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Perception Review (PS4)

Close your eyes and immerse yourself in a whole new world. Perception puts you in the shoes of a blind woman and relies on innovative mechanics to make you use sound to "see," while you explore the horrors of an abandoned mansion that has been haunting you in your sleep.

Perception Review (PS4)

INTRODUCTION

It is normal to take certain elements of our daily lives as granted. A roof over our heads, a meal in our dishes and the ability to see the world around us. These are aspects that we accept without second thoughts, but not everyone is as fortunate. Some people are born deprived of the ability to see with their own eyes. These individuals face the challenge of living in a world they cannot see. They are immersed in eternal darkness and this is the premise behind Perception, a horror game that challenges you to move away from your comfort zone and step in the shoes of Cassie, a woman who was not fortunate enough to be born with something you may take for granted — sight.

Released on May 30, 2017, Perception is available for the PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. The studio behind this title is The Deep End Games, a team that consists of veterans from the video game industry, with experience working on some of the most critically acclaimed titles of all time, including BioShock, BioShock Infinite and Dead SpaceDespite their experience, however, this project made them face an unknown challenge.

The developers needed to create gameplay mechanics that replicate how a blind person navigates through an environment. In order to fulfill this vision, the team dedicated itself to an extensive research. As a result of this process, The Deep End Games decided to invest in the concept of echolocation, which consists of locating yourself in an ambient by emitting a sound and waiting until the sound waves hit an object and come back to you. The time it takes for the wave to return determines how far away you are from objects. In Perception, players use a cane to do this, by hitting it against the ground, walls or pieces of furniture. 

The idea behind this title is certainly ambitious, in the sense of its novelty, and it is no surprise that it caught the attention of the gaming community, as evidenced by the 4,357 individuals who donated to its Kickstarter campaign. But, does this game live up to its potential? This is the topic which this review addresses in the sections below. According to developers, certain games were used as inspiration to craft this title, including BioShock,Gone Home and Alien: Isolation, therefore, some examples will be taken from these productions, in order to justify claims concerning Perception. 

You can buy Perception for the PlayStation 4 on the PlayStation Store for $22.99.
 

STORY

You play as Cassie, a blind young woman that uses her hearing to "see." A day in her life is full of obstacles to overcome, but even in her sleep she cannot rest. Her mind races with nightmares depicting an old mansion. Puzzled by her constant visions, Cassie researches about the property that has been haunting her. After an extensive research, she finds the mansion in Gloucester, an American city in the state of Massachusetts. She decides to go to the property to unveil its secrets, but all goes wrong upon arrival. A supernatural presence dwells in the construction and holds Cassie hostage. She must discover its secrets, to escape from its cold and lethal grasp.

Overall analysis

The premise behind Perception provides you with an intriguing dramatic question. What will Cassie find in the mansion? The introduction provides you with many questions that you will want to answer, as you first step into the abandoned property. This title offers a solid and interesting story that requires you to puzzle it together, piece by piece, as you collect audio diaries, notes, listen to memories and witness ghosts of the former inhabitants.

This is a comprehensible approach in terms of narrative design, because as Jane McGonigal claims in her book Reality is Broken: How Video Game Can Make Us Better and Save the World, people are fond of solving mysteries. With that said, having you collecting individual files and trying to make sense out of the information gathered can be more compelling than having the information presented to you as in a film.

The story takes place in four chapters and in each one of them, Cassie hallucinates and explores the mansion in a different time period. The first chapter takes place in the modern days, with the second being held in the World War II era, whilst the third happens in the XIX century and the fourth takes place in the XVII century.

Despite its competent story, the problem with this title lies in how it delivers it to you. Perception suffers from problems in its pacing, as the narrative starts strongly, raising many questions in the first minutes, but once you walk into the mansion and start the first chapter, the story will fail to hold you attention for long. It only starts to get interesting again in the second chapter and the interest curve only goes up from there. This is a story that will require you to be patient, before you can be fully engaged in it, as it gets more compelling over time. It will pay off, if you are willing to stick with the experience for the long-haul.

