The inspiration behind video games comes from strange places: Satoshi Tajiri created Pokémon because he wanted to capture the spirit of his childhood bug-collecting days. Hiroshi Yamauchi decided to make Donkey Kong because a Popeye intellectual property agreement fell through. Erin Reynolds decided to make Nevermind, which hits Steam today, because she wanted to be genuinely frightened. By creating the game, Reynolds, a master’s student at the University of Southern California, also created a new genre: Biofeedback Horror. The game responds to gamers’ pulses to mount a strategic assault on their adrenaline glands.
“Biofeedback and a horror game offered a tremendous opportunity explore everyday stress and anxiety. They dovetailed very nicely,” says Reynolds, sounding every bit the sadist.
In Nevermind, you take the role of a “Neuroprober,” a physician investigating the minds of patients who’ve suffered psychological trauma. The gameplay resolves into puzzles (think: Myst on the Unity engine by way of Cronenberg and Freud).
What separates Reynold’s game from the horror pack is the feedback loop. (Reynolds toyed with the idea of measuring electrodermal activity but that requires measuring the resistance of your skin. Heart rate won.) Right now, Nevermind supports wearable heart rate monitors as well as Intel’s Realsense camera, that can measure heart rate via changes in skin tone. As players’ heart rates increase, Nevermind’s environment responds with visuals that start to trip out and eerie music that swells.
“One of my favorite areas is the kitchen,” Reynolds says. If you’re standing in the virtual kitchen and you get nervous or excited — the technical term is psychologically aroused — it starts flooding with milk.
Reynolds consulted with psychologists and behavioral scientists at USC, so expect to see more chapters fleshing out the game’s exploration of trauma. Each chapter is the doctor’s approach to an individual who humanizes a different aspect of psychological injury; though PTSD is popularly associated with war, Reynolds wanted to show there’s a diversity among traumatic events. Her overarching goal, she tells Inverse, is that players come away with better stress management and awareness of how to deal with what makes them anxious. To that end, she’s exploring ways of adapting Nevermind into a therapeutic tool as well.
“A lot of the way stress changes Nevermind differs throughout the game,” Reynolds explains. “A lot of it is environmental, but we wanted to keep the game fresh.”
Nevermind is bound for Oculus Rift and XBox One, but there is no timeline currently in place.