The Deep End Games' Perception is a minimalist horror game that puts you in the shoes of Cassie, a blind woman tormented by nightmares involving a house. After searching long and hard she finds the house of her nightmares located in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. She ventures there to explore it only to discover a malevolent presence and so she's forced to uncover the secrets of the mansion to avoid becoming yet another victim of said presence.
"Perception is a first-person horror narrative about a blind woman who can use echo location like a bat," says co-founder and writer Amanda Gardner. "She's exploring a haunted mansion from her nightmares. The more noise you make, the more you can see. But the more noise you make; you're in a haunted mansion, so don't make a lot of noise!"
Blindness is something that has been portrayed in games before, indie title Beyond Eyes comes to mind, but Perception is taking a completely different approach to this design challenge. Here there's a risk and reward system in play, as using echo location to "paint" your surroundings comes with the risk of attracting unwanted attention. You tap your cane to produce a sound, and interestingly the sound changes depending on the surface you tap, which makes for an eerie atmosphere as you try and avoid tapping that metal staircase.
One thing we noted, while the demo we tried was very early in the game and you didn't really run the risk of attracting enemies by making noise, was that you still tended to use the echo location with moderation. This in turn made it a little difficult navigating the mansion, adding to the tension. The game also does a good job of showing you just how difficult it is to navigate without a good sense of direction and a full understanding of the layout of the house. Once the danger of attracting the presence is added we can see how the tension could mean you easily loose track of where you are, something that hopefully won't cause frustration but rather augment the atmosphere of this horror experience. The only means of escaping the presence once it has spotted you is to run and hide and you can also use sounds to your advantage to get it off your scent.
"We feel like the audio in this game is kind of our calling card," explains Amanda Gardner. "Because the sound is essentially your light and the way you see we really wanted... Think about an old creaky house, all the noises it makes. So we spent a long time making Echo Bluff very, sort of... ambient noises, all the things that could make noises in the house are now things that you can see like a steamy radiator, like a creaky floor; it's all for you to see now."
The puzzles that we experienced in the demo were fairly easy to piece together. We ran an errand for a ghost, and we figured out the combination to a safe. Not terribly challenging, but given the restraints placed on the player when it comes to what you can see, and trying to avoid attracting the attention of the presence, that may be a wise design choice. And it is likely that the complexity of puzzles will gradually ramp up.
The structure of the game is such that you explore a particular time era and its inhabitants as you need to root out the cause of evil for each era, each set of residents or ghosts, before moving on to the next. What's neat about this is that players will become more and more familiar with the layout of the mansion, allowing them to rely less on the cane for echo location, presumably as the presence also becomes more vigilant.
The Deep End Games is one of many talented studios setting up shop in the Boston area as a result of the downsizing of Irrational Games, and the team comes with plenty of AAA experience, mainly working on the Bioshock series. Obviously the choice of setting is now coincidence. "Bill [Gardner, Perception's director] and I are from the North Shore of Massachusetts, which is where this game is set", says Gardner. "Lots of old creepy houses. Lots of amazing ghost stories in these houses."
Perception offers an interesting take on horror, and while putting the player at a disadvantage with an all-powerful enemy that you cannot defeat in straight forward combat isn't particularly unique, the use of echo location and limiting the player's ability to see is an interesting twist.
"I'm probably going to butcher this quote, but Stephen King says something to the effect of: the enemy of horror is information," says Amanda Gardner. "So we've taken a lot of information from you. You're playing in the dark very much. And when you do make noise you are threatening yourself essentially. So it's a really fine balance of 'do I want to see what's in the next room?'. But at the same time we make it a fun gameplay mechanic so it sort of works on a couple of levels."
Less is sometimes more. Even when it comes to something we take for granted such as sight in a video game. At least that's what Perception hopes to prove when it comes out "soon" on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.