The following topics will explain in-depth the claims made in this section. For a more detailed analysis, read the next paragraphs, which comment on the elements that compose the storytelling of Perception and how they influence your experience with the game. 

Perception Review (PS4) - Strong imagery

Ghosts

The most notorious are the hallucinations you witness throughout the game. These show ghosts performing key actions for the background story and provide you with a visual way to learn more about the history of the previous inhabitants of the mansion. Considering these spirits use the same color palette as the environment, they do not seem out of place and blend in with the rest of the composition. This increases the immersion and contributes to a better experience, given that immersion is the key for a successful horror game. Still in the territory of hallucinations, there is another technique developers used in order to deliver the storytelling of Perception. 

Perception Review (PS4) - Touchstones

Touchstones

During the story, you interact with certain objects (above) that trigger memories to which you can listen, providing insights on the lives of the previous owners of the mansion. In the beginning of the game, this may seem out of place, but as the narrative unfolds, the superb voice acting delivered in these moments will make you disregard your skepticism, as you immerse yourself in the voices of the cast of Perception. 

Perception Review (PS4) Audio diary

Audio diaries and notes (and why the first chapter is not as interesting as the others)

Perception relies heavily in notes and audio diaries to deliver a significant portion of its narrative. This means you need to explore the map, in order to have a better understanding of the events you are witnessing. The audio logs and notes explain why the first part of the game is not nearly as interesting as the rest of experience. One of the issues with the first chapter of Perception is that its map does not provide an incentive for exploration, because it takes place in modern days and presents you with a setting that has been overly used in horror games — an abandoned mansion.

You have very little reason to believe that you will see something novel. Moreover, the map is too small and has little diversity between its different sections. As a consequence, you may give up on exploring the mansion altogether and simply head straight to the next objective. This is a fatal flaw for a game that aims for an narrative that relies on exploration, because it raises the issue of you not collecting all audio diaries and notes available in each level, thus reducing your understanding of the story. The level design in the first chapter works against the narrative, instead of contributing to it, thus causing it to be uninteresting. This problem is fixed in later levels, however.

From the second chapter forward, the maps of Perception feature a significantly higher level of variation between different rooms and each other, thus maintaining a sense of novelty. The result is that you feel compelled to explore more, meaning you also find more notes and collectibles. As a consequence, you have a stronger understanding of the events that occurred in these locations, thus making the plot more interesting.  It is worth to stress, therefore, that the dissonance in the quality of the narrative presented in the first chapter versus the rest of the game is not a problem of writing, but of level design instead.

Another issue of the maps of Perception is where the audio diaries are located in the mansion. Some are too close to each other, to the point that if you start listening to one and walk at the same time, you may find another diary before the first audio file ends. This hurts the pacing of the experience, because you often need to sit idle, waiting for an audio log to finish, in order to pick up the next one. This is another example of how the level design of this game works against the exploration its narrative aimed to support.

Perception Review (PS4) - The first chapter
Suggestion for the level design:

This is a department in which minor changes could have big consequences. The first one would be making the map slightly larger and position the audio diaries within a distance from each other that takes longer for you to walk to another audio log then the duration of the message itself. This would help to fix the pacing of the game. There is another possible change, however, that would not be as small.

Another alternation that could be made was discarding the first map altogether. It is comprehensible that the developers did not wish to start the game sending you to a different time period, because they probably wanted you to became acclimated with the game mechanics, before doing time shifts, in order to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed with new information. But the echolocation feature is quite simple and it takes little effort to be mastered.

With that said, the order of the maps could be inverse, having the XVII century version of the mansion coming first and saving the modern times for last, but featuring new rooms. Perhaps the last owners of the mansion built extensions of the property or maybe it was last used as a hotel, thus justifying having plenty of variation in different sections of the map. This would be a similar apporach to what was used by Valve in Portal 2, wherein you explore the early days of Aperture Science and move forward in time, as you walk through the facility.

