An interview with Erin Reynolds - Creative Director, Flying Mollusk

The media have been filled with stories of Kickstarter ideas that have captured the imagination of audiences and donors – most predominantly, video games, gadgets, and social initiatives.  Earlier in 2014, Flying Mollusk, California-based game studio, made headlines with a campaign that combined all three. We sat down with Erin Reynolds to talk about bio-feedback, its future, and what she’s learned along the way.

“What is Nevermind” and where are you going with it?

Nevermind is a biofeedback enhanced adventure horror game, where the player is connected to a heart rate sensor. From that we can tell how anxious, stressed, or scared someone is at any moment. The trick with Nevermind is that even though it plays like and adventure game like Myst or Gone Home, is the more scared you get the harder it becomes. We have a dynamic environment that will respond to your fear and stress levels and get harder as you become more anxious. The big picture idea is not only does this make for a really cool game experience, but also is a way to practice stress management in a virtual setting and the idea is that you can apply those skills you develop in Nevermind towards the real world.

If you’re using the heart rate variability to ramp up the challenge, does it lead to a feedback loop where players are stressed, causing more monsters, leading to more stress?

Exactly when the player gets stressed out we throw more stressful things at them. But we do that because in real life, rarely does anything get easier when you’re stressed. For example, when you’re running late to something you lose your car keys as you start to panic and become flustered. Eventually you calm down after looking everywhere and you remember that you put the keys on the kitchen counter an hour ago. So often the best way to solve problems is to calm down as stressful situations can get worse with more stress.

What’s an example from the game’s narrative of a scary situation that is ramped up as the player gets stressed?

One of my favorite interactions takes place in a kitchen area where the player is in a dark, dingy, gross room with blood on the refrigerator. Not a pleasant place to be. If you started to get stressed out while you’re there, the kitchen starts to flood with milk. The longer you stay stressed the more the kitchen floods. At first you’ll slosh through it, and then your walking speed will slow down as it continues to fill. Then if you still stay stressed it will start to cover your line of sight, now you can’t see, and if you stay too stressed for too long you actually drown. In Nevermind you don’t die as you would in a conventional game, instead the player is then transported to a more calm area of the game to ensure that the player doesn’t get too stressed out. Once the player is calm again and ready to proceed they are placed back into the kitchen where they left off.

As an expert who’s staying up to date on new hardware solutions and wearable technology, what is your vision for ten years from now? What technology do you think will be prevalent?

I think biofeedback will be a very important component of a variety of technologies. Right now it seems like everyone has a FitBit or a Nike Fuel Band, and even though that isn’t biofeedback in a technical sense it proves that there’s a widespread interest for people using technology to enhance their everyday life. With tech like Intel’s Real Sense camera making it more seamless than ever, we’ll find that biofeedback will be a part of television, computers, and all electronic technology. I think it’s really exciting because it means we can do new and amazing things in gaming of course, but also in health, education, and communication. There’s so many possibilities there that will let us make surfaces that we have now even better and more responsive, and health care even better. There’s so much there that it will become an integral part of everything we do and that will help designers make amazing things in the not too distant future.

Besides fear, which seems like an easy emotion to measure through heart rate, what other emotions do you think biofeedback can give access to? You don’t necessarily always think about the physical side of what these emotions mean?

Right now technology is pretty good at measuring arousal. Basically there’s two axes in terms of measuring emotion physically: arousal which ranges from “meh” to “Oh my God!”, and then valence which ranges from feeling blue to feeling really happy. Valence is still really hard to detect. I don’t think the technology is ready yet to tell the difference between happy or sad, or anger vs complacency, anger vs jealousy etc. as they are too nuanced. But I do see a lot of advancements being made in motion recognition with this camera based tech and I think there’s something there and I hope that in a few years we’ll get to a point where we can read every nuanced emotion possible.

I should also mention neuro feedback as well which also falls in that category, which in my experience is really good at measuring concentration, from scatterbrained to totally focused, so that’s another thing that is accessible today and people can use it in games and other applications.

