Fear is powerful, but is it strong enough to change the outcome of a video game? If the game is Nevermind, then the answer is yes.
Nevermind, which is currently on Kickstarter, is a biofeedback video game that thrives off your fear. You play as a doctor who enters the minds of patients who have suffered psychological traumas. As you – the person, not the character you’re playing – exhibit a key sign of terror, the difficulty of the game increases. In other words, you have to stay calm if you want to get through the level.
Erin Reynolds is the creative director and lead on Nevermind. The game began life as her MFA thesis project at University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Games Program. On a recent Skype call, Reynolds explains what happens when fear takes hold and how Nevermind uses that to the game’s advantage.
“We look at heart rate variability,” says Reynolds. “What that means is that, when you’re calm but alert, you’re basically in a good healthy state, your heart rate has a slightly different cadence from moment to moment.” She goes on to explain that, in a calm state, your heart will alternate between fast and slow beats. That’s essentially the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems at work. “The two alternate back and forth as a way to kind of keep you in the mid-level, I’m awake, I’m alert, I’m happy, but I’m also relaxed and not stressed out,” she says.
“When you’re afraid,” she continues, “the sympathetic system takes control. That’s when your heart rate moves quickly. It becomes consistent,” she says. Nevermind players strap on a heart monitor, which detects changes in their rhythm. “We can tell that if the heart rate starts to get consistent, that means the player is getting scared or stressed,” says Reynolds. “When it becomes inconsistent, it means the player is back in a good state.”
Reynolds has spent more than a decade working in the video game industry. She has worked as a game designer, as well as in art and production. She has a passion for “positive games,” which she describes as a game that “gives back” to the player. Biofeedback technology had long interested her as well. She had experimented with it in a prior project. “At that time, the biofeedback technology wasn’t quite evolved enough to be integrated into a game system,” says Reynolds. “When it came time to work on Nevermind, a couple years later, it was close enough where I knew there was a way we could get it to work.”
Reynolds looked into various types of sensors for Nevermind. “We wanted something to detect psychological arousal in the player, to put it technically,” she says. For that purpose, Reynolds and her team would need a sensor that tracked either sweat or heart rate. The latter won. For the demo, Nevermind uses a Garmin strap that can be easily found online.
The game has been in the works since 2011. In May of the following year, Reynolds finished her thesis and graduated, along with other members of her team, and took a full-time job. After that, the game that marked her time in grad school became something bigger. “The game industry was getting excited about it. The academic community was getting excited about it,” says Reynolds. “It was amazing because people were getting to be as excited and as enthusiastic about this crazy idea of mine as I was and that’s an incredibly exciting and empowering feeling.”
To date, Nevermind has appeared in festivals like IndieCade. It was a finalist for multiple awards. Last September, Reynolds quit her job and made Nevermind a full-time endeavor. The goal now is to turn Nevermind from thesis project to commercial game. Reynolds and a small group of co-conspirators have turned to Kickstarter to help fund a full-time team and other necessities. They’re planning on making Nevermind available for PC and Mac. (Right now, it’s a PC-only game.) There is also talk of working with Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset. Reynolds has also expressed an interest in making the game available for Xbox One players. “They have the new Kinect 2.0 that can read biofeedback data from the camera, so you wouldn’t need to wear a sensor to have biofeedback active,” says Reynolds. “That’s incredibly exciting to us as a team to sit on your couch and play it and get the same experience.”
Reynolds sees biofeedback technology as part of the future of gaming. “I look at the evolution of controllers and player input. You start out with a rudimentary joystick and a button or two,” she says. “That evolves into more buttons and that evolves into a lot more buttons. Then you start seeing things like touch interfaces and gestural interfaces.”
The advent of biofeedback games has the potential to create unique experiences for gamers, one that Reynolds says could have a “powerful effect on both the game experience and the player.”
“For me, biofeedback is a really exciting and important step in that evolution,” says Reynolds, “because now the game has a way of almost knowing more about you than you know about yourself, and reacting to a very personal and intimate part of yourself.”