Making video games that are genuinely scary is hard. That might seem like an odd statement given how impressively life-like graphics are at this point. But even as developers are rendering blood and guts in increasingly vibrant ways, many of the most accomplished genre pieces like Silent Hill or Resident Evil have slouched into obscurity or mediocrity. The ones that are still good, like the supremely gory Dead Space series, have morphed into action-packed games about mowing down hordes of unsightly monsters as opposed to truly being frightened by them.
Indie developers like the small team at Red Barrels, which made the excellent—if torture porn-esque—survival horror game Outlast last year, blame the genre's decline on the commercial incentives. Phillipe Morin, the co-founder of Red Barrels, told me that part of the reason he stepped away from AAA game development was because he kept running into walls when trying to pitch a game like Outlast. Companies like Ubisoft, where he worked on the hit Assassin's Creed franchise, are obviously looking for big returns, he explained. They don't see much of a market for a first-person game where players have no weapons and instead have to spend most of their time sprinting away from face-eating zombies or cowering in fear of them.
I don't doubt that Morin is correct in this regard. But horror games also face technological and design problems. Games are experiences of repetition and iteration, after all. It only takes so many face-ripping moments before the sensation of having your faced ripped off begins to dull. Like spicy food connoisseurs, horror buffs are always pushing the boundaries of just how much they can stomach.
Given how long production cycles for video games (particularly independent ones like Outlast that rely on a mercurial and unpredictable system of patronage) can be, however, it's difficult to produce work that evolves to meet these tastes. So what if there were a game that could track its own players, and adapt to them in real time?
That's the idea behind Nevermind, which is described as a "biofeedback horror adventure game." The game, which is currently in development and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, proposes using biometric technology to monitor people's physical and emotional state while playing. Speaking to Hyperallergic, Nevermind creative director Erin Reynolds used the example of a heart rate monitor to illustrate how the game could be amp up (or tone down) the fright factor.
“When it senses that you’re starting to get a little anxious, it will respond by becoming more difficult,” Reynolds told Hyperallergic. “The environment will dynamically react to your internal state and become more challenging and terrifying the longer you stay stressed. However, when you start to calm down, the game will also recognize that and will return to its default, easier state the more you relax.”
This opens the door for new kinds of challenges in games. Reynolds told Fast Company, "The more scared you are, the harder the game becomes." Beating the game, then, becomes a test of "how to manage your anxiety on the fly."
Ultimately, then, a game like this could offer its players some personal benefits in addition to scaring them to death. Virtual reality programs are already being used to help treat conditions like certain phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, after all, which is why the U.S. military has begun investing in so-called "serious games" to help treat its veterans. So why not apply similar technology to artistic purposes?
Nevermind is an independent game that's currently putting its fate in the hands of Kickstarter, however, so there's no telling if the game will ever see the light of day. But it's not the only project looking for new ways to get under people's skin. Last year at the Neurogaming Conference, an experimental psychologist working at the game company Valve opened up about a project the company had embarked on to see how biometric tools like sweat detection and eye-tracking could be used to intensify matches of the popular zombie game Left 4 Dead. The result? As VentureBeat reported, he said that it "worked pretty well."
Valve is known for taking deep experimental dives for years at a time, so we may not see a practical entertainment application anytime soon. But co-founder Gabe Newell highlighted biometrics as a new "input method" his company was intrigued by back in 2013 in an interview with The Verge at that year's Consumer Electronics Show. He was talking about Valve's entry into the hardware game, which at the time was little more than a rumor. Flash forward a year to the 2014 CES, and Motherboard went hands-on with a few of the first Steam Machines. And, well, we like what we saw.
Forget the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in that case; the real next-generation gaming experience will be the one that looks inside its own players to find, quite literally, what makes them tick.
Don't worry, I'm scared too.