Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
When Erin Reynolds talks about Nevermind, it is apparent her aspirations go well beyond making players cower in the glow of their night lights.
As the creative director of the adventure horror game, she speaks with enthusiasm about developing an experience that has the potential to be both scary and transformative, one that will first terrify players utterly but will also offer them a real-life takeaway.
“With Nevermind, it was really important that we create an experience that people want to play and yearn for but that they also come away feeling a little more confident, brave, able to manage the day-to-day stresses more effectively,” she said.
The Kickstarter for Nevermind launched earlier this week, and the plot is almost Cronenbergian in its construction. Players assume the role of a Neuroprober, a sort of psychiatrist who can travel into the minds of patients who have endured intense psychological trauma. The Neuroprobers ease the patients’ emotional burdens through traversing these disturbing subconscious events and solving the “puzzles” at the center of them.
Though in some ways it is a horror game in line with recent, moody offerings like Amnesia and Outlast, one thing separates it completely: Nevermind knows when you’re scared.
An optional (but seemingly essential) peripheral for the game is a monitor that records the player’s heart rate variability and then modifies the gameplay accordingly. The more terrified the participant, the harder the game. “The environment impedes the player’s progress,” Reynolds said. “The world around you becomes more punishing and menacing as you get more stressed and scared.”
Players are not required to don any special equipment to play the game – and the development team is looking to make the game as compatible with as many sensor types as possible – but therein lies the truly innovative aspect of Nevermind’s premise: being “strapped in” is kind of like riding a roller coaster that knows you don’t like a twelve story freefall.
Because the game’s action occurs entirely within the human mind, environments are not constricted by any sort of real-world logic, which opens up the game for innumerable possibilities for scares. For example, becoming frightened in a room full puzzle pieces illuminated by a spotlight will result in the spotlight slowly going out, leaving the player in a completely dark room. Most of them are slightly surreal, and Reynolds notes David Lynch as a particular inspiration for the visual aesthetic.
Despite the menacing exterior, there is no traditional combat. Nevermind is not a survival horror game, nor is it aggressively horrific – it is exploration-based, like Myst. The philosophy is to create a game that almost anyone can play. “There are senses of danger in the game and things that are threatening, but we just want to create a world that pushes the buttons of the players,” she said.
They are also actively working on finding a nice balance in how to have the game’s mechanics overlap with the dynamic nature of the heart monitor. To be effective, it has to find the Goldilocks Zone of being not too scary and not too tame.
And although some playtesters endured the current version without losing their nerve, she said “some people would play it, get about a third of the way through and stand up, put the headphones down, take the sensor off and say, ‘Look, this is awesome, but I can’t deal with this. This is too intense.’”
For Reynolds, however, the game is not entirely about being able to integrate a cool new peripheral into the game’s systems to make it more dynamic. The through-line in both the development and execution of Nevermind relates to the perception that games can be more than kick-ass experiences. More specifically, she aims to help people deal with anxiety in a real and substantial way.
It is an ambitious project – the Kickstarter seeks a substantial goal of $250,000, with stretch goals in upwards of $1 million – and she doesn’t shy away from that, because she sees games maturing into motivational and educational tools that integrate far-reaching fields to improve players’ lives through more than just entertainment.
“People are starting to realize the potential games have to really inspire and motivate and teach,” Reynolds said, adding, “you are given challenges you don’t normally face, so using that as an opportunity to let players grow and improve from that is something I know I personally find extremely exciting, and I think both game developers and game players are starting to really get excited about it as well.”
Nevermind is scheduled to be released on PC and Mac – it has been pre-approved to run on Steam – and there are also talks to include it on the Oculus Rift, as well. The Kickstarter will run through the month of February and can be found here.