Developer(s): The Deep End Games
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed On: PC (Steam)
Release Date(s): May 30th, June 6th, October 31st 2017
Like most horror games, Perception is kind enough to leave a flashlight lying around for you: it’s a sensible tool for exploring a shadowy old house, and it probably even comes packed with enough batteries to last a few hours. But Perception isn’t like most horror games, and the flashlight isn’t going to help you, because in Perception you play as a blind woman.
Perception follows the story of Cassie, a blind woman drawn by her recurring nightmares to an old mansion known as Echo Bluff: a house that is lodged mysteriously in her memory alongside the images of a rope, a ticket, an apple, and an axe.
This clichéd horror setting is somewhat of a let-down in that it plays out as expected: the house haunting Cassie’s dreams is full of creaky floorboards and slamming doors and, naturally, a shadow is following you. However, the way that Perception depicts and explores blindness in its mechanics gives the game an extremely compelling angle. We’ve seen haunted houses before, but we’ve never been told to tackle them blind.
Hunting in the Dark
In order to navigate Cassie needs to ‘see’ her environment through echolocation: by tapping our cane we glimpse a ghostly outline of the objects around us, but this approximation of our surroundings quickly disappears without constant tapping. While story objects and notable features are often marked in green, the rest of Cassie’s world can fade to darkness with nothing but the sound of ticking clocks and television static to guide the way.
Exploring through echolocation is Perception’s core mechanic, and it works as an innately horrifying idea: the sound of your cane tapping can draw monsters towards you, and at times it feels that the old house is listening to your every step. Each tap could reveal a place to hide, or a figure stood in the doorway. In Perception, the house itself becomes the enemy, and Cassie’s only tool to overcome her environment means making noise that risks giving her away – and with a house that shifts and changes through the different chapters, every step could be treacherous.
This is all a brilliant concept, but sadly it is easier to get lost in Perception’s premise than it is in the actual gameplay. Perception begins by giving the options of ‘Story’, ‘Spooky’, and ‘Scary’ game modes. ‘Story’ letting you play with little to no threat from monsters, ‘Spooky’ with the original settings, and ‘Scary’, naturally, with an even more threatening Presence ready to hunt you down.
In reality, even in the ‘Spooky’ game mode, it is impossible to unwittingly draw the attention of the monstrous Presence. Tapping your cane over and over will draw out the strange, cloaked figure that hunts you, but not before several blatant audio cue warnings, or even text appearing on screen to inform you that the monster is coming. There is no subtlety to the Presence hunting you, and if audio and written warnings weren’t enough the screen will helpfully turn red when you ought to hide. It seems a real shame that the supposed main mechanic of the game falls apart with just a little probing when the entirety of the game’s psychological horror relies on you being afraid to make noise.
The Presence is a disappointing empty threat, especially when Perception has such excellently chilling sound design and scripted scares that are both original and unnerving. Essentially, the game itself is scary, but its main monster is not. Despite it being the core of Perception’s gameplay you could easily play the entire game without accidentally triggering the Presence chasing you outside of scripted scenes. In this sense, Perception is a poor horror game. However, if we think of it as a narrative game that happens to tell a horror story, there are certainly elements to praise in Perception’s design.
A Rope, a Ticket, an Apple, and an Axe
Perception’s story feels a lot like those of Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. As Cassie explores the house we uncover the stories of its residents through each tragic generation. It’s well worth playing all of Perception’s 3-4 hours in one session because getting buried in the game’s atmosphere is the best way to appreciate it and to pin together a story that for a large part of the game is only hinted at.
The Deep End Games’ devs involvement with the Bioshock series is evident in Perception’s numerous audio logs and ‘touchstones’: items which trigger memories from the past generations to play out around you. It’s unclear how much of the game’s events are happening inside of Cassie’s head, but whereas some story elements are whisked away under the explanation of the supernatural, others are lodged in the realities of living with vision impairment.
Whilst Perception leaves notes and letters from the past scattered around the house, they appear as blank pages until you scan them with the text-to-speech function on your phone. Later on, you can be put in touch with a volunteer who will describe what he sees from the pictures you send. Despite echolocation making the mode of navigating your environment, once again, in the visual, the apps that Cassie has to rely on for other information are a clever way of reminding you that you are still in the dark. You might not know what you’re touching, or what hidden dangers are around you until your phone reads them aloud.
Each chapter follows the story of a new character, but while the strength of the voice acting fluctuates throughout the game it is, annoyingly, often Cassie who breaks the flow and tension of the consecutive ghost stories. It’s telling that Perception gives you an option at the beginning to turn off ‘Chatty Cassie’. This seems like an option for players who want to experience their horror game uninterrupted, but for such a narrative focused game it’s strange to suggest you tone down the main character. It feels like The Deep End Games wanted Cassie to be a strong and empowered protagonist, which is entirely admirable, but too often Cassie’s witticisms and humor detract from any tension the game might have been building.
In the Eye of the Beholder
It’s hard not to conclude that Perception’s story, like the voice acting, and like the gameplay, is somewhat mixed. The stories of each generation, and of Cassie’s past, are all concluded in the final chapter – but the stories final revelation frankly isn’t reaching far beyond the clichés we began with at the doorway of our haunted house. Individually, the chapters make for interesting and chilling short stories and each has moments where they shine or occasionally surprise, whilst Cassie’s own story of self-discovery and strength is compelling.
The question remains whether Perception’s unique approach to horror with a blind protagonist is enough to carry story and gameplay that doesn’t stand up on their own. Perception is somewhat like an inverted version of Gone Home, where the ground-breaking new perspective is revealed at the beginning, instead of at the end. In Gone Home, this transforms what would otherwise feel like a lukewarm horror game into a revelatory narrative experience, but in Perception, we begin with the alternative angle and progress through an increasingly ordinary horror game.
Perception’s presentation of blindness is worth experiencing, and there is definitely a compelling balance between the urge to explore every inch of Echo Bluff for hidden secrets, of which there are many and the creeping dread that comes with tapping your cane against the creaking floorboards. Perception is not without issues, so if you’re looking for an immersive horror game you may want to look elsewhere. However, there is an audience for Perception in those players who savor narrative games and want to experience a horror story charged with a new perspective. For anyone looking for a new perspective, Perception can open your eyes to the darkness.
The writer received a free copy of the game for the purposes of this review.