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Wot I Think: Perception

A sound design

Perception [official site] has pedigree. It's the first game from a new studio, but members of the team have worked on BioShock, BioShock Infinite and Dead Space. Crowdfunded to the tune of $160,000, Perception didn't simply rely on past glories though; it has one of the strongest hooks I've ever seen in a horror game. You play as a blind woman, exploring a haunted (?) house, using echolocation to find your way around, and to discover escape routes when necessary. Sounds good? Here's wot I think.

“Why would you even go in there?”

I spent the first half hour of Perception wondering why I was poking around in a house that was almost certainly haunted and quite possibly preparing to eat me alive. Playing as Cassie, a woman drawn to the house because she has seen it in recurring nightmares, I crept from one abandoned room to the next patiently waiting for the voiceover to give me a reason to believe any of this was a good idea. Cassie talks a lot but nothing that she said convinced me that she should have crossed the threshold.

Perception's story kicks into action with a shrug. Cassie has come to Echo Bluff because her dreams about it seem meaningful. Perhaps she's hoping that visiting and solving the mystery of the place will banish the nightmares or perhaps she's trying to prove her independence by tackling spooks on her lonesome – I wasn't quite sure what the motivation was and Cassie herself occasionally reacts to a scare by asking herself, “What am I even doing here?”

It remains a good question until the moment, toward the end of the first chapter, when the house finally closes around her like a Venus flytrap. There's always a point of no escape in these situations, whether it's the door slamming behind you the moment you enter, hungry dogs chowing down on your bones if you leave, or, in the rather more elaborate style of the classic Alone in the Dark, the maw of a gigantic cosmic horror having replaced the outside world (I just watched this on YouTube actually and it's more like an angry alien bumhole – OLD POLYGONS ARE ABSTRACT ART).

In Perception, that moment of no return comes relatively late, as the first chapter ends. The chapters are very distinct one from the next, with their own title cards, and each deals with a different inhabitant's story as you delve into the past of Echo Bluff, the house changing around you to reflect the era and mindset of the various families and individuals whose grim tales you uncover. There's an echo of What Remains of Edith Finch in the way you sniff out clues to other peoples' tragedies, though Cassie's connection to the lives she's uncovering remains vague. At times she feels like a tourist, but then The Presence, a ghostly figure with a wonderfully creepy voice that sounds almost mechanical, throws her own commentary back at her. More echoes as words are repurposed to become threats or warnings.

Maybe there is a connection between Cassie and this place after all, The Presence made me think on the rare occasions it appeared, rattling my nerves.

Plot-wise, the individual stories within each chapter are mostly strong, particularly the second that sees the house transformed into a morbid war museum stitched together from fears and hallucinations. The nature of what is essentially anthology storytelling is that you don't have to put up with the weaker segments for too long (each of the five chapters will last anywhere from one hour to three, depending how much time you spend exploring and being lost in the dark), and I'd say three out of five chapters worked for me. That's not bad.

What didn't work though was the use of Cassie as the connective tissue between the chapters. As a character, she's great: scared but resilient, witty and smart. Empathy is her defining trait and that should be the foundation of her experiences in the house, but the central hook is a riddle within a dream rather than the simple desire to help people who cannot rest in peace.

When you start the game you can choose between two settings, 'Chatty Cassie' and 'Silent Night'. The latter removes all of Cassie's voiceovers except those that are essential to progress, and the whole game makes more sense if she's used as a mostly empty vessel for the player to inhabit. A vehicle. To play like that is to miss out on her reactions to the sorrow and horror she finds, and that would be a shame because Cassie is just so damn likeable. I just found it hard to accept her presence in the house. It's one of the oldest horror fiction problems – you like a character for their smarts but then they decide to split up or go into the cellar alone, and you feel your respect for them draining away. They've become a plot point and for all that I liked Cassie's company, she always felt like a prime mover for the story rather than its protagonist.

You might be wondering why I've spent so much time on the plot when the game appears to be about the echolocation mechanic rather than storytelling. The first trailer, for the Kickstarter campaign, promised ghostly pursuits through rooms full of objects recognisable only by their outlines. Here's that trailer.

Watch on YouTube

This precise sequence isn't in the game but if it were, it'd be the most exciting part of the game. I know that's kind of how trailers work, but for most of its running time, Perception is you, alone, in the dark, tapping and stepping forward slowly. Sometimes an apparition will startle you, but mostly you're just looking for the next object that'll trigger a plot point and let you move on.

