"I feel like a kid with new toys," Erin Reynolds tells L.A. Weekly at the Glendale office where she and a very small team are developing horror video game Nevermind. Since 2011, when she started working on the project as her master's thesis in the video game program at USC, Reynolds has been playing with new toys.
At first the objective was to incorporate biofeedback technology into a game that would grow more difficult as players show signs of anxiety. Back in her grad school days, all that was available to the team was a cumbersome chest strap, which wasn't necessarily consumer-friendly. Four years later, Reynolds' Flying Mollusk has partnered with Intel, using the RealSense camera that detects changes in a player's pulse by monitoring changes in skin tone. Now they're working on incorporating Oculus Rift, the much-hyped virtual reality device that is slated for commercial release in 2016.
VR has been part of the plan for a long time, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that they began actively testing the technology. "We're still working out a lot of the kinks, but it's an exciting challenge," Reynolds says.
Oculus Rift itself comes with a set of development challenges, and the standard one is how developers can create an immersive world without prompting users to vomit. Reynolds and her colleagues have an additional challenge: How do you seamlessly combine virtual reality with biofeedback? They might have the answer by the time they debut segments of the Oculus Rift version of the game at ScareLA on Saturday. If they don't, players will have the option of trying biofeedback and virtual reality Nevermind experiences separately.
Before starting Nevermind as part of her master's thesis, Reynolds worked on Trainer, an award-winning game made to encourage children to exercise. The game designer and artist has long had an interest in "positive games," which have health and wellness benefits for players.
With Nevermind, though, Reynolds didn't want to make something that was solely for health or education purposes. Instead, she looked to create a game that was similar to Dance Dance Revolution, in which the health benefits are a happy byproduct of something that's primarily for entertainment. She is a self-professed "DDR nut," and loves the way that she can become engrossed in a game of DDR without realizing how much exercise she's getting in the process.
In Nevermind, the player becomes a Neuroprober who enters the minds of characters who have suffered a trauma. The player's job is to venture into ominous, sometimes nightmarish scenes and find and collect the clues that will reveal what the trauma is. If the player is using biofeedback technology (it is possible to play this as a straightforward quest), the game will become more difficult as the user shows signs of stress.
Take, for example, a maze within the game where milk will fill higher in the room as the user becomes more anxious. It's a bit like the common situation where a set of keys is misplaced. We'll tear apart our homes looking for the keys as we continue to freak out over the thought of being late for an appointment and find everything but that one item. It's not until we take a minute to calm down that we realize that the keys are in a handbag or on a table. In the same respect, users have to stay calm to find a way out of the maze.
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By adding the virtual reality element, Reynolds' team has to ensure that the scenes don't overwhelm players. There are also logistical elements that they have to consider. While Flying Mollusk has been working with RealSense, a lot of players will be using wearables for the biofeedback elements. Combining those with the Oculus Rift, which fits over players' eyes, may be too clunky.
Reynolds doesn't know of anyone else in the industry who has combined these two pieces of technology, so she and her colleagues are essentially figuring out the best practices as they work. She describes it as an "exciting and terrifying" process. "It's really cool to be experimenting on a blank canvas," she says, "but we're trying to figure out what the rules are and how we can break them as we go along."
They still have some time to work out the kinks. "Early access" versions for PC and Mac are available through Steam and the game has been earning good user reviews. However, the full release, which will include a version for Xbox One that utilizes the Kinect 2.0 camera, isn't due until October, and the virtual reality version might have to wait until Oculus Rift hits the streets.
Even in the crunch to refine the Oculus Rift elements before ScareLA, Reynolds describes the development process as "pretty mellow." It's fitting. After all, they are making a game set on encouraging users to stay calm.