Now, it is time to analyze the person who walks through these locations — Cassie.

Characterization 

Perception aims to put you in the shoes of a blind person and the game starts with you controlling Cassie in her childhood, being bullied by her classmates in school. This intro sets the tone for the story and leaves you expecting an experience in which the character development of the protagonist will play a crucial role.The truth, however, counters this early expectation, as the writer of the game never truly explores the personality and the life story of the protagonist. This problem is emphasized by her voice acting.

The game depicts events that would frighten any person, but when Cassie speaks, she fails to communicate the gravity of her situation, as well as her feelings. She often sounds as if she is having a conversation with her friends in a shopping mall. There are moments, however, when she delivers her lines of dialogue brilliantly, communicating clearly how she feels. These moments usually occur in the most extreme situations of the game, when Cassie is pushed to the limit. With this scenario, it is reasonable to presume that the voice talent hired for the protagonist is competent, but she was poorly directed when recording her dialogue. The final result delivers an inconsistent character, which makes it hard for you to bond with her a meaningful manner. 

It is comprehensible, however, that the developers aimed for a more casual tone for Cassie, through most of the game. Perhaps they wished to build her character as a strong female lead, who is not easily scared, but this reasoning does not work in the case of Perception. The dissonance between the tone she uses in her lines of dialogue and the action on screen works against her character development, instead of favoring it. A re-recording of some of her lines would do a big favor to this game, but this is not the only change that could have improved the experience of players in regards to characterization. 

Suggestion for characterization 

In order to deliver a more emotionally compelling plot, the developers could have expanded the intro of the game, in order to provide a social commentary that would make you feel more empathetic with Cassie and her condition. In the school section, developers could have asked you to perform an activity that is mundane to people with sight, but difficult for a blind person. Upon the inevitable failure, the children around Cassie could start harassing her and pushing her from various directions. You could try to avoid the children, but they would be so fast, Cassie would have no chance to avoid being pushed onto the floor. The idea of this scene would be to briefly show to players the social hardships of growing up as a blind person, thus making you feel more empathy towards Cassie.

The next session details how you make your way through the horrors of the mansion depicted in Perception.

Perception Review (PS4) - Echolocation

GAMEPLAY

Gadgets

Cassie uses her phone to aid to her to read notes and scan certain objects. She even uses it to take pictures and send it to an online community, so one user can look at it and tell her what the photo displays. This shows an insight on how blind people use their technology and the help of others to make their lives easier. This was the result of an extensive research done by the developers and according to The Deep End Games, Bill, one of the members of the team, spent weeks using his phone in accessibility mode, in order to learn as much as possible about how people with visual disabilities operate this technology.

The result is that Cassie's phone not only shows the dedication of the developers, but also increases the immersion of Perception, as the game shows you an object that is mundane to most people, but features a different set of functionalities. This makes you learn something new, while also strengthening the immersion of the game, as Cassie's' phone ensures you that you remember of her disability. This is a case of gameplay mechanics and story converging and working together as one.

Perception Review (PS4) - Outside the mansion

Mechanics

The selling point of Perception is the use of echolocation, which allows you to see the environment as the sound waves you emit hit the objects surrounding you, thus revealing their location (above). In order to make the game visually attractive, the development team needed to deliver an artistic representation of the concept and they succeeded in crafting a gameplay experience that is viable for players to walk through the maps without difficulty. The developers found a good balance between realism/viability and you benefit from it. Surprisingly, their attention to making this mechanic work also became detrimental to the overall experience.

