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  • Overcoming Fear With USC's Nevermind

    - staff

  • You guys say that Nevermind could help players manage stress. What are you doing in the game to make that happen?

    Ultimately, it's all about making the player more self-aware in terms of how he handles stressful or uncomfortable situations. To take a few steps back for a moment, from the start it was important to us that the game was genuinely entertaining and engaging. We wanted the player to be so compelled by the narrative and atmosphere of the experience, that he would willingly place himself in horrific and, frankly, unpleasant situations --motivated to push himself through in order to achieve a reward and/or resolution.

    However -- and here's the catch (and where the stress management angle comes in) -- the sensor will be able to detect when the player starts to feel a little anxious due to various factors in the game. When it does detect fear in the player, the game will respond by making his path to solve the current puzzle a little more difficult. Most of the responses are contextual to where in the level the player is at any given moment. For example, there is one room in which the entire area will start to flood with milk if the player begins to get stressed. The player at this point has two options: take a moment to regroup and calm down (which will dissipate the milk), orremain stressed (in which case, the milk levels will continue to rise, impede his movement, obstruct his vision, and --eventually --drown his character and restart the puzzle).

    Some might say that it's completely counter-intuitive to make the game even more punishing for a struggling, frustrated player. However, isn't life like that? Rarely does anything get easier when you become panicked and flustered -- so we wanted to emulate that experience within the context of the game. Our goal was to make players aware of their subconscious reactions to stress, give them a place to come to terms with how they react to stressful situations and, through real-time feedback, let them experiment with ways to temper that stress and manage it on the fly. Our hope is that by practicing these skills in the game, the player can then confidently use them in those every day stressful situations that we all inevitably face.

    The game pitches itself as a horror game -- what kind of design or aesthetic techniques are you using to evoke horror in the player?

    We decided early on in the development process not to use any enemies per se in the game. This was due to the fact that we wanted to make the experience as accessible as possible to a wide audience (even ‘non-gamers'), and adding beasties that the player needs to fight or run away from inherently creates a steep learning curve that could be prohibitive to many.

    We also wanted to be very careful about what types of stressful scenarios we created for the player. The last thing we wanted to do was desensitize the player to situations during which a stressed reaction is perfectly appropriate and highly beneficial. After all, you need all the adrenaline you can get when zombies and headless dolls are attacking you in the real world. We wanted to create more of an atmospheric horror -- an environment in which there is never a direct threat in and of itself, but everything is nonetheless highly unsettling and psychologically nerve-wracking.

    We did a lot of research during pre-production that spanned a wide array of media sources. Eternal Darkness and the Silent Hill series were, of course, major inspirations -- but so were the works of Francis Bacon, David Lynch, Tarsem Singh, H.R. Giger, H.P. Lovecraft, and many more. Ultimately, we ended up with a very dark, surreal, and yet deceptively familiar space that we hope the player will never forget.

    Over the course of development, how has Nevermind changed or evolved from its original vision?

    Generally, I tend to be much more of a systems-oriented game designer than a narrative-oriented designer (and as a player as well, for that matter). Originally, Nevermind was very mechanically focused and set within a much more open world. However, throughout the process of development, the experience became much more linear and interwoven with the story. We found that, for Nevermind, guiding the player on a journey rather than leaving him to fend for himself actually made for a much richer and more immersive experience, so the game naturally evolved in that direction instead.


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