Deep End Games/Feardemic
Genre: Survival Horror
Having lived in New England my entire life, I’m no stranger to films that involve the Boston and general North Shore areas of Massachusetts. Given that authors like Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft also center quite a bit of their work around the New England area, there is plenty of horror related literature to reference that center around Maine and Rhode Island. Gaming has also recently had a few prominent settings in the area, notably Fallout 4 which takes place in The Commonwealth a.k.a. Massachusetts. In most media, you only have to look in a general direction to find work that centers around this section of the country. I mean, it’s been around long enough to gain some kind of attention.
I had originally heard of Perception at PAX a couple of years back and while I didn’t get to check out the demo, my friends did and raved about it. I threw it on to a list of games I would keep an eye on and when I looked into it, I realized that not only did the game take place in New England, but it was also developed by a company based right out of Boston. From that point, I don’t think the game fell off of my radar until I purchased it during a sale on Steam.
Given my backlog, I had tried getting into the game once before and wound up distracted by other things in my life (and probably other games, to be honest) but given the time of year, I’ve been trying to work through some of the spookier games in my library. I settled on the fact that I owed it to myself to play through Perception to see if my initial hype could be lived up to, especially given the unique mechanics of the game that I had heard so much about.
Cassie’s dreams have been haunted by visions of a manor. She can’t place what her connection to it is and save for a few specific items, she has no idea why she keeps seeing it in her sleep. After some research, she finds the location of the estate in Gloucester, Massachusetts- a far cry from her apartment in Phoenix, Arizona. It isn’t long, however, before she packs up and heads across the country to investigate this house and find out why it has been so prominently featured in her subconscious.
Perception opens with a scene regarding Cassie’s upbringing that becomes an important piece of the game as a whole. Taking the role of the young woman some years before the game takes place, she is being taught how to see through echolocation by tapping a cane and listening for sound around her to navigate. We quickly learn that Cassie is blind which makes her trip to the manor from her dreams a unique venture, to say the least.
This won’t stop her, though, as she enters the labyrinthine mansion to unravel its secrets; secrets that involve many of the previous inhabitants of the house and some kind of malevolent presence that doesn’t seem to be taking kindly to having a visitor suddenly roaming the halls…
The memories that come along with touching certain objects weave a fascinating story
Perception is a strange kind of beast in that it doesn’t have a terribly unique set of mechanics, but each of the mechanics has a unique twist to them. Like most exploration horror games, you move around the mansion and interact with items to further the story, solve puzzles, and generally to make progress toward the end of the game. Given Cassie’s blindness, exploration becomes more interesting as you can only ‘see’ certain objects from the start if they are making a sound. Radios, radiators, and ticking clocks are all outlined against the stark black background as part of Cassie’s “echolocation” ability, creating markers that can consistently be used. Those alone won’t be enough to navigate effectively, however, and by pressing the appropriate button, she can tap her cane to illuminate other pieces of the environment within a certain area.
There are times, however, that you will need to be careful how often you tap to reveal your surroundings. The entity residing in the house- simply called “The Presence”- will hone in on where Cassie is if she creates too much noise. This, of course, can lead to Cassie being pursued and needing to utilize one of the many hiding spots in the house until The Presence has moved on. Getting caught by The Presence results in having to go back to a particular checkpoint- depending on the mode you choose.
Traversing the house consists not only of echolocation and heading from one spot to the next, but it also involves learning about the house’s previous residents through items that have been left around. Cassie has a bit of a sixth sense which is put to use in two ways. By touching certain items, she can hear echoes of the past, usually involving snippets of conversation or thoughts belonging to the people who utilized the item. Her sixth sense can also be used to highlight where the next objective is. Given the lack of environmental awareness at times, this can be very useful to help determine which path you are taking next.
Like most games, there are difficulty levels available in Perception. Rather than the usual options, you have “Story” (in which there is no danger), “Spooky” (in which there is a mix of danger and exploration), and “Scary” (which makes things more dangerous than story-based). Given that I played the default of “Spooky” mode, it felt like there was a good balance. I appreciated that the game outlined exactly how each difficulty worked, though, and there appears to be an option for every kind of player.
The final feature that appears in the game involves how Cassie ‘reads’ certain things that she can’t sense. By using her cell phone, she can send pictures to an operator who will look at the item and describe them to her. This only appears a handful of times, but it does stand out in a couple of ways whether for better or worse. In the end, it does help amp up the tension a little bit by involving another character that Cassie interacts with directly (the other being through intermittent phone calls with Serge, her boyfriend).
