I am a bit of a giant scaredy cat when it comes to horror games. Films are fine, but throw in an interactive element and I become a bibbling mess. So it was with some apprehension that I approached Nevermind, a Kickstarter-funded horror game for PC.
This is because Nevermind has a diabolical feature: It's compatible with a variety of heart-rate sensors. When you hook yourself up and settle in to play, the game tracks its effect on you by monitoring your heart rate. An elevated heart rate indicates stress, and the game responds with sanity effects. Which, of course, wouldn't improve the whole "bibbling mess" situation.
In the end, the gameplay didn't quite turn out that way, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Nevermind's premise is that you are starting work as a doctor to help people overcome their mental and emotional demons. To do this, you enter their minds and seek out their memories, in the form of photographs. There are 10 of these per client, and you need to find all 10 to finish the game.
The gameplay is first-person point-and-click, similar to exploration game Myst. You wander about the landscape of the patient's mind, examining clues that will help you solve puzzles to access both the memories and new areas.
Once you've assembled all 10, you'll need to put together the correct sequence of events by placing the photos in order, but there's a twist. Only five of the photos are real. The other five are false memories, and you have to figure out which is which based on clues you have observed around the level. It sounds very straightforward, but these are not happy people, and their minds aren't happy places.
The game's locations are absolutely designed to provoke anxiety and stress, from unsettling forest labyrinths to storage rooms filled with wriggling body bags. The soundscape does the same. As you listen, it twists off key or introduces fly swarms or car horns, sounds to which humans are conditioned to respond with, at the very least, discomfort.
There are very few actual jump scares (for which I was grateful) but what stands instead is a profoundly tense and unsettling experience. After completing each patient, I felt emotionally wrung out and needed to take a breather from the game.
I enjoyed Nevermind's response to my anxiety. The screen would fill with static visual effects and environmental responses the tenser I grew, which forced me to consciously check myself, slow my breathing and relocate my equilibrium. It felt like a very good training exercise for anxiety in real-life situations, which was interesting.
The biggest issue I had is that the game cannot recognise nuance. It's normal for the human heart rate to escalate slightly with every inhalation. This meant that every time I breathed in, the screen grew a little bit fuzzy. I found myself either pausing my in-game activity briefly to breathe in, extending my exhalations and even holding my breath in order to prevent this from happening.
I also noticed that my heart rate increased slightly whenever I moved around in my chair, and as a chronic fidgeter, this also caused problems. So, while I was enjoying the sanity effects when they were appropriate, and while they did amplify Nevermind's intensity, the false positives proved slightly too annoying to continue using the sensor for the entire game. Luckily, it's also possible to play the game without the biofeedback element, which I found myself doing.
This could be circumvented by tweaking the calibration to recognise an upper limit of the player's "calm" heart rate, rather than setting an average based on both inhalation and exhalation heart-rates. Perhaps we'll see that in a future software update.
That said, if you do have access to one of the compatible sensors, I recommend using it for at least part of the game. It was an interesting experience forcing myself to take a step back from the tension of the game and breathe. And that's not unintentional. According to the Nevermind website, the team is hoping to develop a therapeutic version of the game (hopefully one that doesn't deal with themes that are quite so dark).
I was also disappointed with the game's length. Although Nevermind packs a punch, it's playable in about three hours. There are just three levels to play through, and I was left wanting more. The team is currently working on developing additional content, hopefully in the form of new missions.
If you already have access to one of the compatible heart-rate sensors or can get one at a price point you're comfortable with, it's definitely worth trying. Ultimately, the short length and the issues with the heart-rate monitor prevent me from recommending the biofeedback aspect of the game unreservedly. It's a shame, because it's such an interesting idea, and you do miss some of the game's creepy environmental changes by not using it.
As for the game's content, Nevermind is an ambitious game with a fascinating premise. Using personal trauma as the game's environment works tremendously well. The team has created something that isn't terrifying so much as deeply disconcerting and thought-provoking, and that's the kind of horror I like best.