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A Horror Game That Heals

Biofeedback game 'Nevermind' and the case for video games as therapy.

by Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
Feb 3 2015, 11:30am

​Image: Nevermind screenshot

A carton of milk lies on its side in a dowdy, decrepit kitchen, black fluid oozing from its spout. The room is something of a paradox, at once pokey and enormous: the rusty fridge to my left towers like an obelisk, magnetic letters scarring its flank, and the carton almost comes up to my chin.

In the gas oven opposite, something brown and bulbous is visible. As I approach, it twitches. I flinch back—and milk spurts from the walls and fittings, threatening to flood the chamber in the space of a few seconds. I pause and take a few deep breaths, steadying myself, and the deluge subsides as quickly as it began. This is one of the first navigable areas in Flying Mollusk's ​Nevermind, a horror game that gives new meaning to Friedrich Nietzsche's phrase that "if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

Due for release on PC later this year, Nevermind is yet another piece of technology that watches you. It uses an Intel RealSense camera to monitor changes in heart rate via the pulsing of blood in the player's face, and adjusts what you can see, hear and interact with in response. Appropriately, the freely available 2012 proof-of-concept level (download it ​via this page—you'll need a Garmin Heart Rate chest str​ap) is full of meditations on the dread of being under surveillance, or of seeing too much. A mounted deer's head cranes around to stare as you fumble to complete a jigsaw puzzle, while a colony of stone busts swivel to avoid eye contact, shrieking in protest. 

The faster your heart beats, the more disturbing the world around you becomes, and the harder it is to complete your objectives.

Image:  Nevermind screenshot

The idea isn't, however, just to scare. The same technology that allows the game to target your moments of weakness is also a means of bolstering the player's emotional resilience. "Stress and anxiety originate from so many things in our daily lives—traffic, phone calls, meetings, babies crying—that it is necessary to have a few universal, tried-and-true tricks in your back pocket for facing those feelings, no matter the source," Nevermind's creative director Erin Reynolds told me via email.

"Nevermind gives players the opportunity to place themselves in intense and uncomfortable situations, and practice different techniques to counter sensations of stress and fear that may arise—hopefully, leading to seamless confidence when using those techniques on the fly, no matter what the occasion may be."​

Conceived by Reynolds while she was completing a Masters in Fine Arts at the University of South California, Nevermind is one of a growing coterie of "serious" games that aim to "surreptitiously help you become the person you want to be," to paraphrase Flying Mollusk's officia​l profile. Drawing on a staple of psychological horror cinema, it casts the player as a therapist with the ability to explore a 3D simulation of a patient's mind.

"Each patient has experienced a terrible event at some point in his or her life—something so horrific that he or she can no longer consciously remember it (a phenomenon that can occur in actual trauma patients)," explained Reynolds."As a result, while the details, or even the fact that the event occurred at all, have been repressed, subconsciously the memories are churning and twisting around." ​

Image: Nevermind screenshot

The patient's trauma governs the design and aesthetic of the puzzles you'll encounter. A memory of a loved one's car crash might, for example, conjure up a warren of mangled, rusted steel, where you navigate towards the wail of a horn. Less dramatically, you'll glean details of a forgotten catastrophe from the spines of books, safe combinations, and upset crockery. "Everything in the level is a clue—every object, the nature of the lighting, the color scheme of the room, the tone of the music. Every nook and cranny speaks to the buried event that you, the player, must sleuth out."

Complicating matters is the fact that there's no obvious break between the chills that are written into each level's script, and those that stem from your responses. Thus, part of the challenge is to dissociate yourself from your patient's inner conflicts. It's easier said than done. "Leave your worries at the door," demands a piece of in-game graffiti, directly below a child's drawing of a pair of eyes. Character death is impossible, at least, though the game will transport you to a more restful area if your consternation is such that certain key puzzle elements are impossible to interact with.

Read: ​In the Future, Horror Games Will Take Your Pulse to Scare You Better

Reynolds is keen to emphasise that Nevermind is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood therapist—it will be sold as an entertainment product, and can be played without a biofeedback device if desired (the final version will support a range of peripherals besides the Intel RealSense camera, including the Xbox One's Kinect sensor). The game is the result of "myriad research," however, and Flying Mollusk hopes to develop a "health-centric" version in partnership with behavioral health experts. 

As it stands, Nevermind compares promisingly to non-commercial projects like ​PlayMancer, a European research initiative that has created games for the treatment of impulse-related disorders such as bulimia or pathological gambling.

The biofeedback technology used by PlayMancer's offerings is far more sophisticated than that of Nevermind, but it's the basis for much the same feedback loop of increasing difficulty in proportion to factors such as heart rate and expression. Patients are asked, for example, to gather balloons in an underwater environment without running out of oxygen, or to climb a mountain in the face of obstacles that are generated in response to their stress levels. "The final objective is not to win, in a classical game manner," note the project's authors. "But to achieve a greater capacity of self-control."

Character death is impossible, at least

In truth, video games have never been about "winning" per se—as bundles of tools and systems, their psychological rewards arise from mastery rather than victory over a foe or completion of a storyline. The reactive qualities of an experience like Nevermind thus have as much to offer the art of game design as they do the world of therapy.

I can well imagine a whole generation of titles that challenge a player's self-control for various ends—breathing mechanisms that affect your aim in Call of Duty, or non-player characters who respond to your expression.

"In general, games that can listen to your subconscious reaction to their content and tailor their experiences to suit those reactions can be incredibly powerful," Reynolds commented. "Although I have a few ideas of my own, I really think the applications for the technology are so broad that no single idea would do this emerging field justice."