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