Changing topics a bit, I know you’ve experimented with multiple crowd funding platforms over the past couple years. What lessons would you say you’ve learned from those experiences?

I really enjoyed all of my experiences through crowdfunding. The first two we did was through Indiegogo and we had a great experience there, but I underestimated how much work crowdfunding can be and needs to be to do it right. So the Kickstarter which was our third effort had much larger goals to try to move Nevermind into a commercial project. For that one I gave it a full three months of preparation and planning which lead to much more success.

Even though we didn’t get fully funded the other side of crowdfunding is that the funding is only a small part of what you can gain. We had so much amazing exposure, feedback, and community involvement just by putting the idea out there. It was very validating to learn that this crazy idea wasn’t something only I thought was cool, other people wanted it as well. That feedback and that exposure is what ultimately lead to Intel finding us and partnering us to help fund the next few steps of Nevermind’s development. Crowdfunding helped us make the game even better because of all the different eyes, perspectives, and feedback that we got.

What advice would you give to an independent developer who has a great idea but they aren’t well known yet and they want to reach out to a larger population via crowdfunding? What kind of advice would help them meet their goals?

First and foremost plan and really think through all the things you need to do crowdfunding right. Put the page together, run it by a lot of people, make sure the look is as professional as possible and keep in mind that people will naturally be critical about funding any new project. It needs to make sense to people and users need to get the message of the game from the page. It sounds very common sense but I can’t say enough about how important every little detail is.

Reach out to a lot of people. If the idea is going to stick people will need to be excited about it so they have to see the idea first. Leverage social media, reach out to celebrities, scientists, and anyone else who would think the idea is important to their field. Finally, have fun with it! It’s going to be a lot of work and if you’re miserable you won’t make it. Anyone who is trying crowdfunding needs to really believe in the merits of their idea and they’ll need to enjoy sharing it with people or they’ll be really exhausted by the end of their campaign.

Moving back to Nevermind specifically, when you’re designing a horror game and horror environments, how much is it drawing from your personal nightmares and things that creep you out vs horror tropes?

That’s a question that my parents ask themselves a lot “where does she get this?” It’s a combination really, I’ve always loved the horror aesthetic. The X-Files was my religion growing up, and even when I was a kid Gremlins was one of my favorite movies, and I’ve always loved that genre and its imagery and ideas.

The narrative of Nevermind is very specific in that it deals with psychological trauma patients so I wanted to make sure that everything is well informed by behavioral health professionals, and making sure that everything is accurate and respectful in the presentation. So it became collaboration with working with them and referencing horror books, films and art combined with my own twisted aesthetic.

If there’s a lot of stress involved as players are navigating new controls, is there a way to differentiate between mechanically induced stress and narratively induced stress?

There’s no good way to do that within the biofeedback that I’m aware of, but we can anticipate a lot of the points where that stress will occur. The opening area of the game where players first engage there are stress reactions but they don’t impact gameplay. For example the screen becomes a bit staticy and that’s really just a way to let the player know that the game is listening to them, and that feeling is a stressful feeling which the game is responding to, but we don’t punish them for it there so they have an easy way to get used to the new controls.

In fact actually its funny, there’s a part in the game where you’re in this really long maze and we kept seeing in playtest that people would register as being really stressed out when they got to the end of the maze, which seems very unusual as we thought they would feel relief when they got to the end of the maze so why were we seeing this stress reaction? What was happening was that players were excited about solving the maze and when you’re only measuring arousal and not valence there’s no way to differentiate between fear and excitement so that was a false positive. Now we’ve had to anticipate those events and tune the game to not respond to excited reactions.

When can we expect to see the final release?

We’re hoping to release the full game in 2015 at some point and we’re really hoping to be able to make some content available before then through things like Steam Early Access. We owe a ton to the community for giving us feedback that has been so helpful so far and will continue to be helpful and we want to make sure that everyone’s enjoying the game as soon as we can make content available. Stay tuned!