Afraid of the dark for the the wrong reasons.
Perception invokes the most basic human phobia – a fear of the dark – by placing you in the shoes of Cassie, a blind woman who navigates by means of echolocation. It gives her – and you – only momentary glimpses of her surroundings, forcing you piece together room layouts, landmarks, and threats in the mere seconds before the shadows rush back in. It’s emblematic of Perception’s problems, then, that my main emotion as I sat in the dark wasn’t fear, but irritation.
The smart-sounding, high-concept set-up is ultimately its downfall, but along the way it bears some fruit. We’re so accustomed to being shown exactly where we are and where to go in games that to be left in darkness is actually refreshing at first. In the opening moments, exploring the purportedly abandoned New England house Cassie finds herself in is unnerving, opaque, and unpredictable. Until 10 minutes in, when you realise that the next four hours will amount to a bland adventure game with a veneer of horror and an increasingly awkward central gimmick.
Cassie’s footsteps radiate a burst of ‘audio vision’ that gives you a glimpse of nearby surroundings with every move. For a more complete view of any given room you’ll need to tap her cane on nearby surfaces, sending a Daredevil-indebted swoosh of monochromatic blue across the screen and allowing you to pick out details. It’s rather pretty – particularly when swirling gusts of wind illuminate swathes of outdoor scenery (although once I got closer to objects, I couldn’t help but wonder if the darkness was used as an excuse to use less-taxing models and textures).
Developer Deep End Games’ solution to prevent you from simply spamming the echolocate button for a constant view of the house is to introduce The Presence, a stalking figure who’ll find and insta-murder you for making too much noise as you make your way around. The problem here quickly becomes clear. The lack of direct feedback for how much noise you can make before triggering an attack leads you down one of two paths: either spend a great deal of time in its relatively sparse hiding spots, or feel your way around the house in almost total darkness waiting for a cooldown on whatever invisible “trigger ghost” gauge sits behind it all.
If that was Perception’s only major downfall it could still manage a scary tone, but the story is as much at fault for dampening an excellent central idea. Being hunted by something or someone through an unfamiliar space is a primally frightening idea. On top of that, the house frequently reconfigures itself in the dark, making getting familiar with a space only a temporary solution and creating a pleasingly old-school idea of the haunted house.
All of which makes the multiple supernatural turns feel, at best, silly by comparison. As Cassie’s story quickly becomes part psychodrama, part time travel, her reaction to most of this is to make tension-killing quips. The fact that the developer includes an option to turn her incidental dialogue off before you begin playing is a warning worth heeding and, barring the mocking, unsettling vocals of The Presence, other characters’ voice acting is just as flat. It all rings false and, worse, juvenile. And I felt that way before I got to the section where you have to creep past haunted robot dolls on miniature train tracks with guns for hands.
The one area in which Perception does shine is in its depiction of the practicalities of blindness in the modern day. Research has clearly gone into how Cassie solves everyday problems: a text-to-speech app on her phone helps her read scattered letters, while she occasionally sends pictures to a volunteer phoneline operator who helps her interpret scenes she can’t see. Even human echolocation is a skill drawn from real life, and the brief moment we see of her learning how it works is genuinely interesting. All of this lends a sense of credence to a game that so often feels overly far-fetched.
What’s left is the task of guiding Cassie around multiple versions of the same house, seeking out the recurring images of her nightmares. It’s a first-person point ‘n’ click in effect – walk to a room, find an obstacle, search for a way around said obstacle, repeat – but the limitations of Cassie’s blindness seem to have called for even that simple idea to be reduced to an annoyingly monotonous job. The biggest challenge, mostly, is simply finding the right door to use, and a “Sixth Sense” objective marker will generally point you in the right direction. There’s practically no puzzle solving, which would make it feel more akin to Gone Home and the like if it weren’t for how clumsily its story is implemented. The developers have made a lot of their past connection to BioShock, and Perception’s preoccupation with optional audio logs is a clear nod to that series’ storytelling style. Somehow, though, Deep End Games has forgotten BioShock’s decade-old lesson of audio logs: they should play in the background as you do other things. Perception is a game that, more than once, will only tell its story if you stare for 15 seconds at a plain coffee mug while you listen to someone else’s memories.