The primary activity you will perform in Perception is using echolocation to walk through the maps. Apart from this, there is not much else for you to do in this game. There is no depth to this mechanic, for you cannot learn more and improve your skills. The way you start the game is how you finish it. Without a learning curve, you do not have a sense of progression and the experience becomes less appealing. Having players explore the mechanics of a game, in order to learn more about it is one of the keys for the success of a game. As Raph Koster claims in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design: 

"We shouldn't underestimate the brain's desire to learn. If you put a person in a sensory deprivation chamber, he or she will get very unhappy very quickly. The brain craves stimuli. At all times, the brain is casting about trying to learn something, trying to integrate information into its worldview. It is insatiable in that way."

The crew responsible for Perception claims that Gone Home was one of the inspirations for their project, but unfortunately, this really is apparent, but in a negative way. Both games are essentially "walking simulators," but the difference between them is that Gone Home was always advertised as an experience with a focus on storytelling, therefore, players knew beforehand what expectations to have. In Perception, on the contrary, the marketing campaign set the notion that the game would feature plenty of activities, which it does not. It seems that the team spent so much time developing the echolocation mechanic that they believed it was enough to carry you through the game.

Perception Review (PS4) - Detailed objects

Objectives

Another flaw of the game design of Perception is the objectives provided. They are poorly defined, for they essentially consist of going to a certain location, interacting with objects, expecting something to happen and then moving on. Without a clear goal, the game fails to deliver to you a sense of progression and this leads to your disinterest, as you have no means to judge whether you are close to achieving an objective. This goes against the principle of optimal experiences, known colloquially as flow, established by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences, wherein he claims:

"The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that goals are usually clear and feedback immediate. A tennis player always know what she has to do: return the ball into the opponent's court."

Ultimately, the vast majority of objectives are fetch quests and you need to pick up an object to progress with the story. Go to a certain location, collect an item, rinse and repeat. The major problem in the gameplay design of this game, however, is how the developers never explore the blindness of the main character in creative ways. Interesting segments could have been created to break the pattern of successive fetch quests and provide you with a segment that feels fresh.

Suggestion for the objectives

For instance, throughout the game, Cassie speaks to a man on her phone. There could be a moment in the story, when she loses her cane. She makes a video call to this man and explains that she lost her only way of "seeing" and needs him to use the video from the call to guide her. You would need to listen carefully to his instructions to make your way through the map, until you find an object that can replace your cane, such as a baseball bat or a billiard stick. Another interesting possibility would be having an objective in which you need to use sound to send a message in Morse code, thus integrating the audio design to the next objective and making gameplay and audio work in tandem.

The next section analyzes another facet of this game that could have been better.

Perception Review (PS4) - The Presence chases you

The Enemy (and the fear factor)

The biggest threat of the game is the ghost known as The Presence, that appears in case you make too much noise and in certain scripted events. The team of The Deep End Games used a similar approach as Alien: Isolation, in the sense that you need to escape from an enemy that chases you during the whole story. The Presence seem as an interesting antagonist, as it flies repeating the words Cassie used previously, but in a ghostly and semi-robotic tone. In her defense, Cassie can hide in certain key locations, including closets, under beds and chests. The team created a compelling enemy, but wasted its potential due to how rare its appearance is.

Throughout the campaign, the enemy will not appear more than a handful of times. This is a problem in two fronts. Initially, it makes the game more predictable and, therefore, more monotonous. Secondly, it removes the fear factor of the experience, because you will eventually realize that there is no real danger and all the ambiance the art and sound teams of The Deep End Games carefully crafted becomes meaningless. The absence of The Presence also had other consequences.

The game does not rely solely on its ambiance to scare you, for it also employs jumpscares to make your heart race. Surprisingly, the notorious absence of real danger makes the jumpscares more effective, because the lack of a threat makes you put your guard down and the scarce scares come as unexpected, thus catching you off-guard.

Suggestion for the enemy

It is reasonable to conclude that Perception would have greatly benefited from an enemy that appeared more often or, perhaps, more types of enemies. An interesting variation could be a foe that you cannot see, only hear, in order to emphasize the blindness of Cassie. As this is never explored, it falls into the argument made herein that developers failed to explore the condition of the protagonist in unique ways.

