Ever since the Kickstarter was announced almost exactly a year ago, I’ve been chomping at the bit to try Nevermind, the psychological horror title released by Flying Mollusk on September 29. The delay in writing this review was due to my being able to also test the Intel RealSense camera, which provides an added level of challenge and insight to the surreal experience. Insanity meters have been used in games, before, but Nevermind aims to add a more personal element to the fear, and overall, I have to say that I quite enjoyed myself.
Players are a Neuroprober at the Neurostaliga Institute, a company that specializes in helping to cure PTSD in a novel way: The exploration of the mind, and sorting of memories. The theory goes that people with trauma in their past tend to collect false memories, either to cope with the terrible incident, or to amplify it (this process is not always voluntary). As the player, it’s your job to go into the minds of two very sick people (three, if you count the tutorial), and sort out their past to help them cope with the reality of the situation.
The risks associated with the “mind-meld” required for the process include your mood affecting that of the patient, changing the environment in their mind, and possibly causing harm. This is where the sensors come in. A Garmin chest strap (with a USB adapter), a Wild Divine sensor that attaches to the ear, and the Intel RealSense camera (albeit a developer model) were all available for press to borrow in order to test this optional aspect of the game. While there were some hiccoughs when setting up the camera with my laptop (the only PC in my home with Windows 8 or higher, which is required for the game), once it was working, the experience was pretty neat.
As an aside, I had so much trouble setting up the camera that I scheduled a Skype call with the developers to help fix it, and would like to go ahead and thank them for spending an hour and a half remotely troubleshooting to help not only with my laptop, but future systems that should have this same issue. So, to Jesse Busch (Lead Engineer), Michael Annetta (Creative Producer), and Erin Reynolds (CEO and Creative Director), thank you very much for your help and responsiveness on the issue. Players can rest assured that the Flying Mollusk team works hard to make the experience as simple as possible.
On to the game – Nevermind is actually quite short, but also seems to be somewhat standard in length for exploration horror, these days. Or maybe the experience just seems to be shorter because it’s so immersive. The plots behind the trauma of the patients are complex and, from what I remember from my psychology studies in college, quite accurate to the reflections of those who have PTSD. This is likely because in researching for the game, Reynolds had already envisioned the therapeutic aspect of using feedback technology to help those who suffer from anxiety disorders, and the most effective way to treat some of them is by exposure therapy. The method of playing Nevermind forces players to concentrate on their breathing to keep their heart rate down in order to avoid the side effects that impact gameplay.
Some of these effects include a higher rate of injurious situations in the environment, a larger amount of static on the screen, and changes to the environment which make puzzles and navigation much more difficult. I have a pretty good poker face when I’m scared, but the RealSense camera has an infrared sensor that can detect my heartbeat, so I didn’t get away with simple stone-faced gameplay. When I was startled, I noticed an immediate change to the game, and would have to pause and take a second to collect myself before moving forward. Honestly, I almost found the game to be a meditative experience, because most of the techniques used to calm down when stressed are techniques used when having “reflective time” in yoga. I was actually less stressed when I was finished playing than when I started. It was really weird, but also very cool.
The algorithm for the heart rate sensor, and reactivity of the game, is based on the body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system reactions to stress. The parasympathetic nervous system controls resting heart rate and respiration, while the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear when we become stressed – this is what denotes the “fight or flight” response. The sensors pick up on the difference (after recording your resting rate), and boom, biofeedback.
Gameplay for those without the camera sensor involves using a mouse and keyboard to navigate, interact with objects, and solve puzzles. With the camera comes an additional method of control: Hand gestures. Opening a door involves pushing your hand towards the camera. Picking up an object can be accomplished by holding up your hand, then closing it while twisting your wrist slightly. To rotate a held object, simply rotate your arm. While these gestures didn’t always work, due to the extra processing power required by the camera, when they did, it was nice.
Nevermind is played from a first-person perspective, with graphics that aren’t cutting-edge; but this somehow works to the game’s advantage. The more surreal aspects of the game become somehow more disturbing with the almost paper-doll appearance of some of the remembered people and objects. For example, a scene that takes place at a funeral features a congregation with masks that follow the player as they try to navigate. These masks are unsettling not only because of the expression, but because of their flat appearance. It’s unnerving. The colors are spot-on, with vibrant colors illustrating some of the more creepy features of the subconscious, and darker corners providing contrast.
My only quibble with the graphics, and this is common for me, is that the wide FOV contributed to some eye strain. There is no option to turn it down, so if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, you might want to limit your play time, and not marathon the game. As for the resolution, Nevermind looks best when played at 1920×1080 (it looks really awesome, actually), but is resource-intensive, so playing at a lower resolution might work better, particularly if you’re playing with the sensor. It sounds counter-intuitive, but your PC’s processor will thank you for it.
The sounds, whether ambient or reactive, included music to add tension (and relief, in some areas), the sound of bullets and car horns, and the noises my character made while plodding around and interacting with the environment. The sound design was very good, particularly in areas where high-stress environmental factors were present. The music added a challenge, for me, as I’m very sensitive to noises, so even when I didn’t visually see anything startling, I still had to collect myself due to the noises I was hearing around me, in-game.
The game was first conceived as an MFA thesis project at USC’s Interactive Media Program. Reynolds wanted to create a more positive experience for gamers, and formerly worked at Zynga. With the help of her team, and the backers on Kickstarter, she’s managed to create what I think is a wholly enjoyable experience…at least for those who don’t mind graphic gore and depictions of violence. There is plenty of that in Nevermind, so be aware that if you have an aversion to dead bodies, body horror, or blood, this may not be the game for you.
Nevermind is available for PC and Mac, and can be purchased on Steam for $19.99 USD. It is a great addition to any horror fan’s library. The sensors (at least the chest strap and ear sensor) can be purchased at the links above, though they’re not required for the experience; fast movement and even standing in one place for too long can trigger the fear responses that an elevated heart rate triggers.
To keep up with Flying Mollusk, follow the game on Twitter, “like” the Nevermind Facebook page, or even follow the team on Instagram. More information about Nevermind and how the game’s biofeedback works can be found on their website.