Hands-on with Nevermind
by Danny Kim
(as originally posted on CelebritySC)
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/31411046 w=560]
Games are all about reaction and control. You react to what a game gives you in the digital space by consciously doing something in the physical space – for example, an enemy pops up and you pull the trigger on your controller – ; and likewise, the game reacts digitally to your deliberate inputs from the physical world. But what if a game got more from you than just the buttons you were pressing? What if a game changed your experience based on a form of input that’s a core part of you yet, at the same time, not really under your control? It’s this very frontier that Erin Reynolds (MFA Interactive ’12) and her team have chosen to explore in Nevermind.
In Nevermind, you are a “neuroprobe” working for the fictitious Neurostalgia Institute, and your job is to go into patients’ minds to help them remember and overcome the traumatic memory their brains are repressing. Each mind is littered with various environments and puzzles, and solving the puzzles leads you to a Polaroid photos for you to collect. There are 10 Polaroids in each mind; once you collect them all, you need to reflect on everything you’ve seen in the spaces you’ve explored to piece together the right Polaroids (only 5 of the 10 actually pertain to the repressed memory) in the right order to unravel the repressed memory and deal with the traumatic event.
Your time spent inside these memories is made unique by the integration of a heartrate monitor into gameplay. The game is able to detect how stressed you are based on data given to it by chest mounted heartrate monitor and based on this information, it alters your gameplay experience. The point of the game is to help you learn to be calm in stressful situations, so if the game detects that you are stressed out in a dark maze, may make it harder to see until you remember to calm down; if you need to get past a bunch of fast moving obstacles and you’re freaking out, these obstacles may move even faster until you relax. If you become too stressed, the game sends you back to your patient’s room in the Institute.
So the story sounds great and the heartrate monitor mechanic sounds cool, but does it work? Does Nevermind take its promising narrative and clever heartrate monitor mechanic and combine them into something more than just another gimmick?
Yes – hell yes, surprisingly well for the most part. Story is engrained into every facet of Nevermind, and basically every thing you see in the game tells some kind of story about the patient whose mind you’re exploring. I was especially impressed by how the environment plays a big role in telling the story – each different space you enter has a distinct personality that adds to the overall plot, mood, and atmosphere of the patient’s mind.
But it’s important to not just passively suck in the atmosphere in these spaces. You need to actually process everything you’re seeing, because each of the rooms provides backstory for the Polaroids you collect, and they all have various clues as to which of the Polaroids you collect are one of the five relevant ones. It works so well, and the hints in the rooms are just subtle enough that piecing together the repressed memory at the end of a level truly feels revelatory – you feel like some sort of psychiatric Sherlock.
Luckily the brilliant visuals, atmosphere, and presentation leave an impression and certainly help you remember the sights you take in. I really felt a sense of childish wonder when I was first dropped into my patient’s mind as a 5 year old, the age she was when the traumatic event we were trying to uncover occurred. As I scampered around the environment at a sub-table, sub-freezer level – remember, I was playing as a 5 year old – , every space I entered felt just right, from the dark bedroom that combined a sense of familiarity with sadness to lush and saturated garden area that radiated a feeling of happy nostalgia. And the fact that I could genuinely feel a change in emotion as the more mellow and brighter part of the score (which was brilliantly done) kicked in and let me take in the view is a testament to just how well these locations are brought to life.
The heartrate monitor stuff works really well in giving the game a different kind of life as well. Stress-altered gameplay is only present in specifically designated sequences – like certain rooms, puzzles, and mazes – , but when they’re there, you can definitely tell, and it’s really cool. After all, how many games can read your feelings? One of my most memorable experiences in the game is when I walked into what was supposed to be a memory of a funeral; but in place of people, there were masks mounted on poles, and as soon as you walked into the area, all of the freaky masks turned to stare at me. That was freaky in and of itself, but then the pews them mask-poles were mounted on started to move sideways, in effect creating an obstacle force for me to get through to the puzzle on the other side. As all this was happening, the game sensed how freaked out I was and made the pews moved slightly faster. I got hit by them more as a result, and that made me panic more, which stressed me out even more and made the pews move even faster.
It works like a charm for the most part, but I can’t help but think that maybe this negative feedback loop of stress isn’t exactly the best way to utilize it in gameplay. I understand the point is to get the player to stay calm even in stressful situations, and that’s fine as a conditioning/therapy or education tool, but as a game? The game knows you’re stressed, so it stresses you out even more? How does that make any sense? I did fine, but I imagine some people may not be so lucky and get kicked back to the Institute far too often unless the difficulty is impeccably balanced.
That’s just one of the reasons that the stress mechanic needs to be tweaked more. It’s interesting because what’s at play here with the heartrate monitor and the stress system is a delicate balancing act between the polar design perspectives of “make it so obvious that people have to know that the stress mechanic is actually working” and “make it so subtle that nobody can tell it’s working.” The effects of the data from the heartrate monitor can’t be too in your face, but at the same time, if its effects are too subtle, no one would know it’s working. The effects of the stress mechanic need to be just visible enough so players become consciously aware that it’s working every so often – in the same way that you sometimes notice your heart beating really fast after a dangerous situation – while subtle enough that it doesn’t shatter the player’s immersion in the game.
Speaking of immersion, as great a show as Nevermind puts on with its spectacular atmosphere, mood, environments, and story, there are definitely some problems that shatter the illusion. Level design definitely needs tweaking – a bit too often, it wasn’t clear where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to do in a given space, or whether I had fully completed a certain area. There just aren’t enough guiding cues for the player in some spaces, and if there are, they’re either not obvious enough or rendered useless by glitches. Some spaces are just too confusingly laid out – there was a maze made of car wreckage that I had trouble navigating myself and even Erin had to try a few times to get through when I finally gave up and asked her for help. I’m all for spaces that make you feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic, but if I’m getting stressed out just because I’ve been stuck in the same place for five minutes and the game’s biofeedback kicks in to distort my vision and cause noise (yes, that was the game’s reaction to stress in that sequence) just because of that… well, then we have a problem.
There were also some technical issues. The controls and movement felt very wooden, and I felt like it was a chore just to move at times. Performance was an issue throughout my entire playthrough, and framerates were constantly in the single digits and teens, which really kills the illusion. However, the development team had just made a bunch of changes to the build I was playing, which was likely the cause of the dip in performance, and as it was still very much a work in progress, I have no doubt that all of the faults I’ve listed above will be addressed in the final product.
There is the making of an incredible experience here. The most impressive thing about Nevermind is that it gets into your head. The game reacts to not just your controlled physical actions but also your normally uncontrolled emotional reactions, so as you play, you have no choice but to learn to stay calm in stressful situations. It’s a brilliant system. By combining a great story and aesthetic with the heartrate monitor enhanced gameplay, Reynolds and the Nevermind team provide an experience that’s refreshingly unique and full of wonder. It locks you into its world of memories at a level beyond the mere surface by interpreting and reacting to your subsurface inputs. And how many games have you played that do that?
Check out Nevermind at the Interactive Media Division and Directors Guild of America’s First Move showcase on April 26th, 2012.
Danny is an Associate News Editor for CelebritySC. His column “Cineplay” runs every Wednesday evening.