The Deep End Games
Perception is much more than what it initially seems, which is fitting considering the title. This first-person horror’s central conceit sees you playing as a blind woman exploring a spooky old house. This you do by employing echolocation, visualising your surroundings through how sound bounces off surfaces. Part theme, part aesthetic, and part mechanic, Perception explores blindness and echolocation with both grace and ingenuity, taking what could have been a cheap and rather tawdry gimmick and turning it into something powerful and fascinating.
It’s also not the most interesting aspect of Perception, not by quite some margin. What Perception does is use its protagonist’s blindness as a springboard to explore a horror that goes much further than fumbling about in the dark while scary things lurk in the shadows – the horror of being misjudged. It does this superbly. Although Perception may not be the scariest horror game I have played, it is perhaps the most affecting.
Perception has you play as Cassie Thornton, a blind woman who suffers from recurring nightmares about a colonial manor house in Massachusetts called Echo Bluff. Driven to distraction by these dreams, Cassie resolves to put them to an end by visiting the mansion herself. Upon her arrival, however, she discovers the building to be a Russian doll of ghostly mysteries and tragic tales, all linked to a malevolent spirit known as the Presence.
At a foundational level, Perception is similar to many first-person horror games released in recent years. You explore Echo Bluff in a way that is technically freeform but heavily directed, listen to audio-logs and “read” notes that shed light on the story, weather a few jump-scares, and occasionally hide from spooky things prowling the corridors. The big difference, of course, is that you can’t see.
While nearly all horror games use darkness and shadow to enunciate their horror, Perception takes this to a whole other level. Stand still in an area where there is no sound, and your screen will be completely black, save for a tiny white reticule in its centre. Yet although Cassie is blind, she can visualise the nearby environment through echolocation. Press space, and Cassie will thwack her cane against a nearby object, temporarily illuminating her surroundings in a spectral blue outline. This isn’t the only way she can navigate either, Cassie’s footsteps also provide tiny blips of “vision” while sound sources such as TVs, radios, and even the wind will provide a visual layout of the house so long as they are active.
The result is the player effectively paints the environments into life in a sublime fusion of Perception’s visual, aural, and systemic components. The blueprint-like appearance of Cassie’s visualisations lends the game a uniquely abstract style. This in turn adds an extra layer of eeriness to the atmosphere, as if the house itself is the spirit of some long-destroyed structure. What’s more, the thwack of Cassie’s cane is both more satisfying and more empowering than a flashlight or lantern in a more typical horror game. It requires you to be bold, as you announce your presence each time you use it.
I must admit, however, that at first I was unsure if Perception’s ideas were going to work. The first hour of the game is quite slow and extremely generous in terms of providing aids to your echolocation. Leaking radiators, TVs tuned to white noise, windows open to the incoming storm; all are very common in the starting chapter. The result it Perception initially feels like a stylish but otherwise unremarkable walking simulator, with a lot of standing around listening to audio recordings and “memories” triggered by touching important objects.