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Nevermind is a panic attack disguised as a video game

Nevermind is a game about people who go into the mind of individuals who have suppressed memories of terrible events.

It’s your job to explore someone else’s trauma and to bring them some form of relief. Their mind, of course, fights back.

It's a first-person adventure-puzzle game that will support virtual reality devices, and is designed to be played with biofeedback devices. The more you feel scared or anxious, the harder the game becomes. It's a negative feedback loop that's interesting from a clinical perspective, but proved emotionally taxing in practice.

It knows how you feel

You play by connecting hardware that measures your heart rate, and the more stressed you get, the harder the game becomes. "It’s a way to practice ending feelings of anxiety and stress and hopefully the skills you gain can be skills you use in real life," Flying Mollusk's founder Erin Reynolds told me.

They're hoping to support a number of devices that can sense heart rate, including things like the Apple Watch and other wearable fitness technology. It's also a feature in MIcrosoft's Kinect hardware, so the Xbox One version of the game won't require you to be hooked up to external hardware. If a device can detect your heart rate, the team could potentially support it. My demo used a monitor that clipped onto my ear.

nevermind 2

It’s a neat idea for a challenge, but then the world starts to fight me. Static appears on the screen to let me know I’m feeling stressed. I breathe deeply until it goes away. But now I know that it’s going to happen again when I get stressed, and the developer is watching me play and I don’t want her to think I can’t figure out a puzzle and my chest tightens due to the fear of being stressed which causes stress and the screen once again fills with static and holy shit this is hard.

It creates a sort of negative feedback loop, where the fear of being stressed makes you stressed. I found it increasingly hard to calm down in order to play.

There’s a room where the door closes and milk flows from every opening in the walls. I can’t open the door to get out, and the milk continues to flow into the room. I’m going to drown. The game won't let me out until I calm down. I remove my hands from the keyboard, breathe deeply and after a few moments the milk flows out of the room and I can get out. I’m instantly stressed about the next challenge and the screen fills with static.

It's a brutal way of asking you to deal with stress: The game piles on the stress-inducing factors and then threatens virtual death until you calm down. It introduces hard situations to deal with, and then forces you to tackle them without losing your cool.

You find tricks, and they’re oddly personal. I think of a deadline and the screen flashes red. I think of holding my infant daughter and the screen clears. I breathe deeply and everything becomes easier. I clench up and the room seems to attack me. Even in my short demo, I quickly become aware that the fear of stress is the most stressful aspect of the game.

It works due to something called heart rate variability. "Basically, heart rate itself is beats per minute. Heart rate variability is consistency," Reynolds explained. When you’re in a good state, your heart rate is inconsistent, it goes fast a few beats and then slows down. This is actually a good thing.

When you’re stressed your heart rate is consistent, it’s faster. When your rate is consistent, it knows you’re stressed out or scared and will come after you. It’s close to "real time" as physiological reactions go, and it's relatively easy to track. "As long as we can see your heart rate," Reynolds says, "we can track variability."

If you get too stressed in certain areas, you die, and dying means you’re removed from that environment and placed in a calmer setting. "It’s not punishing, it’s more about regrouping and calming down," I'm told. This is also teaching you a lesson, sometimes you need to learn how to remove yourself from a stresseful situation if it’s overwhelming. It's about the value of escape, of regrouping to get to a better emotional place before trying something difficult.

It's hard to know if the long-term play and story will hold up longer than my short demo, but the idea of punishing you for stress makes the challenge much higher than other games in this genre, and in a very different way. I'm not sure if the game is fun, but struggling with your own fear of fear itself, despite the cliche, is a very interesting topic for a video game.

Nevermind is slated for release on Windows, Mac, Xbox One and Oculus Rift in Fall 2015.

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