity to habituate employing those techniques so that it becomes second nature (coming in handy when they encounter a stressful or uncomfortable situation in real life). We also see great potential for Nevermind being used as a therapeutic tool for helping those with stress or anxiety on a clinical level, and we’re looking forward to continuing to work with behavioral health experts to explore those possibilities even further.
Was this aspect part of the game from the beginning?
I’ve always been very passionate about the potential games have to benefit players in a very profoundly positive way. From the very beginning of even contemplating the concept for the game that Nevermind would become, I was absolutely dedicated to making sure the experience would be both highly entertaining and beneficial at the same time.
Do you worry that people who suffer from anxiety might not play Nevermind, due to its shocking imagery? On the other hand, do you worry that traditional gamers will be turned off by the therapeutic aspect of the game?
Nevermind certainly isn’t for everyone, and we strongly encourage anyone who really struggles from anxiety or has any other psychiatric considerations that may make them particularly sensitive to the imagery or scenarios within Nevermind to consult with a medical professional before playing it. Again, we are really excited about the potential Nevermind has to, one day, become a powerful tool within a therapeutic setting. However, the current version may not be appropriate for some players with specific therapeutic needs. In the future, we may (and certainly hope to) have specific levels or versions of the game that can address those specific needs in a safe, effective and helpful way.
I strongly believe that games that “give back” are going to become increasingly popular moving forward. So many of us have such little time these days that it often can be incredibly difficult to justify spending any significant amount of time playing video games. As adults, I think that many of us feel obligated to invest any “free time” into self-improvement of some sort, whether it’s going for a run, reading a book, doing brain training, etc. However, video games can be an incredibly powerful source of motivation, inspiration, and education.
I think traditional gamers are going to appreciate, more and more, games that are just as exciting, fun and interesting as any popular traditional game out there but also help benefit and empower them as a byproduct of the experience. As such, I think many traditional gamers will be excited by the beneficial aspect of Nevermind–that is, developing stronger stress-management tools–rather than turned off by it.
I personally believe that a lot of games, even those intended for pure entertainment, can be rewarding in this way. As a gamer, I feel that I’m constantly flexing my fluid intelligence (the ability to confront new situations and solve problems on the fly), and I’ve also gotten side benefits such as honing my sense of direction and ability to quickly pinpoint small details in a cluttered visual landscape. However, I’m interested in your idea of games that “give back” in ways beyond this. Do you have any examples to share of games other than Nevermind that do this particularly well?
Well, at the risk of sounding like a total dork, I’ll say that I love Dance Dance Revolution for this very reason. It’s one of my favorite examples of how a game can be completely fun, not feel “healthy” or “educational” at all, and still impact the player in a very positive way. To give a personal example, I wasn’t the healthiest person for a long time – I didn’t have many positive associations with exercise and, frankly, didn’t even know where to start if I did want to get in shape. However, when I was introduced to DDR, it was love at first sight. I had so much fun acting like a total goofball and dancing my heart out to J-Pop masterpieces – and, in the process, lost a ton of weight and gained a newfound positive relationship with health and exercise. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too cheesy, but in many ways it was a life changing experience for me. The fact that games can do that for me or anyone else is what makes me so excited about the potential of games and the future moving forward.
What were your strongest influences when designing Nevermind? As mentioned below, I got a strong adventure game feel from it, thinking back to games like Morpheus, The 7th Guest and Obsidian. Then there are elements of modern horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
There are a ton of works from gaming and other media that definitely served as inspiration in our vision for Nevermind. These include, but aren’t limited to, games like Myst; Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; Silent Hill 2; Theresia; 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors; the Legacy of Kain series, and even Flower. Then there are the sources outside of gaming, such as TV series like The X-Files and Millennium, films such as Cube and The Cell, and even music and fine art.
Let’s talk about the concept of the Neuroprober and the conceit that, while playing these levels, you are helping people with PTSD confront and resolve their traumas. I was surprised to see this additional psychological layer on top of the therapeutic application mentioned earlier, and it seems like the game might also be used to help give sufferers of PTSD the strength to confront their own traumas, or even give regular gamers more insight into the lives of trauma sufferers. What sort of research did you do to make sure this aspect of the game felt authentic?
In addition to our goals of creating a genuinely fun and engaging game experience that can benefit players, we also wanted to help bring more awareness to PTSD and psychological trauma.
I think many people are tangentially aware of it, but few truly understand what it is, what it means, and just how many people–their friends, family, coworkers, etc.–are touched by PTSD and trauma. We hope to educate and, in many ways, humanize trauma and PTSD so that we can help dispel so many of the myths out there and empower those who are struggling with it in their own lives.
To that end, in designing and developing Nevermind, it has been crucial to us that we address PTSD and trauma in as respectful and responsible a way as possible. We have been so fortunate to have several advisors and mentors who have been incredibly generous with their time and knowledge to help guide and educate us on these matters throughout all stages of Nevermind’s development. Moving forward, we absolutely plan to continue to work with professionals and experts to ensure that the game experience is as informed as possible, in everything from the narrative to the art to the overall game design and beyond.
There are many sources of trauma. Are there any details you can share about additional levels you have planned?
We’re not quite ready to share any details around the upcoming levels just yet. However, I can say that the team and I are very interested in and aware of the fact that psychological trauma can originate from a wide variety of experiences and scenarios. Some sources are perhaps more well known, such as trauma that may develop after an encounter with a wartime combat scenario or sexual assault. However, each and every person’s experience with psychological trauma is unique and tells its own story. We’re eager to explore many of these different stories and create more awareness around the depth and diversity of psychological trauma through the world of Nevermind. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.
Thanks so much for your time. I love the concept behind Nevermind, and can’t wait to see how it continues to come together. Are there any last details or statements you’d like to share?
Thank you so much! The only thing I have to add is that we’ll be continuing to share exciting announcements over the next several months, so I’d encourage anyone who is interested in Nevermind to sign up for our mailing list (on our website, www.nevermindgame.com), and/or join us on Facebook and Twitter. We’re really looking forward to sharing more with everyone soon!