Want A Scary Video Game? Don’t Bother With Nevermind

If you like playing video games, you’ve no doubt heard about Nevermind by now. If not, here’s the basic rundown: Nevermind is a “horror” game that uses biofeedback sensors to make the game more challenging as you get more stressed out (and, conversely, less challenging as you calm down – it’s being sold on the premise of teaching players “mindfulness”). The premise of the game is that you’re playing a “neuroprober,” a doctor who enters the mind of trauma victims to uncover repressed memories and force a breakthrough.

The game has been widely-hyped, but I have to point out that the game is trying to:

  • Be scary,
  • Test out biofeedback as a game feature,
  • Teach its players mindfulness, and
  • Explore the nature of trauma.

Does that seem like a lot to accomplish all at once to anyone else? Because it sure does to me: The designers half-assed four things instead of whole-assing one, and it just didn’t deliver on most of its promises.

I went into the game curious because I’m a trauma survivor who has high anxiety as a feature of my PTSD. I also have horrifying, insomnia-inducing, gruesome, violent nightmares and semi-regular flashbacks, so I was curious to find out how close to home the game would hit. These are also biases with which I entered the game, so take this admittedly negative review with a grain of salt. I wasn’t just trying to see if it would be effective at teaching mindfulness; I also was measuring how effective the mindfulness techniques it taught would be for me as a person with chronic anxiety and how well it portrayed the experience of trauma, on top of just how fun it is to play as a game.

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The game suffers on several different fronts. Let’s just cover, first, the fact that it does a bad job at portraying the experience of trauma. On a basic level, the premise that trauma victims can be “fixed” by uncovering repressed memories is farcical, and it betrays the fact that the designers are definitely not psychiatrically trained.

In each level, you have to find memory fragments, some of which are true or useful to uncovering the trauma, and some of which are not. Several of these are hidden behind puzzles, but this is ultimately an adventure game, which is a shame. The problem with these puzzles is that they’re easy on the one hand and really tedious on the other, so they simultaneously make it seem like uncovering repressed memories is not that hard, guise! and make the game just irritating to play.

And it’s a shame that this is an adventure game because a strategy game would’ve been more interesting. This is because trauma is rarely if ever so straightforward as to be merely an issue of uncovering repressed memories – Nevermind’s version of trauma is the Disney version of trauma. In real life, it’s more complex. You don’t always just totally forget or bury your experience. The whole point of flashbacks, probably the most intrusive feature of PTSD, is that you do know what happened to you and you keep seeing it; it keeps happening at random times, and you keep feeling like you’ve time-traveled back to the worst experience or set of experiences of your life (worth noting, too, is that Nevermind assumes that a trauma victim has just one major trauma to work through whereas victims of abuse and veterans often have several to hundreds).

Design me a game that uses strategy not to “fix” a trauma victim, but to figure out ways to deal with the effects of trauma, and we’ll be getting somewhere. Hell, design me a game that explores trauma from the point of view of a trauma victim rather than the point of view of a third party who enters the victim’s mind and makes changes, which, consensual procedure or no, would itself be traumatizing. The idea of using trauma as a backdrop for a game about mindfulness, in Nevermind, ends up feeling just a little bit exploitative.

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But there we are: The point of this game wasn’t to explore trauma, not really. It was to teach mindfulness using biofeedback. So does it succeed? I’m not sure how effective the biofeedback mechanism was for other players, but for someone who lives with constant anxiety, the default anxiety sensitivity setting was too high, and my character kept blacking out and having to start over again – which, again, made the game tedious and irritating to play, which I’m sure contributed to my elevated heart rate. But then, the low setting probably wasn’t sensitive enough to make the game fun in the sense of being that sweet spot of difficult-but-engaging that I assume the designers were hoping they’d hit.

And there are many ways to practice mindfulness, but the game is as reductive about mindfulness as it is about trauma. Mindfulness, to Nevermind, consists of closing your eyes and breathing deeply while still receiving stressful sensory input via sound – things scuttling around, “scary” music, and the sound of your heart beating, reminding you that hey, hey, hey, you’re not calm enough yet.

Here are a few alternative suggestions for mindfulness techniques: You could keep your eyes open, look at the screen, and describe out loud or internally the things that you’re seeing, without passing judgment on them (i.e. “Those are baby doll parts sticking out of a tree” rather than “Those baby doll trees are scary”). Accept the setting as it is, and remind yourself that it poses no viable threat of harm to you. Drink some water. Remind yourself that you’re playing a video game, and look at the space that you’re sitting in rather than looking directly at the screen. -But the game doesn’t teach acceptance techniques, it teaches distraction, and distraction doesn’t work for everyone.

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Then there’s the problem that Nevermind conflates anxiety, fear, and horror. Its real aim is to produce anxiety, but it’s sold as fear, and the game is sold as a “horror” game, while not being actually fearsome or horrifying or all that scary. The game takes place in a set of uncanny valleys, basically – settings that make the familiar unfamiliar, with houses piled on top of each other, caverns with walls of crying women, streets full of mannequins. Uncanny as they are, and discomforting as they are, they’re mostly horror movie tropes, not actually or necessarily the settings in which trauma victims’ flashbacks and nightmares take place.

If my experience is any indication, these environments aren’t as fearsome, or even as uncanny, as they could be. Just anecdotally, the worst of my nightmares took place on the side of a rural highway, in my sister’s apartment, in a van, and in my high school. It wasn’t the settings that were terrifying – they were all clean and normal-looking – but rather the dissonance between the familiarity and comfort of the settings and the terrible violence that intruded upon those familiar and comfortable settings while, meanwhile, I was helpless to stop it. It was the situation that was fearsome, but again, Nevermind is an adventure game, not a strategy game, so it depends a lot on environment to make its players anxious.

It also depends a little on jump scares to produce anxiety, but jump scares, like the basic-level puzzles featured in the game, are not really in line with or true to the experience of trauma. Sorry if I’m hammering on this a lot, but the entire premise of the game is trauma, so the points where the experience of the game and the experience of trauma don’t line up is, to me, evidence of failure. Playing Nevermind feels an awful lot like watching “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” –but less interesting, and less fun.

Nevermind raised a whole lot of money on IndieGoGo, grabbed Intel’s attention for their RealSense biofeedback sensor technology, and won Games for Change’s 2014 pitch event. I get that the gimmick of biofeedback is an interesting gaming convention, but I’m not sure that it’s the “next big step” of gaming that designer Erin Reynolds wants it to be. And as far as being a game that will help to foster social change, I think I’ve made myself clear: It doesn’t do much for mindfulness. As far as helping the public to understand trauma, 20 percent of Americans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I would be shocked if the people who designed Nevermind and who love the game weren’t part of the 80 percent who don’t.

[Nevermind]
[Engadget]
[PTSD United]

Screenshots via Nevermind/Flying Mollusk

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