Despite its welcome empowerment of a protagonist with a disability, Perception‘s graceless and silly storyline together with the absurd gameplay drag this atmospheric horror adventure down.
It is not often in games that you play a character with a disability. On the contrary, many avatars possess physical gifts beyond that of common human beings or they are enhanced by special tools and/or instruments. This is where Deep End Games’ Perception greatly differs. Even more surprisingly for a visual medium, it is a first-person 3D horror game whose protagonist, Cassie, is a blind woman who uses echolocation to move around. This means that she determines where objects are in space via sound waves either naturally created or by tapping her cane on the ground. When the sound waves hit an object, they produce an echo and display its approximate shape and outline, thus allowing her to perceive her surroundings. Unfortunately, while this premise is ambitious and ideally suited to a tense horror scenario, it’s not enough to save a gameplay experience that soon becomes repetitive and clumsy and a storyline that is full of plot holes.
The game offers two modes: Chatty Cassie, in which the protagonist comments much more throughout, and Silent Night, in which she offers only essential observations. That’s a welcome option, but the problems start early on no matter the mode. Before the actual game begins, the backstory is that Cassie visits a deserted mansion that she has been seeing in her nightmares – alone. I understand that Perception belongs to the horror genre and has to build on the feeling of remoteness and desolation, but I cannot accept that any sane person would step foot in such a scary abode by themselves. Many a time it is stressed how Cassie refuses to refrain from things just because she is blind, which is of course a positive message. However, here it is not a matter of discrimination but plain stupidity. It is like any horror film when the heroine walks totally unaware in the direction of the killer while you are screaming at her from your couch not to go there. What is even worse in this case is that you have to play the role of the imbecile character and make the best out of the mess they have put you into.
If this were a comedy game, then by all means. Alas, in horror, to achieve the level of suspension of disbelief needed, one has to take the story seriously and by decreasing the reasoning capacity of the protagonist for the sake of convenience and lack of ingenuity is completely counterproductive. I could never overlook this inexplicable plot hole, which is followed by others right up to the grand finale, and the reactions of the heroine continually make no sense. Soon it is revealed that the mansion is haunted by a nameless presence – what a surprise. Nevertheless, Cassie still does not want to leave, but instead chooses to stay and solve the mystery of the house’s appearance in her nightmares. She also challenges the presence in the house and has a bold attitude that shows she is not scared by it at all. Then how can the player be scared?
This is the point at which the gameplay takes a turn for the worse. Having a blind main character that depends on sound to find her way around an unfamiliar space while trying to make as little noise as possible for fear of revealing her whereabouts is a potentially terrifying basis for a challenging and highly strategic game. Sadly, Perception is far from that. Before long you will come to understand that there is no reason to be afraid. There are only a few instances when you have to remain quiet. During the rest of the game you can tap your cane as much as you want with no consequence. In reality, you will be obliged to, since there is no other way to know where you are going. So, an idea that in theory would have worked nicely, in actuality is translated into a nuisance with boring and repetitive in-game actions.
Instead of feeling alone and helpless, you end up feeling annoyed and disoriented. This is made worse by the fact that interaction points can be reactivated multiple times. So, for example, you may believe you have finally found a new clue only to realize that you are hearing the same audio file that you came across sometime before. In addition to that, you will find multiple tape players – or other voice recording devices – lying randomly around the house for no other reason than to provide backstory. They are not incorporated into the setting, thus the believability of the game is shattered once more, despite apparently being inspired by true events.
The story itself is not very inventive, typical of what you might expect from a haunted mansion. What I do like is how the game takes you back in time following the history of the house – except this too is never justified by the narrative; you just have to go with it. You start by uncovering the mystery of the last tenants, only to discover that the haunting really started much earlier. The game not only progressively reveals this framing construction, but accompanies it with matching design, like the furniture of the house being transformed according to the era in which each individual storyline is set. This external journey back in time is simultaneously an internal exploration for our protagonist, who at the end of the game can finally make the connection between herself and the house, between history and memory, and between the past and the present.
If we interpret Perception as an allegory of the quest against physical obstacles and personal fears, then it is successful enough. Especially because the whole basis of the game – the haunting of the house – is revealed to have been caused by the predisposition we all have to label people easily and often wrongly, with the accompanying repercussions of such prejudice. Both for Cassie and the lingering presence in the house, the power of social conventions and stereotypes is immense, to the point of creating self-imposed barriers each must struggle to overcome. In Cassie’s case, if everyone believes that a blind person cannot live an independent life, they end up not being able to live an independent life. So too does the spectre have its own tale that led to the house becoming a prison of pain.