There are moments when Perception reminds me that I'm playing a blind character rather than somebody who just happens to be in a dark room. When it uses the collision of sound and vision to confuse and deceive it can be spectacular and chilling. The depiction of the world, on a purely visual level, is fantastic, particularly when you are walking or running rather than tapping your cane as you walk. Footsteps create flashes of light, puddles of awareness, so you always feel like you're falling forward into a darkness that never quite claims you.

Thwacking the cane against whatever's nearby makes a larger pool of light. It's not actual light, of course, but rather Cassie's awareness of the surfaces the sounds have struck depicted as visible outlines. It's not entirely dissimilar to the technique used in Scanner Sombre, though here the visual elements fade after a while. There's no use of colour for depth perception either; instead, the colour of the outlines represents Cassie's stress levels. Cool blue when she's calm, yellow when something is nearby and burning oranges and reds when she's panicking.

You might expect to be seeing lots of red but the game is mostly blue, and that made me feel a little blue. There are entities that can harm you in the house but you summon them by spamming your cane rather than just stumbling across them. Hit too many things without pausing and the house starts to creak and groan, pissed off that you're hammering on it and making a racket. Keep going and it'll spawn a baddie to come and get you.

I finished the first two chapters without encountering anything at all, except in a couple of scripted sequences. That made the hiding places I kept bumping into seem very bizarre. Walk up to a bed or a box and a prompt appears telling you that you can hide there. I did, of course, the first few times the opportunity presented itself because if I'm in a strange house on my own, I'm going to hide under a bed for hours.

Whenever a tutorial pop-up tells me “press X to run” or “you can hide in some closets!” I'm going to assume I'm being chased or hunted. Why tell me these things if I don't need to run and hide almost immediately? Well, Perception told me how to hide long before I ever needed to. Maybe I'm just over-cautious with my cane but I never found navigation all that difficult, even with limited tapping.

It's hard not to think of the cane as a source of light. Every now and then I'd remember that the house might actually be brightly lit, by moonlight if not artificial sources, and that never ceased to be strange. The outdoors do tend to be 'brighter' because a storm is brewing and the wind makes enough noise to create legible shapes in its currents. Mostly, you're reliant on the sounds you make yourself when indoors, but considering how important sound is, Perception is a very noisy game.

There are audiologs, in various forms, and letters and notes are often narrated by the character who wrote them. Cassie responds to this, as if hearing memories out loud. Radiators hiss and steam, the sound making bubbles of light around them, and there are speakers and radios that create their own circles of visibility. Strangely, the audio design almost feels neglected, the visual component of the sound becoming more important than the actual sounds. In theory, you're navigating using sound but your actually using the visible aspect of that sound so the sound itself becomes inconsequential.

And though it becomes briefly fascinating during some of the time shifts, the overall design of the house feels like a place crafted to puzzle and creep through rather than a real place. The sense of space isn't helped by the fact that objectives are sometimes so vague that you'll need to resort to Cassie's sixth sense, holding a key or trigger to point her toward her goal, which glows.

Did I mention that Cassie has a sixth sense? It feels less like a magical extra sense to make up for her sight, and more like a convenient device inserted to make the game less frustrating.

If it sounds like I'm very down on Perception, let me redress that by stating again how much I enjoyed some of the individual stories, and the voice acting, and the way the echolocation works. It feels too much like an experiment – and a successful one – that deserves a better framework around it though. The general flow is to walk, to tap, to pick up an object and hear a memory, and then to activate sixth sense and figure out where to go next. The destination is often just about worthwhile, but the journey is far too repetitive. Even as the house changes, the routine remains the same, and the only thing that goes bump in the night, for long stretches, is Cassie's cane.

Not creepy or scary enough to quite work as a horror game, and without the sense of investigation that would make it work as a mystery, Perception falls between two posts. It's premise is strong and the echolocation works well, but there simply isn't enough to do in that old house, other than knock on the walls and listen to tales of times gone by. It's a game that I wanted to like so much more than I do, partly because it's so visually appealing and partly because Cassie is such a likeable character. She deserves a better story for herself rather than to be an observer of other peoples' lives.

Perception is out May 30th.

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