Narrative Horror Perception

In the last part we met Bill Gardner, former design director at Irrational Games and now founder and creative director at his own studio. Based in Boston, The Deep End Games’ first project, Perception, is a chilling first-person horror that’s inspired by some of the best in the business, relying on subtle details and chilling environments rather than cheap scares to send a shiver down your spine.

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CALL MY BLUFF[divider type=”thin”]

The Deep End Games are trying to do something a bit different – and sometimes that’s hard to sum up.

“It’s funny, because a lot of the time you have so many pitches for selling all the things that you’re excited about, that it comes out as this big smorgasbord,” Gardner says. “But here it goes: Perception is a narrative-horror-adventure game, where you’re playing as a blind woman that uses echolocation, engaging in a deadly game of hide-and-seek with this horrifying presence that’s hunting you down as you try and solve the mystery of the estate.

“There’s a lot of run-on sentences there, but that’s it in a nutshell,” he jokes.

Perception follows Cassie, a young woman intent solving the mystery of the enigmatic Echo Bluff estate. Cassie feels drawn to this supernatural mansion, and players experience her story as they uncover the secrets of the old house.

“It’s a story of her in the estate at Echo Bluff,” says Gardner. “A site with a sordid history and all this tragedy, all this mystery. What you’re going to be doing is peeling away the layers of the onion, trying to find out what’s going on here.

“Cassie’s being called to this place, and as she’s looking for answers. You as the player will be helping her seek those answers out. There’s many different stories as you’re making your way back-and-forth through the history of the house, but it’s up to Cassie to figure out why she’s having these dreams. It’s definitely her story.”

An intrinsic part of Cassie’s character is her visual impairment and its effect on gameplay. However, The Deep End Games are wary of reducing something that affects the lives of millions of people to a game mechanic.

“It’s something that we’re very cautious about, because I do want to be sensitive,” Gardner explains. “But I do want to be very clear at the same time, that this is a game, and we’re going to air on the side of telling the story that we want to tell, and making it a good experience.

“Early on, we actually gave away quite a bit less information when you were using echolocation, and there was a lot of frustration there for people saying, ‘I love the idea, but I’m frustrated with it and I don’t think I’d keep playing’. It’s always a balancing act. You want to find what’s best for the game, but also be sensitive to the issues.”

“I hope that with this game I’m able to create a level of awareness of what it’s like to be blind, or to have low vision,” he goes on to say. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching it; I actually spent the last semester of my Master’s degree researching accessibility and blindness specifically. I was lucky enough just last week to have dinner with Daniel Kish, who heads World Access for the Blind, which is an organisation that teaches blind people to use echolocation. He uses echolocation himself, he mountain bikes, and I was able to walk around Boston with him and he does amazing things. He makes a clicking sound, and based on that his brain interprets the audio, activating his visual cortex, and it’s sort of like he’s receiving images.

“What does that look like? I have no idea. I can ask him, do a ton of research, but ultimately you’re going to have to take a stance aesthetically and represent what that might feel like. It’s a very tricky balancing act, because it’s important to try and get as close to reality as possible.”

DEADLY PRESENCE[divider type=”thin”]

Players use Cassie’s echolocation ability to build up an ethereal picture of the Echo Bluff mansion, as she moves room-to-room collecting clues. However, she doesn’t have this historic site all to herself. A deadly Presence stalks its creaking halls.

“You’re primarily exploring,” says Gardner. “Hunger is a big part of this game, you’re always hungry for more information, hungry for a spot to run and hide, hungry for a way out. I think that’s good at creating a lot of tension. You explore and investigate by picking up letters that you find in the world – and read those to get a little bit of context. It’s about trying to find way to access different parts of the estate. But then that’s weighed against a sort of Hunt for Red October vibe, you’re using sonar, but there’s another submarine out there hunting you down. So your core loop a lot of the time is moving around the space very carefully, listening, and when you hear that flutter, that sound of a moth, or a whistle, or the Presence muttering to itself, you stop what you’re doing and focus your hearing on where it’s coming from, and either turn tail and run or keep doing your best to dig away in the mansion without being discovered.”

“I think hide-and-seek is a good way of putting it,” he adds. “You’re playing this game of manhunt with the Presence.”

The Presence is a supernatural being that haunts Echo Bluff, bound to the estate’s terrible past. Ambiguous by design, the Presence is Perception’s main antagonist and was inspired by some of the best monsters on page and screen.

Sounds as visual stimuli in Perception

“Horror’s something that I’m a huge fan of, always have been,” Gardner explains. “I think a lot of my favourite icons from horror have pieces like, ‘oh, they’re unstoppable,’ or, ‘oh, they’re relentless’. But I think what separates the really effective horror villains apart is mystery, when you don’t understand something’s backstory from the beginning you’re really hungry to know what makes it tick. Information is the enemy of horror. You look at someone like Hannibal Lecter and think about how it’s not clear right off the bat what he wants. He plays with his victims. He’s a sociopath and a psychopath, but you don’t know exactly what he’s going to do, all that you know is it’ll be horrible.

