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Mace and Crown | May 24, 2018

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Don’t Panic

Don’t Panic

“Nevermind” Has Your Dose of Horror Game Therapy

A horror game’s quality is gauged by how well it can thoroughly unsettle a player, but what happens when getting scared means game over?

Through biofeedback technology, “Nevermind” monitors the player’s heartbeat and amps up difficulty as negative reinforcement, forcing them to control their fear to complete the game. 

Though still in beta, Developer and Creative Director Erin Reynolds recently posted “Nevermind’s” Kickstarter goal of $250,000 to fund the creation of a full-fledged game.  The finished product will provide entertainment as a narrative as well as therapy for stress, anxiety and psychological disorders.

Reynolds began work on the project that would become “Nevermind” in 2011 as part of her master’s thesis at the University of Southern California. However, technology limitations at the time prevented her from sculpting her true vision. 

“I wanted to make a game that’s really fun to play but also gives back to the player,” said Reynolds. “It feels like stress management is something that almost all of us feel like we could work on more…so I was really excited about making a game that could help out a lot of people especially in such a significant way.”

Many biofeedback monitors she considered were either too expensive or failed to reliably sync with on-screen gameplay. Her ultimate decision, the Garmin heart-rate monitor, brought her dreams of immersive gameplay to reality.

The Garmin heart-rate monitor straps around the player’s chests and connects wirelessly to the computer through a USB hook. After monitoring the player’s heart rate, that information is sent to “Nevermind” so the game can tweak the scare factor depending on the consistency of the player’s heartbeat.

If a player becomes scared, the screen distorts and the environment starts to break down, increasing the game’s difficulty. Freak out too much, and it’s game over. The only way to continue through the game is by remaining calm despite the stressful environments.

Players assume the role of an employee of the Neurostalgia Institute tasked with delving into the minds of patients to uncover the traumas causing their afflictions. Each surreal level exemplifies particular psychological disorders or fears the patient, and subsequently the player, may have. 

At the start of gameplay, instead of helpful hints about enemy weak points and hidden treasures, “Nevermind” dispenses tips about how to practice calming techniques.  The development team consulted with certified psychiatrists and psychologists to ensure both trauma and remedies were represented authentically.    

But why mix video games with therapy?

“With game design, when you’re trying to get into the state of mind of the viewer, you can’t help but think about what’s going on in their head why they’re making this decision,” Reynolds said. “You create this world for them that will influence them in this specific way, and end up kind of playing with people’s minds inherently.”

In each level, the player analyzes a new patient, disorder, and environment designed to scare the pants off of players.

“We’re taking the opportunity to create a little something awful for everybody,” Reynolds said.

Reaching the game’s Kickstarter goal won’t just mean adding more levels. If given the resources, the team plans to open more lines of communications with academics and medical professionals to improve the game’s realism. Reynolds also expressed her excitement about expanding the game to more interactive platforms, such as the Oculus Rift and the Xbox One’s Kinect.

In trying to construct the surreal atmosphere of “Nevermind,” the development team turned to more than just video games for inspiration. Film, fine arts and music all had a hand in influencing the aesthetics and immersive gameplay.

“We drew inspiration from everywhere, whatever we could get our hands on in terms of how can we visually present these abstract and really dark concepts that will provoke a physiological reaction in the player,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds, a veteran fan of the horror genre, admitted that one of her personal influences was her favorite video game “Eternal Darkness,” along with fellow horror cult classic “Soul Reaver.” She also studied experimental games like “Flower” to learn how to construct immersive atmospheres.

The team hopes to partner with academics and medical professionals during development to learn exactly how “Nevermind” impacts player. With this input, they can design future levels to maximize therapeutic benefits, and, as Reynolds put it, “make the final product as awesome as it can be possibly be.”

Until now, “Nevermind” team has relied heavily on feedback from playtesters concerning the game’s therapeutic benefits, but responses have been mostly positive. Many players reported they feel they can resolve their reactions more quickly and have an easier time managing daily stress after playing for an extended period.

The constant feeling of dread players are exposed to during gameplay builds their tolerance so they can better manage their reaction in future situations, explained Reynolds.

“Obviously in Nevermind it’s a lot more abstracted…you’re going through a twisted and stressful maze and in the real world it might be you’re dealing with rush-hour traffic, but I think the underlying feelings and the way you resolve it are still the same across the board,” said Reynolds.

Eventually the staff intends to create levels for treating specific psychological disabilities, and implement them into therapeutic programs. Plans for creating a more child-friendly version to assist in child therapeutic settings are also underway.

“The world of psychological trauma provides such an exciting opportunity for rich, diverse narratives that I would love to be able to continue building levels for as long as they’ll let me,” said Reynolds.

By Alyse Stanley

Technology and Gaming Editor