Erin Reynolds: Designing 'Nevermind'

Indie game designer Erin Reynolds discusses Nevermind, a game that tests the player's ability to handle fear and anxiety while delving into a story of repressed memories. 

It’ll take more than quick hands and sharp puzzle-solving skills to make it through Nevermind.  The horror game, coming soon, requires players to face hell all while keeping their heart rate steady. Incorporating biofeedback from a cardio chest strap players wear, the game gets harder as the player’s stress level rises.

If you’re in a kitchen area, it will start flooding with milk [as stress level increases]. That will make it harder for you to walk,” says Erin Reynolds, the game creator who developed Nevermind as part of her MFA thesis project at the University of Southern California. “If you still stay stressed and are unable to calm yourself down, it will start to rise higher and higher and eventually it will cover your sightline. If you’re still kind of freaked out, it will essentially drown you.”

Nevermind offers plenty of chances to practice staying Zen. Taking place in a mental health clinic, players assume the role of psychiatrists who must venture into their patients’ repressed memories, unraveling sordid traumas in order to help patients move forward. The goal, Reynolds says, is to help players themselves move forward by building stress-reducing skills that can be applied in real life scenarios. In addition to gameplay value, Nevermind has the potential to open up a brand new genre of therapeutic games that target a player’s health and emotional wellbeing. Reynolds this month will launch a Kickstarter to fund its full development.

Get In Media: Do any of the traumas in the game reflect personal experience or things your team has been through?

Erin Reynolds: Actually, no. A lot of it came from research and reading about other people and traumas, stories about people who have experienced something that they forgot. We got inspiration from that.

GIM: Did you specifically research repressed memories?

ER: We did a little bit for the narrative and for the gameplay. I was very fortunate in that I was connected to a number of experts in the field. We met with a psychiatrist many times to get his thoughts and input and feedback on it. My advisor also has a lot of experience with games in health and a lot of expertise in that area as well. We worked with a lot of experts to guide us and point us to sources that we could read so the game has an informed perspective in dealing with these sorts of issues.

GIM: You’ve stated that the goal of Nevermind is to provide players with skills that they can use in other scenarios. Where do you see the potential benefits of this game?

ER: … While you’re playing the game, you encounter really scary, stressful, uncomfortable scenarios and you’re going to get stressed inevitably. It’s all about practicing “I’m starting to feel anxious, what do I do now? Do I close my eyes? Do I take deep breaths? Do I go to my happy place?” And you learn what works best for you and practice it. Hopefully, it will become the second nature response to “I’m starting to feel scared, deep breaths, I can handle this.” To really beat the game, you need to get good at that. If you practice it and get good at the game, then hopefully that second nature response will also manifest in everyday scenarios. If I’m going to be stuck in traffic and I’m feeling a little stressed, deep breaths, happy place, and apply it there. …

GIM: Do you feel like the gaming market is opening up more to games that have a personal and experimental component?

ER: I think so. I think on one hand you see a lot of interest, mainstream interest, in indie games and games that are a little bit more experimental because I think people are sort of craving that creative flexibility that game development used to have many, many years ago. If a game like Mario were made today, I don’t know if it would be the same game. You’re going down pipes and plants coming out of it and you have things coming out of the clouds. It’s so bizarre and out there that I don’t think in today’s game development climate it would be developed the way it was back then. I think people still crave that wackiness and that surrealism and that very different experience. That’s where I think you see a lot of these indie games that have a little bit more flexibility than a lot of the mainstream games with giant budgets have.

On top of that, I think games that have this other component besides just being entertaining but also benefitting the player somehow are going to be more and more popular. Personally, growing up I loved playing games. I played a lot of video games, but now I’m so busy that it’s really hard for me to justify even spending half an hour playing a game, which really bums me out, but if I can justify it, like Dance Dance Revolution, I’ll play that for a couple hours because, hey, it’s like going to the gym. I’m burning calories while I’m playing it and having a lot of fun. …

GIM: For developers in the triple-A space, there is a very clear career trajectory. For a developer who wants to make experimental games, how do you recommend they break in?

ER: I’m in many ways jealous of game developers starting today because there are so many great tools and opportunities. There are a lot of great platforms that you can pick up and start making games on. Back in my day, I feel like I sound like such a grumpy old person, we had RPG Maker and engines that sort of worked like Unreal that were a little too complex to just pick up and work on in our spare time.

There are a lot of great opportunities to start making games and see what happens. There are game jams, which are a great way to meet other developers and start meeting teams there. … When it boils down to it, my advice is to start making games. There’s such a small barrier to entry. Go from there and find the people you need to find online or at jams and make it happen.

GIM: What advice do you have for young developers who want to follow in your career footsteps?

ER: Live life. Some people say play awesome games … that’s only one aspect of it. I always tell people, “How can you design an adventure if you’ve never been on an adventure yourself?” That might be traveling. That might be doing things that are a little bit outside your comfort zone. For some people, that might be leading a team. That might be something that feels totally daunting. Try it. If they really like it and it’s a great experience, then you can use that in your game design. You might find that you love leading teams and that’s a new career path for you. Maybe coding sounds totally daunting. For me, I tried to learn coding and I’m terrible at math and terrible at languages so I didn’t think it was going to go well, but I wanted to try it anyway. I’m not the world’s best coder, but one, I know a little bit of coding and two, I have a lot more respect and knowledge for those who are really good at it and that’s really valuable to me. Go out and take risks, live life and test those comfort zone boundaries because it will only do you good.

GIM: In many industries, finding mentorship opportunities is crucial in leveling up your career. How can indie developers find mentors?

ER: One approach is just to reach out to any developers out there making experimental games. Email them and say, “Hey, I really like your work, I’m interested in doing this” and just ask them questions. One thing I love about the game industry and the game development community is most people in it are just awesome people. They want to help people that are interested in making games. Of course that’s a little intimidating and game developers, especially ones that are on small teams, get really busy. As much as they might want to help, they may not always be able to. I would also recommend going to festivals as well; GDC [Game Developers Conference], for example, or Games for Change or IndieCade. You can meet up with people and hopefully form relationships there that can also evolve to mentorship. Just go out there and do it and reach out to people. I think the majority of people would be willing to help as much as they can.

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