“I was never that much of a fan of Jason, because you knew he was just going to come at you and slash you. That’s not as interesting. I like the idea of not knowing exactly how Hannibal Lecter’s going to deal with you. With the Presence, I think that you’ll get the sense that it has all of these different perspectives, all of these different tortured souls wrapped up in it, and as you hear it muttering to itself roaming around the halls, painting this weird picture in your head about what it wants. I love that ambiguity.”

As well as the Presence, Echo Bluff is home to other ghosts and ghouls – but at this point, more detail would only spoil the surprise.

“Everything’s heavily focussed on the Presence, but we’ve shown some shots of the Poppets,” says Gardner. “We haven’t gone into too much detail about the other enemies that we’ll create and introduce into the game; not that there’s going to be a lot. They’re all about putting twists and additional wrinkles into your encounters with the Presence. The Poppets are about keeping you on your toes and adding that additional layer as you’re looking out for the Presence .They’re there to trip you up and force you to make mistakes.

“There’s this one character that has this weird doll fetish, obsessed with automation and automatons. He’s created these Poppets that we’ll talk about more down the line.”

Perception's deadly Presence

Perception’s deadly Presence

Perception is divided into chapters that progress as you piece together the puzzle that is Echo Bluff. The mansion changes as the story moves forward, sending Cassie back in time to explore the house as it used to be.

“When you get far enough in the mystery you’ll gain enough insight to enable to exorcise the Presence of that time period, and you’ll jump back in time,” Gardner explains. “You won’t see it change dynamically, you’ll essentially be teleported back to a different version of the house in the past; you’ll see Echo Bluff a few decades, or a few centuries ago, and you’ll be starting from scratch to solve the next mystery. You’ll see the décor change, the characters change, entire sections of the house come and go.

“I really love when games allow you to build a relationship with a space and then shed a different light on that. That’s what we’re hoping to do with the different time periods. You’ll be familiar with, ‘oh, I can’t go down there, it was damaged in a horrible fire’, and then you go back in time and you’re like, ‘I can go down here now’.”

When supernatural houses are involved, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King are always going to get a mention, but there’s more behind Perception, both from gaming and wider popular culture.

“I’m guilty of calling The Shining an influence, I think that it’s one of the best horror films in history – I’m a big fan of the book as well, I don’t want to completely write that off,” says Gardner. “The richness of that world, the Overlook Hotel. Maybe I’m just a weirdo, but I often find myself walking through the halls in my head and wondering what happened in every nook and cranny. You see some of that in the movie and the book, but I just feel like there’s so much more depth there. I’ve always wanted more.

“That’s effective storytelling, leaving people wanting more. I think that it’s a lived-in, believable space lends itself very nicely to a game. Too often in games we build spaces that’re throw-away. It’s like, ‘I’m in a military instillation, or sci-fi thingy’, but who cares? I’m just going to blast through and shoot everyone in sight and be done with it. I think that’s a huge missed opportunity.”

Gardner continues: “Every game has its own drives, motivations and goals, and not every space in a game has to be meaningful. I just want to make it so that they are. That in my games, you come into whatever the space is, if it’s a bathroom, a bedroom, a basement, a hallway, there’s a story to tell there. That’s part of my DNA now thanks to Ken [Levine] and Irrational.

“Thematically, Super Metroid was always a big touchstone for me. I think if you look at some of my levels in Bioshock, a lot of those themes of isolation and the way that game was able to, despite being 20 years old, you really slow things down and create more atmosphere than most games today with very few pieces – music, graphics and very tight controls.”

“Fatal Frame is also a big influence,” he goes on to say. “I’m a fan of that series because again, they were able to really slow things down and as much as I love Silent Hill 2, I feel like the environments were kind of there just to be there, I don’t feel like they leveraged the kind of mise en scene that I’m talking about. In Fatal Frame they slowed it down enough that you really appreciated each time you hid in a closet.”

OBSCURING INFOMATION[divider type=”thin”]

The Deep End describe Perception as a narrative game with a heavy emphasis on story. But this doesn’t mean that they’re skimping on interactivity. The Deep End are building Perception to be an involving experience – games don’t always have to be about hitting things with a wrench.

“I’m a big fan of puzzles but it’s rare that I find ones that work,” explains Gardner. “Valve does puzzles the best because they’re organic and grounded in reality, the solution’s always right in front of you. But I feel that more often than not in other games they kind of miss the mark; I can’t think of too many in horror games that worked well.

“Most of the time they’re just weird, pulling a player out to go and check GameFAQs saying, ‘unless I know how to play the piano, or know which verse of the Bible they’re talking about, I’m never getting that’.

“In Perception you’re going and picking up the different pieces of story, you’re using echolocation on demand, so that’s interactive, and then there’s all the hiding spots. Cassie has a bunch of apps on her phone, she can dig into her voicemail and text messages to get little bits of her own backstory.”