All this is surely very inspirational. Nevertheless, for allegories to be functional they also have to make sense at face value. This is where Perception comes up short, both in the story and its inconsistent characters. Early on, Cassie reveals that she hates fire. But later the game has her light up a fire inside the house without even commenting on what a struggle it must be because of her phobia. She just accepts it – no big deal. Moreover, Cassie talks often with her boyfriend, Serge, via her cell phone. Usually he sounds anxious to reach her, since he is afraid of her being alone in that mansion. At one point, though, he tells her to get out, but when she answers that the house will not physically let her go, his reaction can be described as almost indifferent. This contradicts his previous behavior and most importantly the general atmosphere the game tries to create. If a character hears something terrifying and they just treat it as business as usual, how can we feel the terror a horror game should instill?
This is a shame, because the graphic design and audio effects meticulously fit the eerie setting of a haunted mansion perceived by a blind person. The palette for the 3D photorealistic graphics is based on black, dark blue and grey hues that successfully infuse the whole game with a claustrophobic essence that matches the intended experience. Especially the outdoor scenes are beautifully designed, since the howling wind gives off creepy sounds as well as a daunting ambience due to echolocation. As should be expected, sound effects are very prominent, particularly the tapping of Cassie’s cane.
Yet the aesthetics cannot overcome the clumsiness of a plot full of holes. To make matters worse, the actual horror value consists of nothing more than jump scares, while the gameplay is equally shallow. The puzzles pose no challenge; they are below beginner level and totally unmemorable. Basically, you just have to find an item somewhere and carry it to the place where you need to use it. Once again, it is the orientation that creates the difficulty and not the actual action, especially since you do not control an inventory. Whenever you are in the right spot, the game notifies you that you can use the item you are currently carrying – or your phone in most cases – by showing which button to press. Sometimes you come across locked doors that require a code to be opened, but since the code is revealed to you soon thereafter, the challenge is again minimal. The positive aspect is that these simple obstacles are all essential parts of the narrative, so you never feel like you are straying from your goal.
On the other hand, what I personally found extremely irritating is that you can die on two separate occasions, one of which involves being shot at with real bullets. I know that not all people see this as a disadvantage in adventure games, but Perception does not allow you to save wherever you want, so the most vexatious part is that once you die you may have to repeat quite a large part of the game again and again, which makes the experience tedious and cumbersome. Indeed, you respawn even before the last automatic save, so basically it is more practical to quit and load the game again in such cases. Making matters worse, at least for me, is that I experienced various glitches and crashes that required restarts.
On the bright side, the game has incorporated some clever tools. The most useful is the sixth sense button, which facilitates Cassie’s orientation toward the next goal. This is extremely helpful since finding your way around is the most difficult job you have and at the same time the most annoying. The other two tools are smartphone applications. One is called ‘Delphi’, which reads aloud scanned documents, mostly letters and diary entries that Cassie discovers at various stages. The other is the ‘Friendly Eyes App’ for when Cassie takes a picture of something and uploads it to the server. Any user online can see the photo and call her to describe what is displayed in the image. Nick is the name of the person whose friendly eyes Cassie borrows, but Nick suffers from a similar syndrome as Serge. One minute he is totally grossed out and freaked by a picture Cassie has just sent him, the very next he is cool and game again.
To sum it all up, Perception incorporates important themes that should be addressed more by the medium, yet it does not succeed at being an enjoyable and effective experience. The game suffers from plot holes, lack of immersion in its horror setting, confusing gameplay, and repetitive and tedious in-game actions. The only real challenge is orienting yourself in a dark environment, and since there are no real consequences for making noise, having a blind protagonist just ends up being frustrating rather than thought-provoking. I strongly believe that more games should include characters that defy medium-conventional body types and abilities, so I applaud the developers for their decision, but this is not an excuse for inferior game design and clumsy execution. The architecture and soundscape are richly atmospheric and in tune with the spooky and mysterious premise, but even these cannot fully atone for empty content. Notwithstanding its more complex approach to player navigation, then, Perception ultimately results in a rather mediocre horror adventure.