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Preview: Nevermind

Billed as a ‘bio-feedback horror’ title, Nevermind has been part of the virtual reality (VR) circuit for some time now, and without even a glimpse of the videogame working within a head-mounted display (HMD). The promise the title holds for VR is evident even before work has begun, with the potential for a more psychological gameplay than merely jump scares built into Nevermind from the ground-up.

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The term ‘horror’ implies many things, most of which are not truly applicable to Nevermind. True, it borrows heavily from the visual design of the genre in its grim and often grotesque portrayal of the inner workings of the human mind, but in reality it’s much close to a thriller than a horror title. Nevermind doesn’t aim to scare you. Your solitary position in the world is never disturbed by a shadowy Slenderman-esque figure nor do you ever feel pressured by any external factor other than your own desire for peace and preservation. Nevermind is closer to a walk through an unknown land than a chase pursued by demonic creatures, and yet in many ways it’s even more intense.

The premise of the title is that you are a qualified medical practitioner specialising in unearthing memories that have been buried by the passing of time, helping to heal tormenting scars of individuals that have suffered great torment in their lives. However, instead of modern treatments such as psychotherapy or even hypnotherapy, the player has their consciousness inserted into the subconscious of the patient. The storyline isn’t too far a cry from that of White Paper Games’ Ether One – nor is the core gameplay, for that matter – however the setting is substantially different.

The crisp, clean hallways of the Neurostalgia Institute are a stark contrast to the internal dialogue of a patients’ mind. The first instance presented by Nevermind begins calmly and only ever-so-slightly teases you with unease. Things are not perfect, the opening chapter tells you, but they can get better.

Its not until you begin working with the second patient that you realise this really isn’t the case. ‘Better’ is an affirmative term. You may solve the riddles and achieve your goals, but is what you’re doing truly helping the patients? The dialogue provided as you twist and turn, poke and pull at their subconscious provides questions for which the answer is almost certainly to the contrary.

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As you begin to unravel the tale of a woman who lost her father at a young age it’s not difficult to separate that which she unfairly blames herself for and that which is truly her fault; accident or otherwise. Nevermind‘s horror symbolism would be lost in a mire of ‘me too’ cliché if it wasn’t for the extremely creative writing. The videogame twists within itself as you uncover new clues, allowing you to interpret the action as you see fit and offering more information outside of the photographs you hunt than there are hidden within.

This is the crux of Nevermind‘s gameplay: searching for photographs. Each new challenge the videogame presents rewards the player with a photograph of the moment of memory for which it represents. Puzzles can range from moving blocks to recalling mental notes to trudging along linear paths – there’s even a small slice of dexterity skill thrown in for good measure – but despite their commonplace banality in videogames the window dressing in Nevermind truly makes them feel unique. You’re not just entering a code in a safe in order to unlock the next area of gameplay; you’re doing it to help someone recall the memories trapped inside.

At the end of each chapter the player has to align the photographs in the correct order to uncover the truth of what really happened to the patient, for better or worse. A fairly straight-forward trial-and-error puzzle here stands as a lone reminder that there is right and wrong. Despite the fact that there was no pressure on the player in the core gameplay aside from their own, there is only one way to solve each puzzle. Nevermind, for the most part, does very well to disguise it’s linearity and offer the pretence of an experience in which the player is the leader rather than just following the development team’s piece of string.

The bio-feedback element of Nevermind comes in the form of a heart-rate sensor which has an interesting, if ignorable affect on gameplay. As you become uneasy the videogame adds a grainy filter to the action making objects indistinguishable from a distance. The intention is to add artificial pressure to the player and perhaps drive them further into a state of perceivable panic, however in VRFocus‘ experience it’s closer to adding atmosphere. It reminds you that you are an observer in a place you’re not supposed to be and more than likely not wanted. It’s an addition, rather than a core necessity for the experience Nevermind offers.

With VRFocus‘ time with the videogame showing that significant progress has been made between playable builds, the hope is high that Flying Mollusk will create a VR experience unlike any other. The heightened sense of personal awareness VR offers could well make the bio-feedback component a much stronger aspect of the gameplay in that it now only affects your gameplay, but also your immersion. The build VRFocus experienced is now available via Steam Early Access and work on the VR implementation is expected to begin this summer; as this development continues Nevermind is one title you should most certainly be watching closely.