It hadn’t occurred to me, as I booted up Perception for the first time, that the game might be uniquely suited to scaring me. I’m fairly sensitive to noise and loud sounds, and as a game about a blind woman using her ears to find her way around a haunted mansion in Massachusetts, Perception obviously relies heavily on its soundscape to drive the experience.
Perception, played with earphones and no distracting sounds, is probably one of the most frightening games I’ve ever played. It has jump-scares of a sort, sudden noises and sights that can startle you, but many of these aren’t obviously dangerous. Because the protagonist Cassie can’t see, the game leans more heavily on audio cues to unsettle the player, to make them think things are happening in other parts of the house, to make them feel watched.
Cassie can use echolocation, but while this does render the environment on-screen for the player, it requires making noise in a dangerous situation, which can be very anxiety-inducing. Walking, running, and especially striking things with a cane are loud and can draw some very unwanted attention. And because even footsteps are only intermittent, the screen will often be black, so you’ll be left with flashes of understanding and a great deal of uncertainty about your surroundings as you move. As if haunted houses weren’t inherently disorienting enough!
The on-screen rendering of Cassie’s echolocation, while monotonous in its single color (generally blue, or orange-red when there’s trouble), can be hauntingly beautiful, especially when there’s wind flowing through an area, or when thunder cracks outdoors and reveals the world beyond the house. There are characters, too, and they’re rendered with a strange cutout effect that makes them feel insubstantial and surreal – an appropriate effect considering they’re mostly ghosts. More importantly, the game relies heavily on its soundscape, which is, thankfully, excellent. Cassie’s footsteps and cane strikes sound different based on the material she’s walking on, the echoes and the creaking of doors are suitably unnerving, and the threatening presence in the house is really creepy when it addresses the player directly, especially the first few times due to some clever writing. When sound is leveraged to startle or scare the player, it’s done with a good sense of timing and sufficient restraint that you never really get used to it.
The narrative is a bit thin-feeling at times, but it does an admirable job at supporting the game’s mechanics, and the voice acting, thankfully, is believable and natural. Cassie is blind, but she also has a smartphone that helps her by reading text out loud and linking her to other people who can illuminate her situation. Cassie is also in this particular house because she’s had recurring nightmares about it, so it isn’t strange that she can preternaturally sense her way to the game’s next objective, or absorb memories from objects lying around the house. The latter also makes sense within the more specific context of the house’s haunting, though I’ll avoid the details of exactly what is haunting and why.
There are other video game tropes that feel out of place, though, and even the narrative struggles to make sense of them. Most salient is the presence of dozens of logs, both written and audio, documenting the increasing struggles and madness of past occupants of the house. Those occupants left many letters and diaries, as you’d expect, but also left dozens of cassette tape players and at least half a dozen 19th Century phonographs lying around. It’s an understandable conceit given the medium, but it mostly feels silly.
Most people only have one cassette player at a time rather than dozens, and there’s nothing stopping Cassie from picking up the cassette player once and playing cassettes she finds with it instead. And it’s not implausible that the eccentric tinkerer who lived in the house in the 1800s would have a phonograph, but again, it’s likely he would only have one, and switch out the cylinders or disks. In the context of the way audio has been deployed in other first-person games, having dozens of playback devices around the house highlights the artificiality of the trope. Although to the credit of Perception‘s writers, there are a few cases where the game brilliantly subverts and plays with the trope.
The design of the house is also deeply questionable; while I never got a clear sense of what the whole layout was, there were definitely stairs leading to single rooms with no doorways, and floor sections that were not in any way interconnected. But the house starts changing partway through the game, raising the possibility that it was never natural in the first place, which is as good a narrative excuse as any for the mind-boggling architecture. The disorientation from Cassie’s own blindness is compounded by the house’s shifting architecture, which seems to want to be as confusing as possible. The effect is certainly unsettling and conducive to fear, but it occasionally crosses the line into outright frustration, such as with the sudden appearance of barriers that don’t obey the rules similar barriers did in the past.
As for what’s haunting the mansion, let’s just say that a great many people have experienced pain in this place throughout history. The story deals with some difficult subject matter, including suicide and abuse, and lays bare a great deal of suffering. There are good narrative and thematic reasons for Cassie to be the one to enter this house, though the game could have spent more time exploring her eagerness to throw herself into this situation – she even has someone who wants to help her and who’s only a few hours away, but instead of waiting a day or so she dives in alone. This is who Cassie is, of course, but why she is that way wasn’t entirely clear to me as a player.
Overall, Perception sometimes feels longer than it should be (mostly due to the difficulty of navigating an ever-changing house without even being able to see) and leans a bit much on some old video game tropes to present its story. It’s an interesting and effective effort on the part of The Deep End Games. It’s a well-produced, eerie game – outright scary if you’re more sensitive to noises – and there’s a good amount of narrative cohesion that other games in the genre should aspire to. Most of all, this is a promising first project for the studio – keep your eyes on this team.
PUBLISHER – Feardemic | DEVELOPER – The Deep End Games | ESRB – M | PLATFORMS – PC / Nintendo Switch (TBA) / PS4 / Xbox One
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RECOMMENDED – Perception stands out from other indie offerings in the genre with its generally strong and unsettling writing, its novel concept, and its well-designed soundscape. It sometimes feels a little bit longer than it should be, and there are a few weaker links in its narrative presentation, but for the most part, the experience is cohesive, deliberately crafted, and emotionally impactful. Give it a shot, and keep your eyes on this development team.