When I was asked to cast an eye over Nevermind it remorsefully dragged into mind the eponymous game of the early 1990s, a crappy puzzle effort published on the Amiga to almost universal indifference. Both are about building pictures, but in very different senses of the word. Happily the newer game is a great deal better.
Firstly, the stand-out feature of Nevermind is something that’s been attempted with varying degrees of success for many years; the ability of the software to adapt to the player’s mood. Microsoft toyed with this in the middle aprt of the 1990s, experimenting with a mouse that could feel how hard it was being gripped and correlate this with the user’s stress level. This was the era of the infuriating little animated paperclip and Comic Sans as a legitimate typeface so I imagine the sensors in these magical mice never held out all that long. Perhaps that’s the reason it never really took off.
Nevermind accomplishes this using biofeedback sensors, specifically a heart rate monitor in the form of a watch or chest band, or a spangly Intel RealSense camera that can see infrared, image things in 3D and probably tell what you had for breakfast. A handful of models are supported but sadly I had access to none. Nor will you, I presume, but this ambitious twist on the part of Flying Mollusk may be some mitigation for some of the game’s shortcomings or more precisely, it’s shortness. There’s a good reason no control key exists to make your character run – if there were it would all be over in a flash. Having said that, a lot of the criticism that the Steam player community has levelled at the game (almost solely) on the basis of its short duration is a little mean-minded; it’s a fine piece of work in many other respects.
So, back to the picture-building… The premise of the game is a novel one. You, a trauma therapist, have been given a suite of tools that allow you to implant your psyche in the mind of a patient. Your task is to explore the troubled worlds inside their head and try and effect a breakthrough that’ll take your patient from the dark place they find themselves trapped in and put them on the road to recovery. Skilful narration from the patient both before and after the session begins helps to complete the story and enriches the entire experience for you, the player.
The role of the biofeedback sensor is to simulate the effects of your patient’s harrowed mind fighting back against you. As the game environment becomes more stressful and panic-inducing your own stress indicators increase, prompting the game to notch up the fear cues it presents you with. Keeping control of yourself is just as much a part of the challenge as finding the solution to your patient’s troubles.
The biofeedback theme wouldn’t work at all if the environments and situations didn’t induce fear and stress and on that count the game’s director has succeeded completely. The worlds you venture into are really quite masterfully built. Edgy, otherworldly places where fear lurks and the borders between solid comfort and blue panic are intermingled. Only a handful of other games have accomplished this so roundly and convincingly. This is all underpinned with some fine audio design; well produced and impeccably executed.
Aspects of the game engine has been massaged wonderfully too; turn to face a headless statue and turn back around again to find everything has changed in the instant your back was turned. And generally not for the better. Endless flights of stairs and twisting, warped corridors where gravity isn’t what it seems.
The introductory map, where you sign in and find your “office” is also gorgeously put together but therein lies a hint that all may not have been well in the months leading up to Nevermind’s release. This pleasant but ultimately unnecessary piece of scene-setting, plus the overly comprehensive tutorial map, occupy almost a quarter of the game’s short but rich and rewarding two and a half hours.
There are also a few hints that some finishing touches may have been missed; there’s very little post-production in the graphics which means that despite the immersive story and solid production you can never quite forget you’re perched in front of a computer. All the polygons and textures are right in front of you in their starkly rendered obviousness rather than fading into the overall impression of reality as in, say, Far Cry 4.
And the puzzles. The less said about puzzles in games the better. There are only a few in Nevermind but except in the most outstanding examples in-game puzzles will enhance a game experience by precisely zero percent. If you wanted to play Connect 4 then you could fish the box down from the attic. Puzzles in games are either patronisingly simple or infuriatingly tedious, both of which equate to hours squandered without profit or enjoyment.
But overall, Nevermind is a rich and enlightening experience. It wavers tantalisingly between a game in the traditional interactive sense of challenges and goals, and an immersive piece of linear storytelling on a par with Gone Home. And hats off to them for having the courage to take a long punt and lead the way in experimenting with a genuinely novel gaming technology. Nevermind is a fine effort - outstanding in places – and more of the same will, I’m sure, be gratefully received.