Nevermind: a biofeedback horror game for your mental health

In horror-adventure game Nevermind, your performance is influenced by your emotional state.

Nevermind is built on biofeedback technology: You hook up a heart-rate monitor and play, becoming more unhinged by the PC game's subject matter, after which tasks and scenarios immediately ramp up in difficulty. Like other first-person adventure games in the vein of Myst, you must navigate strange environments in Nevermind and solve the puzzles within before you can progress.

In one scenario, a kitchen is filling up with milk and you're in danger of drowning unless you figure out how to stop the flood. The faster your actual heart rate, the faster the room fills with delicious-yet-deadly Vitamin D. Calm yourself and the tide will slow, giving you more time to figure out how to proceed.

You explore the subconscious mind of severe trauma patients in Flying Mollusk's Nevermind, so naturally the subject matter will be a bit grim. Creator Erin Reynolds, a former Zynga full-timer who ditched the day job in late September to dedicate herself entirely to this, is not only trying to create a horror game that excels in its own right, but wants to provide players with an experience that instills real-life skills for dealing with stressful situations.

The incorporation of biofeedback technology not only makes for a more interesting gameplay experience; Reynolds also believes it helps players cope with stress. "It's a great tool to better practice being mindful of your stress and anxiety levels and learn how to assess and manage them on the fly," Reynolds told Joystiq during a phone interview.

If players fail to control those emotions during these scary puzzles, the game won't let up – ever. This concept brings up valid concerns: Will Nevermind present an insurmountable frustration factor? Will the potency of these horrific moments simply diminish as players experience the same segments over and over again? Don't multiple experiences of the same moment, no matter its contents, eventually nullify the effect of that moment?

"It's counter-intuitive to any reasonable game design theory and that's kind of the opposite of what you traditionally want in a video game," Reynolds admitted. "We sort of turn that upside down in Nevermind." Reynolds went on to say the decision was made to provide an overall challenge for players, even outside Neverworld's scripted scares.

She equates the choice to losing your car keys while running late for something: As you frantically look for your keys under couch cushions and in the ice box, the stress and difficulty of the situation escalates with each passing moment. You're checking the same places multiple times, but it doesn't mean that you're any less freaked out about those lost keys while doing so.

​"A real focus of the challenge is trying to get unstressed, getting more frustrated and scared, and figuring out what I can do to calm down." For her, experiencing these moments multiple times won't affect the Nevermind experience in a negative way, because the hook will be for players to figure out how to quell their own anxiety over those sessions. She added that playtests showed players were uncomfortable at first with the difficulty, but intrigued by the challenge and decided to keep playing.

Nevermind began life as Reynolds' thesis during her pursuit of a Master's degree at the USC Games Program. She decided to pursue her Master's in part due to the recognition her USC team received for an app called Trainer, submitted to the White House's Apps for Healthy Kids competition. Trainer, which won the top prize, is inspired by Pokémon and charges players with caring for monsters with a wide variety of dietary and fitness needs.

Reynold's next bit of recognition came when Nevermind was featured in Games for Change – a festival that highlights games impacting society through education or human welfare initiatives. After a Valve employee's experience with Nevermind at Games for Change, the horror game was able to side-step Steam Greenlight and Reynolds was soon after offered a Steam deal.

But games cost money to make, so that brings us to the Kickstarter campaign launched earlier this week. With that cash, Reynolds will be able to bring on some developers waiting in the wings – part-time producers and other talent, including her husband and Hidden Variable co-founder Charley Price, who have already been helping with the project sparingly. The money will also help Reynolds fine-tune the experience for a full commercial release, and make Nevermind compatible with as wide a range of heart-monitoring devices as possible.

Reynolds says that the game is entirely playable without any kind of biofeedback device and even hypothesized that her team might be able to employ certain game-level bio-monitoring workarounds. For example, the game could monitor mouse movement speeds and how quickly buttons are being pressed as a means to decipher player mental state.

Reynolds sees biofeedback gaming as "the next big step" in the ever-evolving medium of video games. "Players are yearning for a more intimate interaction between them and their games, and they want this kind of mind-meld experience where they don't have to worry about the input so much – they just want to be connected to the experience. Biofeedback, to me, feels like the natural next step – and a really exciting next step – in gaming."

​There's also the possibility of general mental health applications, Reynolds added. She's anxious to work with researchers and therapists to see what effect Nevermind can have not only on seasoned players, but those not as well-versed in games. "That's something we're excited to dive into even more than we have already."

Nevermind is looking for $250,000 through Kickstarter. The game is initially coming to PC, though Reynolds says she'd consider Mac OSX, Linux and consoles down the line – granted she's able to secure her funding goal and launch Nevermind "early to May next year."