There are times when I find myself rooting for a game even after it has failed to elicit a strong first impression. Usually this happens because my imagination latches onto some aspect of its design that feels inspired in spite of other shortcomings.
‘‘Perception’’ is such a game. Developed by a small studio composed of developers who worked on big-tent titles like ‘‘Dead Space’’ and ‘‘BioShock,’’ the game raised a little over $168,000 on Kickstarter — a modest sum for a video game. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by its premise (the boiled down version is: A blind woman explores a haunted house).
With few exceptions — like Daredevil, or Professor Xavier from the X-men comic books — our popular culture doesn’t allot much space to disabled protagonists. Video games offer their own models for empathetic storytelling by allowing players to take on different identities, and it’s a healthy sign of the medium’s maturation for players to be given more opportunities to explore characters who are not minimally-flawed, super-people.
‘‘Perception’’ wastes little time with its opening setup. Through voice-over, Cassie, the game’s protagonist, tells us that when you’re sightless, you learn whom to trust and you learn to trust yourself. Two brief episodes from Cassie’s life reinforce this. In the first, we hear children teasing her, and in the second we hear an instructor leading her through an exercise meant to train her hearing to identify the distinct sounds of different domestic objects. Soon after that, we find Cassie outside an isolated New England house. Through voice-over, she tells us that a series of bad dreams has led her to the house to seek answers for her nighttime torments.
The player’s first-person perspective is limited to the outlines of objects in Cassie’s immediate vicinity, which she picks up from standing next to or walking and listening to the echo of her footfalls. Her visual field can be increased by using her cane to tap against surfaces and create sound fields around her. I tried to create a playing environment that I thought would enhance the experience. I waited until nighttime, then turned off the lights in my office before I fired up ‘‘Perception’’ on my PC.
After a couple of hours of playing, it dawned on me that the developers should have marketed their game as a ghost tale instead of a horror game. When I first began exploring the house, I did so cautiously. An onscreen warning discouraged me from frequently using the cane since the noise can attract attention. I heeded this advice as well as I could, but accidentally triggered the murderous presence in the house. I didn’t find it scary at first — and was absolutely numb to it by the second or third time. I then started to pick apart the elements used to evoke fear: the flashing red lights, unintelligible whispers, and atonal music. In no time at all, I grew disenchanted with these effects and began fondly thinking about ‘‘Amnesia: the Dark Descent.’’
Other little touches mitigated those disappointments. For instance, I found the technology Cassie uses to navigate the world interesting. She has an app on her phone that converts text to speech and another one that puts her in contact with a sighted person who can describe the surroundings to her. These technologies make Cassie, well portrayed by the voice actress Angela Morris, an endearing mixture of vulnerable and daring.
Of the four stories that Cassie uncovers about the house’s past owners, three touch upon the motif of a woman’s precarious position in a male-dominated society. Aside from the final story, which I won’t go into to avoid spoilers, I found the most vivid to be about a woman who desperately applies for active-duty combat roles in World War II because she wants to protect her enlisted husband whom she instructed in the handling of a firearm.
I still found these stories to be sparer than I’d have liked and not quite enough to make me forget about the game’s meek supernatural threats. ‘‘Perception’’ feels like a trial run from a studio capable of better.
Developed by The Deep End Games. Published by Feardemic. Available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.