Perception Review (PS4) - Echolocation in practice

GRAPHICS AND AUDIO

The art team of Perception received the challenging task of creating a visually interesting experience in a game that portrays the story of a blind person. This is a department in which this game thrives mostly due to its use of color. The predominant pigment featured in this title is blue and the many variations within its color palette. The choice to use this particular coloration helps to emphasize the feeling of solitude and isolation that the atmosphere of the game aims to communicate. As described in Keen Gamer's review of Anoxemia, according to the field of color theory, blue stands for various feelings, including calm, solitude and desolation.

Perception Review (PS4) - Color palette

Another decision from the art team that stands out is highlighting certain key objects with the green color, including the ones that you will use to hide from the Presence during the game. As the website Color Wheel Pro claims, "green has strong emotional correspondence with safety."

This attention to detail when choosing the colors featured in the game helps to grow your immersion, as those pigments feel natural and you accept them as part of the environment without second thought, because these colors are hard-wired in the human psychology. They work together with the setting and the story of the game, creating a stronger visual experience. Another crucial aspect of Perception was its audio design.

The audio of this title stands out as one of the most atmospherics in the market. Even when you are not moving, you can hear every crack of the surfaces of the map and can almost feel the wind blowing outside. The audio design is detailed enough to allow you to imagine how your surroundings look like and this makes you use your imagination to project "your" version of the map in your mind. Moreover, this gives to players the possibility of filling the visual gaps left by the lack echolocation. This is an important aspect of the horror experience of this game, because as you can never see a room in its entirety at once, the details provided by the audio makes your imagination run wild when filling in the gaps you cannot see.
Perception Review (PS4) - The Deep End Games logo

A MESSAGE TO THE DEVELOPERS

I rarely write in the first person, but I believe  this opportunity warrants it. Dear The Deep End Games, despite the issues with Perception that were listed in this review, I must thank you for thinking outside the box and trying to deliver a fresh concept to the video game community. I cannot fathom the difficulty of developing an experience in an audiovisual medium that is "seen" through the eyes of a blind person.

I can say that from personal experience, for I worked on the prototype of a game with a similar concept, but the team could not create a experience that was fun to play. After that, I moved on to work on Portal 2: Abyss. With that said, despite the flaws in your game, I believe you deserve praise for having the courage of daring to develop Perception. 

I believe in the potential of this title. If you, The Deep End Games ever works on a sequel that fixes the issues of this game, it has an enormous potential to become a masterpiece. I am always optimistic and I have a tendency of observing the potential things have, as opposed to what they currently are. Therefore, it is my sincere wish to see your team thrive and I hope the feedback provided in this review is useful for the fulfillment of the potential Perception has.

Perception Review (PS4) - Game logo

CONCLUSION

Perception is a title that grabs your interest quickly, due to the novelty of its gameplay mechanics and the work done in the art and audio department help you to get excited regarding this game. However, once the excitement withers and you start to understand the game for what it really is, you notice its limitations. Without depth in the mechanics and featuring maps that offer little variation, the game becomes monotonous quickly. These issues added to a protagonist with little character development and inconsistent voice acting can demotivate you to play through the entire story, but these elements change as you progress through the game. 

In the second chapter, the story starts to become more intense and the environments begin to have more diversity, but considering that the first impression is usually the one that sticks, I fear that many players had made their minds within the first half hour of the experience and decided to close the game without seeing the significant changes in its second chapter.

Overall, Perception is a game with plenty of room for growth, as expressed herein, but the potential was never fulfilled. If developers at The Deep End  Games ever work on a sequel, it may become a masterpiece, but, unfortunately, this first attempt at creating a blind game is far from that. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of something much greater.

The best (I believe) is yet to come.

PROSCONS
+ Innovative gameplay– Slow first chapter
+ Immersive audio design– Lack of clear goals
+ Strong visual identity– Lack of a sense of progression
+ Competent voice acting (most of the time)– Too few appearances of the Presence
7
Good

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