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  • Overcoming Fear With USC's Nevermind

    - staff
  • Horror games like Silent Hill and Amnesia: The Dark Descent certainly try to get inside your head, but few games do so as literally as the experimental thriller Nevermind. This title uses a biofeedback system to examine a player's heart rate (and thus, their mental state) and adjust its difficulty accordingly.

    But unlike most horror games, Nevermind isn't just trying to scare its players. By tailoring itself to match a player's level of panic, the game aims to teach its audience to better cope with stress and the difficulties we face in everyday life.

    Nevermind began its life as a student project at the University of Southern California, and its team hoped to explore what it really means to face and deal with virtual horror. We recently spoke with Nevermind's team lead, Erin Reynolds to learn more about how this project plays with the boundaries of an established genre.

    You'll find our full interview with Reynolds below.

    First off, what is Nevermind, and how did this project get started?

    Nevermind is a biofeedback-enhanced psychological-horror adventure game (try to say that three times fast). It started when I had to determine what path I wanted to take for my MFA thesis at the University of Southern California. Thesis projects are an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the huge risk of creating your "dream project" with the resources of a university at your disposal and few of the pressures that come with more commercially oriented game development. My own dream project was to find a way to combine two distinct areas that I have been equally curious and passionate about for several years now: creating games that leave the player with a lasting positive impact outside of the game space...and surreal horror.

    Furthermore, I had previously dabbled in the use of biofeedback technology in games earlier in my graduate school career and was eager to invest in exploring that potential further. So, spawned by these seemingly disparate goals,and with the inspiration and generous support of advisors, friends and colleagues alike, the seeds of Nevermind were planted.

    Other than Nevermind, what kind of experience does the team have with game development?

    One of our team's greatest strengths was the fact that everyone came to the project with a very different background. Some team members were undergraduate CS students who had previously developed other games in classes, independently, and/or at internships. Some members were graduate students who primarily had backgrounds in film production, music composition, or electrical engineering, for whom Nevermind was their very first game. I worked in the industry as an artist and game designer for several years prior to returning to school, so I already had a few shipped titles under my belt. We really had a little bit of everything. As a result, we all were able to learn from each other, either by sharing insight from having been "in the trenches" or providing new perspectives on how to approach design and development challenges.

    One of the game's most distinctive featured is its use of biofeedback. Can you take a moment to discuss how this works?

    The sensor we use is a simple Garmin cardio chest strap -- similar to one that you might see people wear while jogging or at the gym. The sensor sends heart rate information to the game via an ANT+ Bluetooth USB stick. From there, the game takes that data and determines the player's heart rate variability (HRV) to inform in-game events. Heart rate is simply the speed at which someone's heart beats, but HRV is the change in speed over a certain period of time. Contrary to what one might expect, an inconsistent heart rate is actually more ideal than a consistent one. This is because your body is constantly switching back and forth between its amped up state, the sympathetic system, and its mellowed out state, the parasympathetic system.

    When your body is alternating between both systems, you're in a naturally alert but calm state. This is a good thing. In general, when the sympathetic state is active, your heart rate is faster. When the parasympathetic state is active, your heart rate is slower. However, when you start to become stressed or scared, the body will solely engage your sympathetic system -- commonly known as the fight or flight system -- causing your heart rate to stay consistently elevated for as long as you are stressed or scared. This is how, by looking at the variations (or lack thereof) in one's heartbeat, Nevermind can determine how scared or stressed the player is.

    Granted, if the player were to engage only his parasympathetic system, his heart rate would become more consistent as well --which would register as a "false positive" for fear or stress in the game. However, the player would have to be in a near-meditative state for this to occur -- which is not something we anticipate happening often during Nevermind. If we found that it did, then we would probablyneed to reexamine our entire game design.


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