What is it about the horror genre that makes it so timeless? Despite the often formulaic approaches and clichés that help define these games, it’s normally the exploration and discovery of the unknown that keeps both audiences and players alike on the edge of their seats. Audience engagement with this specific genre can be further linked to phobias or fears, creepy environments, a key threat - often directly tied to a classic chase scene - and the use of anticipation to build tension.
Perception – by The Deep End Games (an indie developer made-up of industry veterans who worked on the likes of Bioshock and Dead Space) – is as conventional as it gets, and you don’t need to be an expert of the horror genre to identify this. Setting the scene, the spine-tingling adventure places you in control of Cassie Thornton – a blind girl who is on the brink of insanity after a series of nightmares. Deciding to face her fears, Cassie naturally heads to the estate of her nightmares (located in Gloucester, Massachusetts) in hope of uncovering the source of her torment. Upon entry it becomes clear she must not only face her own personal demons, but also witness a generational saga played out across the centuries. Cassie learns about the mysteries of the former residents in order to solve her own problems, while trying her best to avoid alerting “The Presence” at the same time. This is an enemy that will kill Cassie on sight if given the opportunity. Ultimately, it’s a predictable horror narrative you’ll either love or loathe.
The three different difficulties on offer allow you to play Perception in multiple ways. The most basic story setting makes Cassie untouchable to “The Presence”, whilst harder difficulty settings will require the protagonist to find hiding spots or sit in complete darkness in order to avoid enemy encounters. If you fail to hide you’ll either be sent back to the entrance with all your progress intact, or taken right back to the game’s main menu, depending on the difficulty selected.
Cassie’s inability to see is what Perception uses in an attempt to differentiate itself from the competition. It also plays on a fear of the dark; with no vision, Cassie is reliant on echolocation to guide her. Echolocation is a real life skill used to identify when a sound bounces off an object and then reflects back. When Cassie taps her cane or moves about, sounds ricochet back to her ears allowing her to process the distance and shape of objects, as well as her surroundings. Her cane and footsteps are all she has to provide her with brief glimpses of her environment and any potential enemies lurking nearby.
The visuals in Perception are obviously intended to be representative of the estate through Cassie’s eyes, hence the first-person perspective. Every footstep taken will highlight the outlines of nearby surroundings, and by tapping her cane on a surface Cassie can get an even better sense of the environment. Bright neon colours highlight every area of the estate and points of interest; else it’s pitch black darkness if you’re not repeatedly tapping buttons. Due to this design choice, Perception is not exactly easy on the eyes or enjoyable to play for extended periods of time; it feels like a good theoretical concept that simply doesn't work well in practice. It also seems to cover-up the low quality graphics, comparable to a game from the previous decade.
As a result of the foreboding darkness, a strong emphasis is placed on Cassie’s ability to hear. As you would expect from a horror game your own sense of sound is heightened; there are plenty of doors slamming shut and bumps in the night. Cassie will also narrate her situation first-hand – which is intended to add to the immersion - or she can go about her adventure as a mostly silent protagonist. She does have an annoying habit of calling out asking if anyone is nearby if you choose the option for her to talk on a regular basis. Past residents of the estate also have plenty of information to reveal to her, but none of the voice acting is very convincing. Admittedly, the emphasis placed on sound in Perception isn’t all that necessary. You don’t always need it to progress – especially on the lowest difficulty setting. Activating the subtitles is often good enough.
Once you’ve grasped an understanding of the core mechanic, Perception plays out just like any other mediocre horror adventure. In a similar fashion to Gone Home, the player explores various areas of the estate, interacting with objects to learn more about Cassie’s story and the history of the former residents, while trying to make as little noise as possible to prevent enemies from popping up. Cassie’s intuition allows her to understand the memories imprinted on objects; these “touchstones” – as referred to by the game’s developer – could be in the form of a shovel, a rock, a baby bottle or any other basic object. Cassie also has a text-to-speech app on her smart device that provides her with audio logs when scanning certain items. Finally, Cassie has a “sixth sense” allowing the player to re-orientate the character in the right direction – normally to the next door you must open.
From here, it’s rinse and repeat. The more you read and listen to, the more information you’ll uncover. Occasionally, there is an object you’ll need to interact with and even the odd challenge to solve; the house will also rearrange itself in an attempt to keep players feeling unsettled. On the Switch there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary about the way the game plays, it’s similar to how it is on other platforms.
Unless you’re a big fan of horror adventure games, Perception is one you can easily skip. The plot isn’t particularly engaging, and the horror elements are predictable with jump scares, characters and story dialogue that is typical of this genre. Even if it does fulfil all of the necessary criteria, it serves as a reminder that the horror genre is far too reliant on clichés to get by, and will only appeal to the thrill seekers happy to overlook its generic design.
Ultimately, the biggest downfall is the core concept that drives Perception. The echolocation mechanic gets old quickly and seems like a better idea in theory than in actual gameplay; walking around in the dark in any game isn’t normally enjoyable, and in this one it’s no better – even with the added sense of meaning from the narrative. It’s an aggravating concept that should not have really got past the early design stage, and detracts from the already average quality of this short-lived horror adventure game.