H. G. Wells’s 1904 short story ‘The Country of the Blind’ poses the question of how to describe sight to the unseeing. The narrative is notable for the progressive tendency to view the eponymous village’s blind population not as disabled, but as differently-abled. Likewise, The Deep End Games’s debut title Perception takes blindness as a central hook, casting players as a sightless young woman named Cassie, whose inability to see is not as much an impediment as might be expected. Nevertheless, the development team takes the logical course of marrying the omnipresent darkness of Cassie’s life with a haunted house story to offer a premise that is suggestive of a powerful engagement with horror themes. Unfortunately, the game’s half-hearted portrayal of the character’s blindness, in concert with a middling story and depressingly steadfast adherence to video game tropes, leaves Perception feeling like a missed opportunity.
Following a brief sequence to acclimatise players to Cassie’s blindness, Perception begins in earnest with the character arriving outside a house that has plagued her nightmares. With the screen enveloped by darkness, the sound of the wind howling is unnerving, and the initial approach to the centuries-old mansion evokes the opening of Gone Home. Similarly, Perception reflects Fullbright’s seminal narrative adventure by casting Cassie as a passive observer, uncovering the stories of the house’s inhabitants by exploring the environment. The game offers a novel twist on the well-established format by offering multiple character histories spread across 400 years, with each of Perception’s four chapters throwing Cassie further back in time to discover a different family’s or character’s tale. While all of these stories are interesting enough in their own right and contribute to the ever-expanding mythos of the house at Echo Bluff, the exploration of recurring themes and ideas results in a sense of repetition that slows the pace. Furthermore, the final chapter’s attempt to explain the strange goings-on across the centuries falls flat, delving into the supernatural for an unsatisfactory justification, made all the more tedious by a revelation torn directly from the more banal works of H. P. Lovecraft. However, the true shortcomings of Perception’s story lay not in the various historical narratives, but in the character of Cassie. Her forays through the house are driven not by a personal connection, as was the case for Katie in Gone Home, but by a detached curiosity that even the character acknowledges may not be enough to carry the experience. This almost clinical approach to the exploration of the various stories is reflected in the way that Cassie investigates the mansion.
The uncovering of the historical narratives is, perhaps, best described as an autopsy, with Cassie poking about the corners of the house irreverently. The stories are told through a combination of audio logs (taking such forms as telephone messages and phonographs, as well as memory fragments received from letters and other incidental items) and the ghostly presence of their subjects. This method of narrative delivery follows the formula of the genre, as does the inclusion of some puzzle elements. The Deep End Games uses these problems to support the fiction by giving Cassie’s mobile phone accessibility apps as work-arounds for her blindness, but these programs are locked from the player and only usable in predetermined situations. More important to the moment-to-moment gameplay is Cassie’s cane, given tangible presence in Perception by providing her with a Daredevil-like power of echolocation. Tapping the space ahead reveals a small circle to help guide players onwards. This ability is supported by a ‘sixth sense’ mechanic that allows Cassie to automatically orient towards her next objective. These two conveniences serve to reduce the frustration of moving through the environment, but they also break the fiction and reveal an uncertainty of how to align gameplay with narrative vision.
The Deep End Games does attempt to prevent a reliance on the echolocation mechanic by spawning a monster when the player becomes overzealous, but the window that remains is large enough that players are unlikely to ever encounter the monster, The Presence, outside of scripted sequences. The canned nature of the demon’s appearances reduces the game’s horror impact, while the mere inclusion of The Presence also highlights Perception’s reluctance to be ‘just a walking simulator’. Although the apparition cannot be fought directly, its appearance introduces action elements, which are greatly expanded upon in the game’s bizarre third chapter. While this change of pace occurs as the narrative begins to drag, the sudden shift towards action is a betrayal of the preceding chapters and reiterates the development team’s apparent lack of faith in the original vision. As the pace ramps up, the ideal of staid exploration falls away, thus failing to alleviate the dissective feeling of Cassie’s journey, reinforced through the environmental design.
Where other games of this ilk, such as What Remains of Edith Finch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, manage to convey a sense of lived-in places even in the absence of life, Perception’s mansion feels like a corpse. Perhaps this trait is the inevitable result of blanket darkness, but too many of the rooms are vacant or sparsely furnished to be convincing. The low-key approach to sound design, which foregrounds silence, also helps to evoke the lack of life within the house. Given the domestic setting and the presence of several former Bioshock staff members on the development team, the oppressive sense of emptiness seems unintentional, with the open spaces made to seem vaster than they truly are by Cassie’s blindness. Despite this absence of life, the environments are richly detailed in those rare brief moments wherein the player is able to see them. Perception also offers a high degree of environmental diversity, with the contents of the house changing to reflect the timeframe and unique anxieties of each historical character. In concert with the changing of the set dressing, the mansion’s layout also undergoes transformations as Cassie delves further back in time, with older underground areas apparently being filled in by more recent inhabitants. However, these previously inaccessible areas are not explained within the game’s fiction, which is symbolic of a general want of cohesion throughout the entire game, which drags the experience down considerably.
By offering the chance to experience life as a blind person, Perception has an incredible hook, and the pedigree of the development staff seems enough for the project to realise its unique vision. Unfortunately, the game suffers from a lack of confidence, with too many could-be brilliant ideas washed out by an unwillingness to go all-in on mechanics that would disempower the player. With horror in short supply, the narrative elements of Perception take centre stage, and, while the individual stories are intriguing, Cassie is not a strong enough protagonist to maintain the player’s interest. Perception is a solid foundational attempt to invert H. G. Wells’s 1904 question and describe blindness to the sighted, but the end result is undercooked and might have benefited from a firmer hand at the wheel.