The Good, The Bad, And…
Appropriately, it’s what you can’t see just outside of your range that creates the most tension
Perception has its own set of issues, though none of them are game-breaking per se. The real issue that I found was that with a character we’re supposed to empathize and root for, she also makes a lot of typical horror movie choices and breaks some of the tension with her commentary. This can be a mixed bag as she’s an interesting character and her ongoing narrative- which you can turn on or off in the options- does make her feel more human but sometimes, you find yourself rolling your eyes at some of the ways she handles situations, making it difficult to fully get behind the protagonist you’re experiencing the game through.
A couple of technical issues appeared, as well, in that in one or two cases, I could grab items that were highlighted through a wall or some other obstacle that clearly should have hampered my doing so. None of the items were vital as it was just a couple of the ‘memory’ objects, but it still seemed like a strange technical issue to have emerged in an otherwise technically sound game.
As a bit of advice, take the difficulty settings sincerely. I wasn’t looking for much in the way of danger and wanted to play the game as it was originally intended which is outlined on the “Spooky” setting. While I always felt wary, I never felt threatened and The Presence really didn’t show up much, giving me more of a Gone Home experience than I expected. Given the number of hiding spaces, I assumed there would be more reasons to hide in the original mode. I’m not sure how much more The Presence appears in “Scary” mode, but if you’re looking for a survival experience, you may want to jump in there.
Overall, though, the game has an interesting narrative and wraps up pretty nicely. I found myself compelled to continue finding out how the story would proceed not only for Cassie but for each of the previous inhabitants of the house. The voice acting really helps bring the characters to life in a ‘horror gaming’ sense, and I have to say that while I really enjoyed Cassie, the moments when Nick, the operator who helps describe some scenes that Cassie can’t make out, comes into play were some of my favorites. While the game is unique and works with a lot of modern technology and notions, you’ll truly get more out of the game if you’re a fan of older horror game like Illbleed and Clock Tower 3.
Visually, Perception takes a minimalist approach, as would be expected from a first-person game with a blind protagonist. Nearly everything is defined by lines of illuminated color unless it is an important item which is then color-shaded in. It’s an effective and unique choice, though the lack of texture and the constant back-and-forth between near pitch black and pulses of light and linework takes a bit of getting used to. The game does use the visuals to its advantage, though, as when you see a sudden ‘pop’ of light or the outlines shift from blue to red and the music kicks in, it definitely sets you on your toes.
The sound design, as would be expected, is pretty fantastic. Given the amount of silence that surrounds the sound effects that you need to ‘see’ where you’re going, every small noise is resonant and amplifies the tone of the game perfectly. Now that the game is over, I honestly couldn’t tell you much about the music one way or another. I can tell you, though, that there were small noises in other rooms that made me pause and some of my cane taps felt a little too sharp and attention-drawing, and that was absolutely perfect for the setting. I should also stress that I played this with headphones and it was a large part of why the game’s sound was so effective.
Perception is a solid first effort from Deep End Games, and the pedigree of folks that worked on games like Bioshock and Dead Space is pretty clear here. The narrative is fun and while there are some shortcomings, it’s a decent game that is worth checking out if you’re into unique horror titles. Through and through, it feels like an indie game studios’ first effort, though, and it really made me interested in seeing what the future holds for the developer.
Given that the game is on just about every system and probably lasts a sitting or two at a total of about five hours, its price tag coming in at about a third of most retail games is worth the investment. It’s not going to leave you scared for hours on end afterward, but it will give you a compelling story and a few heart-racing moments to remember it by in the process.
This may not be a complete ‘plot discussion’ per the usual methods, but I felt the need to commend Deep End Games on their efforts and final message. After the end credits roll, there is a bit about overcoming personal challenges- blindness, for example- and a fairly inspiring message to the players to try not to let those challenges and other people who see those challenges get in their way of doing what they have set out to achieve.
Throughout the game, a lot of the headstrong choices and statements made by Cassie, specifically in regards to Serge’s attempts to have her wait before proceeding through the house without him, are indicative of this message. In the end, there are also ties to the Salem Witch Trials (specifically Susannah Martin, one of the victims and an ancestor of one of the game’s creators), a subject that I studied a fair amount as a tour guide in downtown Salem for some time. Once again, this touches on persecution and judgment from others affecting peoples’ lives in a negative- and in that case dangerous– way.
I didn’t expect to tear up at the end of this game, but I definitely did. The message hit home pretty squarely, and it gave the game a bit more heart than it would have otherwise. Not everyone will get the same mileage from the message as I did, but I felt it was worth giving a nod to the creators that the message wasn’t lost on this gamer.