Perception is a short first-person exploration game where you take the role of a blind woman uncovering the mystery of a creepy haunted house in rural Massachusetts. Developed by The Deep End Games, who are composed of a number of people behind the team that developed the BioShock series, Perception seems like a game on paper that would be perfect to put a unique mechanic into a genre that thrives in new creative storytelling. Although it comes from a team who knows how to create a game changing work of art, Perception falls short of these lofty goals by a fair amount due to the fact that it contorts the elements that gave me faith in what it had to offer and uses them to make a below average horror game more aimed at YouTubers looking for jump scares than actual horror fans.
Although slasher fans might say otherwise, it’s not hard to pinpoint what makes atmospheric horror terrifying. It’s the subtle of music in scenes where a creaky, abandoned house is being explored, or the unpredictability of who will live and die in the overarching narrative. Great horror uses subtly when it’s most efficient and saves its loud boisterous moments to emphasize its most terrifying elements. Perception does the opposite, constantly making a mockery of any nuance that could be contrived from its overarching journey and instead makes its central character, the house, more annoying than eerie.
Desensitization is a topic often brought up with video games, usually in the context of people being desensitized to violence or foul language. While the effect of things like that on our brains might be up for debate, I can tell you without a doubt that after three hours with Perception the one thing I’ve become desensitized to is the slamming of doors. I cannot express how comically not scary a door creaking open in front of me becomes after it’s happened a dozen times or how not shocking the fifth vase falling of a table is. What good horror games go is create an atmosphere where things like that are a looming threat that happens rarely, not constantly baiting comical jump scares out of Twitch streamers.
On a gameplay level, Perception does a terrible job of creating any sort of tension that made me feel scared. From the start, I was thrown into a house and told to bang on everything I could to illuminate the path ahead of me. A half hour later, however, I’m told the house is listening and that if I bang on stuff too much a ghost will appear. While this might seem like a great way to create a system where I would be constantly kept in the dark and be forced to limit the number of echolocative taps I made tracing the halls, the game is far too forgiving in both the amount of noise it allows before a ghost appears and in the amount of hiding spaces it gave me to escape to truly make me fearful of the damage that my taps might do.
The echolocation gameplay mechanic that Perception is centered around is actually a neat way to represent a diverse perspective in games that hasn’t been explored before. While it’s a little far-fetched to believe that a blind person uses echolocation to the lengths that Cassie does, it does make for a few interesting video gamey quirks that a person with vision would take for granted. The main example being that due to her lack of sight, Cassie is unable to read notes scattered throughout the house that then requires you to view them through a text-to-speech translator which adds a gameplay layer to the complexities of a blind person’s struggles. While it’s obviously been tailored to make it a somewhat workable gameplay mechanic and not capturing a true-to-life representation of a daily problems that blind people face, the biggest area that Perception succeeds is in tackling an experience that is foreign to gamers.
The area where Perception drops the ball the hardest is its atrocious storytelling and world building. The main narrative revolves around four separate stories in who’s connecting factor is that they all took place within the house. While an interesting idea in concept, it’s for the most part a bungled mess that doesn’t do a good job of conveying any theme or main idea that I found that creates a through line between what’s going on the with Cassie or the house in general.
The audio diaries scattered throughout attempt to paint several relationships between a cast of a characters who at the end of the day I couldn’t have cared less about. Contrast this with characters from BioShock or other games with great audio diaries that told awesome stories about a world without ever having to meet anyone and Perception fails to establish anything interesting about its periphery characters.
As far as the main character Cassie goes, at the start you’re given the option to turn off her internal dialogue off which just goes to show how much faith even developer The Deep End Games had in the stilted dialogue that they wrote for the character. Combining that with voice acting that is bland at best, grating at its worst, and it’s a slog to feel any ounce of a connection for Cassie by the time her journey ends.
Perception isn’t great, failing to clear every benchmark that it set out for itself by a healthy margin. It could fall back on the fact that it was trying something experimental as an excuse for what went wrong, but there are too many experimental games in today’s day and age for me to cut any slack for the mess that is this game. With the pedigree of the team that created it and the lofty expectations that it set out for itself, it fails to live up even to modest expectations. While it’s noble to attempt to tackle representation in interesting ways, Perception isn’t a poster child for what games of this persuasion should strive to be.