At first glance Nevermind looks like one of the new breed of indie horror games finding an enthusiastic audience on Steam. Surreal landscapes, a hint of mental trauma, freaky dolls - it ticks all the boxes.
But look deeper and there's more: this is a game that reacts to your physical fear using biofeedback sensors to read the player's heart rate or (if they have the right fancy camera) facial expressions. I've tried it, with a small sensor clipped to my earlobe, and it works. The more stressed you become the more the game reacts - think Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem or Amnesia: The Dark Descent's sanity meters made real.
"It started as my master's thesis at the University of Southern California," says Erin Reynolds, the founder, president, and creative director of developer Flying Mollusk.
"How do you create an experience that evokes a reaction from as many people as possible?"
"I went into it wanting to make a game that gave back to players. One that was entertaining but also benefitted the player in some way, shape or form."
Reynolds had been interested in biofeedback for a few years at that point, but it wasn't until she was planning the thesis that the technology had really caught up with her ambitions.
"I also really wanted to make a horror game, something that had a dark atmosphere and aesthetic because that's really where my personal interest and background lies. I love horror movies, I love mysteries, I love adventure and so I really wanted to explore that area."
And Nevermind really does that - the story behind the game is that you're a Neuroprober, a therapist entering the subconsciouses of psychological trauma patients to try and treat their issues.
"There are two interesting challenges [in making the game] - horror is so personal to each person depending on their experience of horror, what their background is and their preferences. One thing that was really surprising in making Nevermind was - and I guess it's common sense but I didn't expect it - was how differently people react to different things, things frighten people in completely different ways.
"So there might be one situation that will totally creep out one person and have no effect on another person and then the next situation might have the inverse effect. So that was a really interesting challenge, how do you create an experience that evokes a reaction from as many people as possible?"
The other major challenge was balancing the use of the biofeedback, says Reynolds.
"How do you make a game that does respond to people's stress and fear and rewards them for learning how to manage those feelings of stress and fear but doesn't become so punishing and so challenging that it's either unplayable or too intense?
"What we did to mitigate those risks is we have a mechanic where at any point in the game if you stay too scared, too stressed, too anxious for too long of a time you'll either directly or indirectly 'die' from the effects of the fear and stress. That's really our way of just taking the player out of the situation, putting them into a calmer level, and then as soon as the player is able to recompose themselves and catch their breath they can pick up pretty much where they left off."
"People are not only more comfortable with heart rate technology but there's a higher chance that they just happen to own it"
The game can be played without biofeedback and is still offers twisted and satisfying puzzles to solve, but the addition of sensors adds an extra level of connection for the player. Reynolds admits that at first it was a real challenge finding devices (outside of doctor's offices) that would allow them to get the heartrate information that they needed. Now, in this age of life tracking and wearables, the chances are that your mum, your boss and your bus driver are tracking their heart rates on a daily basis.
"People are not only more comfortable with heart rate technology but there's a higher chance that they just happen to own it. With Nevermind our goal really is to get to a point where it's a BYOS - bring your own sensor - scenario."
The company is working towards that goal, hoping to make the most of all the Apple Watches and Fitbits strapped to wrists around the world. Reynolds expects that right now only a "pretty small" number of players will actually be using the sensors, but sees that growing in the next year or so as the technology gets more available and crucially more affordable.
Flying Mollusk used Kickstarter to fund the game with one unsuccessful attempt in early 2014 where the high goal wasn't met but that saw a lot of interest from players and saw the company contacted by Intel with an invitation to work with its Intel RealSense technology. A successful campaign was launched the following October to fund the Mac, Xbox One and Oculus versions of the game and saw 1,526 backers pledge $76,525.
"We were able to choose a goal that was much lower at that point in time because we weren't funding the entire project through crowdfunding at that time.
"I think in both cases it was a tremendously positive experience working with Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general because we got to engage with our potential players directly and get their feedback and get their ideas and see what people are most excited about. Of course the funding is an important part of any crowdfunding campaign, but I think that connecting with the community is almost just as important, if not more so."
"We'll definitely be keeping our eyes on what makes the most sense to make the next innovative product with the technology out there that can really impact people's lives"
Reynolds says both campaigns were a great experience and she would absolutely go back to crowdfunding in the future. She's also very positive about Steam Early Access and suggests other indie developers try it too, calling it "hugely beneficial" to be able to get feedback on things like puzzles or bugs while the game is still in production. She says the game is now "a hundred times stronger" for going through the Early Access process.
But what are Nevermind working on next? How do you follow a horror game that feeds on fears? Flying Mollusk wants to bring out more levels for Nevermind, more tortured minds to play in, and to continue working on new and innovative projects that are also "edgy games for good," and educate and inspire.
"We are always going to be making experiences that are interesting and engaging and using emergent technology, obviously we're big fans of biofeedback so that's something we'll definitely continue to work with, but not exclusively," says Reynolds.
"There's always cools things coming out, like virtual reality, so we'll definitely be keeping our eyes on what makes the most sense to make the next innovative product with the technology out there that can really impact people's lives."