The doors of per­cep­tion

Rick Lane speaks to TheDeep­EndGames’ Bill Gard­ner about his blind­ness-based hor­ror game, Per­cep­tion

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Rick Lane speaks to TheDeep­EndGames’ Bill Gard­ner about his blind­ness-based hor­ror game Per­cep­tion.

In some ways Per­cep­tion rep­re­sents the end of a road that hor­ror games have been travers­ing for a long time. Dark­ness is the hor­ror genre’s most use­ful tool, as we rely on sight more than any other sense. Our fear of the dark is as much a fear of dis­em­pow­er­ment as of any mon­sters lurk­ing in the shad­ows. It was in­evitable that even­tu­ally a game would come swipe away our sight com­pletely.

But Per­cep­tion isn’t just about not be­ing able to see – it’s about blind­ness, and that’s dif­fer­ent. Few games ex­plore dis­abil­ity. It’s a com­plex and some­times sen­si­tive sub­ject, and most games pri­ori­tise fun over nu­ance. Per­cep­tion is one of a hand­ful of games that at­tempts to re­solve this di­chotomy, pre­sent­ing us with a story that tries to con­vey what it’s like to be blind, while also hop­ing to en­ter­tain the player as they ex­plore an old man­sion house with a dark and dan­ger­ous past.

How ex­actly do you cre­ate a game that rep­re­sents blind­ness in an au­then­tic way, while also en­sur­ing an in­trigu­ing ex­pe­ri­ence? ‘We’re in no way do­ing a sim­u­la­tion of blind­ness,’ says Bill Gard­ner, cre­ative di­rec­tor of TheDeep­End Games, and for­mer level de­signer at Ir­ra­tional Games – cre­ator of BioShock.

‘My goal was al­ways to cap­ture that feel­ing of us­ing sound to help guide you through the space.’

To that end, Per­cep­tion em­pow­ers your blind pro­tag­o­nist, Cassie, with echolo­ca­tion – the abil­ity to ‘lo­cate’ the po­si­tion of ob­jects around you by lis­ten­ing to how sounds bounce off their sur­faces. It’s an abil­ity mainly as­so­ci­ated with bats, but hu­mans can also learn to echolo­cate. ‘There’s a man named Daniel Kish, who runs an or­gan­i­sa­tion called World Ac­cess for the Blind,’ says Gard­ner. ‘I spent my fi­nal se­mes­ter in grad school … re­search­ing tech­nol­ogy for ac­ces­si­bil­ity for blind­ness. I was lucky enough to in­ter­view Daniel. He’s blind and rides moun­tain bikes.’

Gard­ner took the con­cept of echolo­ca­tion and adapted it to rep­re­sent how the player vi­su­alises the world in Per­cep­tion. The game screen is dark by de­fault, but any sound in the game world causes the nearby area to by out­lined in a ghostly, blueish light. The player can also ‘ac­ti­vate’ this abil­ity them­selves, strik­ing their sur­round­ings with a cane

A sound causes the nearby area to by out­lined in a ghostly, blueish light

to cre­ate a pool of vis­i­bil­ity from the re­sult­ing noise.

The de­vel­op­ment team es­tab­lished a link be­tween the game’s au­dio and the post-process ef­fects, so any sound emit­ting in the game world would be rep­re­sented vis­ually. ‘At one point, we showed con­cepts of the pop­pets – the lit­tle dolls that are roam­ing around the space, which make these lit­tle squeak­ing sounds, so you’ll be able to see them ev­ery time they squeak,’ Gard­ner says.

The ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t sup­posed to ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent what echolo­ca­tion looks or feels like for a blind per­son who can do it, of course. ‘We would be vi­su­al­is­ing things quite a bit less and quite dif­fer­ently if we were in­ter­ested in ac­tu­ally try­ing to cap­ture echolo­ca­tion,’ he says. Nev­er­the­less, Per­cep­tion does cap­ture that sense of tran­si­tion be­tween be­ing com­pletely vis­ually dis­ori­en­tated and be­ing able to re­late to your vis­ual sur­round­ings. The aes­thet­ics cho­sen by the de­vel­op­ers also ties in neatly with the game’s hor­ror el­e­ment, with the shim­mer­ing blue out­lines of the pro­tag­o­nist’s vi­su­al­i­sa­tion lend­ing the whole en­vi­ron­ment a ghostly qual­ity.

