Nevermind hopes to change the gaming industry with Biofeedback
In the realm of games, biofeedback is relatively new and isn't widely utilized by mainstream game designers. If there is one thing that was previously impossible to portray in a game -- accurately, at least -- it was the players' physical response to the environment and scenes around them. Erin Reynolds and her breakthrough psychological horror game Nevermind hope to change that.
As an avid fan of gaming from her early years, Erin was fascinated with with games that weren't just fun to play, but also left some sort of lasting impression and impacted her life. To this day I can't wrap my head around Echo the Dolphin, but it impacted Erin so much that it made her completely geek out on marine life, studying up on dolphins and other sea creatures, and even made her consider a major in Marine Biology. When put into that perspective, it made Erin think "What can we do with this?" How could this impactful power coming from a video game be harnessed into another positive experience?
One of Erin's earlier projects in Graduate School was a health game that tried to inspire kids to exercise while still having fun actually playing games. Kids would take care of a creature that could only be upgraded if they exercised along with it. Of course this presented a few challenges, mainly in how to actually hold kids accountable for it? That's when Erin started to look into biofeedback. At that time it was not only really expensive, it just wasn't ready to be used in that sort of medium. As a part of Erin's 2012 MFA thesis project at USC’s Interactive Media Program, Nevermind was born as a proof of concept, and now was able to utilize the biofeedback technology to make the game function as she originally intended.
Stress out too much and those puzzle pieces become impossible to pick up
So what is Nevermind exactly? It's certainly one of the most unique premises for a game that I've ever heard. On the surface, Nevermind has you exploring the mind of extreme psychological trauma patients as a Neuro Prober. That means you'll be exploring the dark recesses of some troubled patients. However, Nevermind has a secondary purpose for its existence. It's to teach people the ability to calm down during stressful situations. Thanks to a biofeedback peripheral, the game will get harder and sometimes near impossible if it senses that you're scared or overly stressed. Learn to manage your fears and calm down, and the game will immediately respond by making the game easier and more manageable.
On the one hand it's a really fun horror/adventure/mystery game, that we want people to have fun and enjoy, but on the other hand, it's also a way people can become more aware of their internal anxiety levels, and learn how to better manage that. In Nevermind you can be in this awful twisted maze, and you have to remain cool while you're in it, and in the real world, it could be staying cool at a traffic light while you're late to a meeting.
This is interesting because it's using very opposing ideals to help make a player calm down. Normally you'd expect someone to whip out their phone for a game of Bejeweled or Tiny Tower to get away and destress a little bit, yet Nevermind does the opposite. It puts players in a creepy environment, made only creepier if they don't learn how to calm themselves down. Where was this technology when I was playing Outlast?
Start feeling stressed, and the kitchen will completely fill up with milk
On the topic of how Erin feels about biofeedback to be used in future games or even other possible genres, she had this to say:
Personally I feel that biofeedback is the future of games. If you look at the evolution of player input, it started out with a joystick and a button or two, then you get more buttons, then you get motion controls, and players have this yearning to have this intimate relationship with their games, and have this seemless interaction.
And that's certainly an interesting point of view, one that I have very little opposition to. While I can't agree that motion controls like the Wii Remote or Kinect have been extremely beneficial, nor are they for everyone, implementing biofeedback technology in various games could certainly only enhance the gameplay, without detracting from the core experience.
Of course, new technology doesn't come cheap, and while Erin stated that biofeedback peripherals are certainly cheaper now than they were back during her earlier grad years, they're still priced right around $100. It's important to note that Nevermind is being developed with the ability to play it without a sensor, and instead the game will try and tell your current state by various tells, such as frantic button presses or how fast your mouse is moving.
Erin and her team at Flying Mollusk have just posted up a Kickstarter for Nevermind, which will help fund numerous aspects of the game, and taking Nevermind from the academic version to a fully playable game. Not only will the team add multiple levels, but the funding will also help bring Nevermind to multiple platforms, as well as expand the number of biofeedback peripherals that could be used with the game.
Nevermind is easily one of the more intriguing titles and I'm eager to see how far Erin and her team are able to take not only this new game, but this idea of helping people manage their stress levels, while simultaneously offering an awesome gaming experience.