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Arts and Entertainment

This Creepy Video Game Actually Teaches You How To Chill Out

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Looking for a scary, new video game for October? We suggest Nevermind, a horror thriller that—with the right equipment—actually teaches you a valuable life skill: how to chill out when you're anything but calm.

Nevermind comes from video game studio Flying Mollusk, which was founded by USC grad Erin Reynolds. In it, you play a neuroprober, which is basically a futuristic psychologist who can go inside the minds of trauma victims. Your patients have all experienced something horrible, but the exact details of the traumatic incident itself have been repressed. Though the memories are not available to the patients on the surface, the cataclysmic event continues to cause them pain and trouble in their adult lives. Your job is go deep into their subconscious minds, which will appear in the game as their own unique worlds, and get to the bottom of it all.

Once inside a patient's subconscious, you must find ten photographs, each of which represents a memory. Five of them are red herrings, but the other five are actual memories that, when put in the correct order, reveal the truth behind the trauma. To find the photos, you must venture deep. The closer you get to the authentic memories, the more surreal and twisted your surroundings become. So while you may have started in a sunny field with chirping birds and a gentle breeze, you might end up in a dark woods full of meat trees or a slaughterhouse of swinging bodies. Unlike other horror games, the fear doesn't come from jump scares and surprises. The atmosphere is one of increasing dread and apprehension, and the scares generally rise from the dawning creepiness.

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Each patient's mind treats you as an unwelcome intruder, and puzzles will attempt to keep you away from your goals. Solving them is part of the game, but so is your state of mind. The game has the option of being played with a biofeedback sensor, and if the game senses you're freaking out, it gets harder. If you can't calm yourself down, you'll be transported back to a more tranquil part of the mind and you'll have to navigate your way back to where you were. You won't die in the game the way you can in other video games, though you can take damage from external danger, like booby-trapped floors that become more treacherous the more anxious you get.

Reynolds told LAist that the game began as her master's thesis at USC where she was a graduate student in the Interactive Media & Games Division. In that particular program, she had a year to work on a project of her choosing, and Nevermind was it.

Reynolds had worked in the gaming industry before returning to USC for her Master's degree and said she found she enjoyed games more if they were entertaining, sure, but would also "somehow educate or inspire or benefit" people as well. She calls those kinds of games "positive games."

When conceptualizing Nevermind, she knew she wanted to make one of those positive games and she also wanted to incorporate biofeedback in some way, which she had touched on in a project in 2009. She also wanted the game to be in the horror genre, as she said she's always loved that aesthetic.

After finishing her studies in 2012, she took a job at another game studio for a year or so before leaving to start Flying Mollusk and turn Nevermind from an academic project to a full game.

"Our primary goal for Nevermind, in addition to entertaining, is to teach people how to better manage the stress and anxiety and to be more mindful when they respond to nerve-racking situations," she said.

This can come in handy prior to a job interview, a first date or while stuck in traffic. "In real life," Reynolds said, "things don't get better when you're stressed out. You start looking for your keys in your flower pot, but they're just on the counter the whole time."

One interesting thing she's noticed is that people don't often realize they're anxious.

"We use heart rate invariability," she explained. "We look at consistency, which is counter-intuitive. If you're feeling good, you want your heart rate to be slightly inconsistent. Fast, fast, fast, slow, slow, etcetera. What's happening there is that your parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are alternating back and forth. You're calm, but alert. When you start to get stressed, your sympathetic system kicks in full-time and as a result, your heart rate becomes constant. Fast, fast, fast, fast, fast. So [the game] is looking of that consistency, and when it detects it and can see that you're anxious or scared, it responds accordingly."

You don't have to use a biofeedback sensor to play and enjoy Nevermind, but you can use devices such Wild Divine IomPE, Mio LINK and the Garmin Heart Rate Chest Strap. See a full list here.

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In another way, the game also teaches empathy. Many people only associate PTSD and trauma with certain kinds of events, though it can happen to someone in many ways. Reynolds hopes that future levels of the game can increase the understanding of how these things work, and said they've partnered with psychology researchers who will help them explore how to take these aspects of the game further.

Nevermind has been available on early access since March, but is now officially available for Mac and Windows on Steam and Humble Store for $17.99. Nevermind is one of the nominees at this year's IndieCade, an independent gaming conference in Culver City.