As well as in­ter­view­ing echolo­ca­tion ex­perts, Gard­ner also ex­plored mov­ing around en­vi­ron­ments while blind­folded. The idea wasn’t to bet­ter un­der­stand what it was like to be blind, be­cause as Gard­ner ex­plains, ‘to ev­ery per­son it’s go­ing to be a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence.’ Rather, the ob­jec­tive was more about gain­ing a sense of how dif­fer­ent places feel when you can’t see them.

What Gard­ner dis­cov­ered sur­prised him. ‘ Ev­ery­thing felt very large,’ Gard­ner says, ‘so when I was build­ing the spa­ces in Per­cep­tion, I tried to stretch them out a lit­tle.’ This is clear to see in the game. Doors ap­pear to be much larger than usual, while stair­cases are longer and wider. In fact, the whole build­ing feels just slightly over­pro­por­tioned, mak­ing it a more in­tim­i­dat­ing pres­ence.

Along­side high­light­ing how Gard­ner could im­prove Per­cep­tion’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of blind­ness, his re­search also em­pha­sised the lim­its of por­tray­ing blind­ness vir­tu­ally. One ex­am­ple is the height­en­ing of other senses, par­tic­u­larly how your body re­acts to move­ment and bal­ance when you can’t see.

‘ One of the most sur­pris­ing ex­pe­ri­ences was go­ing up an es­ca­la­tor with my eyes closed,’ Gard­ner says. ‘I got to the point where I kind of felt my­self crest­ing. You know how the es­ca­la­tor starts to level off?

‘ Well, that ac­tu­ally hap­pens much sooner than you think, and you

feel it when you have your eyes closed. But when you have your eyes open, you’re more grounded – that feel­ing isn’t as sig­nif­i­cant and you’re able to gauge ex­actly where you need to step.’

Gard­ner also had to con­tend with how much ‘blind­ness’ the player would be will­ing to tol­er­ate over an ex­tended du­ra­tion. ‘There’s a fine line be­tween in­trigue and frus­tra­tion,’ he says, and it af­fects the way the story is told. All the in­for­ma­tion needs to be com­mu­ni­cated through au­dio, as even a blind per­son who can echolo­cate can’t read text off a page or a screen.

As a re­sult, there’s a large num­ber of au­dio logs, phone con­ver­sa­tions and nar­rated mem­o­ries present in the game. Even writ­ten text is con­verted into au­dio in the game via a text-tospeech app on the pro­tag­o­nist’s phone.

Hav­ing such a large amount of in­for­ma­tion di­gested ex­clu­sively through au­dio can make a story tough to fol­low. ‘A lot of it ties into my his­tory with the BioShock se­ries and learn­ing very care­fully – it was a dif­fi­cult path to get to the point where Bioshock made sense,’ Gard­ner ex­plains. ‘One of the trick­ier parts of sto­ry­telling is not only fig­ur­ing out how to ex­posit in­for­ma­tion, but also when you do it and how much you pro­vide.’

All these chal­lenges stem from cen­tring the game around a blind pro­tag­o­nist. It seems like a rel­a­tively small step when hor­ror games rely on dark­ness any­way, but the ex­tent to which it in­flu­ences al­most ev­ery as­pect of Per­cep­tion’s de­vel­op­ment is re­mark­able. From art to play to sto­ry­telling, the way the player in­ter­acts with each as­pect is rad­i­cally al­tered.

Cassie’s vi­su­al­i­sa­tions are con­sid­er­ably more de­tailed than how a real echolo­ca­tor would per­ceive the world

Cer­tain ‘touch­stone’ ob­jects can be picked up, trig­ger­ing mem­ory flash­backs

Stair­cases and door­ways are larger than usual to rep­re­sent the dif­fi­culty of per­ceiv­ing space while un­able to see

If Cassie makes too much noise, she at­tracts a malev­o­lent spirit called The Pres­ence

The lay­out of the game’s man­sion shifts be­tween re­al­ity and mem­ory

As you go deeper into the game, you travel fur­ther into the man­sion’s past

Cassie can mem­o­rise the lo­ca­tions of doors and stair­cases, which ap­pear as a green out­line in her ‘vi­sion’

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