Gardner and The Deep End are also looking to incorporate unique and interesting mechanics that make sense for the protagonist, blending the fantastical world of Echo Bluff with concepts more grounded in reality.

“Because Cassie’s blind, and echolocation isn’t always going to give her all the information that she needs from the world,” Gardner says. “There’s an app on her phone that lets her take a picture and reach out to someone fictionally in that world and say, ‘hey, what am I looking at’. That’s something that we were exploring for a mechanic, and we went out and found this app called Be My Eyes, which lets blind people connect with sighted people anywhere in the world. I was interviewing one blind man and he described how he was at a vending machine that didn’t have braille, so he took a picture and was able to connect through a video chat with someone in Australia. That seemed liked a really compelling potential mechanic.”

The foreboding Echo Bluff mansion

However, when you strip everything else away, horror is at the core of Perception, and The Deep End are committed to making it really effective.

“A big thing is obscuring information,” says Gardner. “There are a number of different ways that you can do that. You can make things dark, or so you can’t see. I was interested when I worked with Eric Brosius, who was the sound designer on System Shock 2. He always said that you want to make it so a lot of the sources of your audio are unclear or ambiguous. I think when you can just kind of tune into those things, or they tap into your subconscious that helps quite a bit.

“Sound is such a critical part of this title, so we’re doing a lot to push that.”

He continues: “The richness of the space means that we can hand-pick the creepiest bits of information to share and not give it all away in one big chunk. Ken and his writing team at Irrational were obviously masters of that, so I’ve learnt a lot about how to withhold the right amount of information without frustrating. If you’re not careful there, people can tune out and not care.

“I think that horror games are particularly difficult for people to wrap their heads around, because you really have to sit down with a headset and play it and immerse yourself in the world and understand the stakes. To achieve that mood and tension, these things take time, it’s like coming into a joke on the punchline; that does nobody any good, right? Particularly with this title, there’s so much wrapped up in the narrative, I think that there’s a bit of a leap of faith here. People need to look at the gameplay we’ve released so far and know that there’s a lot more here. There’re pieces of this story that’re very important to me, that’re very rooted in the history and a lot of the interest of this part of the world.

“I’ve learnt a lot from my days developing at Irrational and I hope to be able to show people more of Perception, because I think they’re really going to like it.”

Perception is being developed primarily for PC. However, although the stretch goal wasn’t met on their Kickstarter, The Deep End are still keen to take Perception to console.

“Good gosh, yes,” Gardner says. “We’re going to aggressively pursue them. I’m not going to commit to anything unless I believe we can knock it out of the park, but I’d love to see this on PS4 and Xbox One.”

“I love the platforms and I think Perception would be a great fit,” he adds. “I’ve had a number of conversations about how to make it happen.”

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You can find The Deep End Games and Perception on Twitter, Youtube and Kickstarter.

James Billcliffe
Lead Interview and Features editor. Eats, games, and leaves. Tweet at me! @Jiffe93

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  1. My personal interest lies in how they have managed to make the place appealing while lacking regular visuals and being a more mainstream than abstract experience. Many games have worked a less complicated approach. A Light in Chorus is just colorful particles. But many such games are more on the abstract side.

    First person adventures often pile on the visuals. Textures, colors, visual details that cannot be seen in black and white or any other form. It’s eye-candy all the way, just like the Bioshock games were. But with Cassie’s blindness, they cannot rely on certain things for that. I wonder how they went about designing the space with that in mind. Is it for example more complicated in terms of shapes, corners, etc? Did they make things with more complex outlines and more geometry-based detail to make up for the lack of color and visual variety?

    I wonder how they worked around that or rather on that to make it rich enough without the aid that normal protagonist vision provides. Obviously, you don’t enter horror games to gaze upon the pretty burgundy velvet curtains, but a space which is detailed enough to tell a story is important in games which do have a story to tell. I can’t wait to see how they went about doing that.

    1. I think that’s a really good question.

      Cassie’s world is still a fantastical version of ours, and so the things that happen to her are the same as they would be in any other game – she just perceives them in a different way.

      I think there’s still scope for set pieces and detailed environments in Perception – just with the stylised ‘overlay’ of echolocation.

      It’s the tricky balancing act that Bill talks about; getting the right mix between portraying the reality of echolocation and giving the player what they need is difficult. In the trailer, Cassie describes sounds and smells. Maybe they’ll make up for the lack of visuals with other sensory information – just as a blind person would.

      1. This is exactly what I am hoping for, yes. This is made for players who can see, but it would be a missed opportunity to not really dive into what they feel it would be like for a blind person. It raises awareness on the topic too. And challenges perceptions. Hey, more applications for the title.

  2. On the one hand it looks great, but to be honest I got the feeling I would find the echolocation and stumbling around in the dark extremely frustrating very quickly. That would be a cool side game or chapter, but a whole game like that…. I’m not sure.

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