Perception is technically a scary game. You explore a mansion in near darkness due to the limitations of blindness, driven by the curiosities of a brave young woman. The persistent scarcity of light creates the illusion of a labyrinthine home which complements the spookiness of both its harmless and homicidal spirits. It’s an environment that especially caters to those fascinated by the things we leave behind and the often disturbing stories these objects can tell. Yet, despite what my goosebumps can attest, Perception made me realize that it is possible to not care about being scared.
A series of dreams has compelled protagonist Cassie to visit a house in New England sight unseen. While this is a solitary investigation, the supernatural forces that draw her into the depths of the estate–not to mention her boyfriend who is a phone call away–adequately convey the positive message that while she lives a life in darkness, she is never alone.
Cassie overcomes her vision-impairment with advanced tools to get around and an acute awareness of her surroundings. While she carries two devices that help her decipher objects she picks up, Cassie relies mostly on echolocation, the ability to use sound to determine the location of nearby obstacles. This is her primary means for getting around a pitch-dark mansion. Footsteps allow you to see your immediate surroundings (about two feet in front of you), while tapping your walking cane brief reveals a much larger area. The catch is that making too much noise alerts a hooded spectre known as The Presence. It’s Game Over if you’re captured–and, judging by the sound effects, eaten–by this phantom. The threat of the Presence functions as a deterrent to mashing the cane button as you move around. This visual limitation is an inventive method that preserves some of Perception’s challenge.
Getting caught by The Presence isn’t the sort of penalizing experience that would motivate you to take escaping more seriously after each death. You always respawn in the same spot–the foyer–and since this isn’t an especially large mansion, resuming your progress toward the next waypoint takes little time. In fact, dying–as opposed to hurriedly searching for a hiding spot–might even serve as a perk, since respawning in the foyer oftentimes brings you closer to your next destination. The end result is a sense of apathy for being caught. You’re left wondering why this fail state exists to begin with.
The softening of Perception’s difficulty doesn’t end there. Cassie also has a conveniently keen sixth sense in knowing the location of your next waypoint. This supernatural talent isn’t adequately explained and primarily functions as a hint system for whenever the player gets stuck. At first, using this waypoint detector feels like cheating–that is until you learn that not relying on this sixth sense would make for a frustrating playthrough, partly due to Cassie’s limited vision and especially because of the dearth of clues that tell you where to go next. As much as the deciphering of objects presents an often colorful history of this house, they seldom help you reach your goal. So there’s no middle ground; neglecting this sixth sense makes progress very difficult, and revealing these waypoints reduces the overall playthrough into a boring checklist.
While Perception’s ghosts will convince you that there are supernatural forces at work in this house, the surreal time travelling drives the point home. By solving simple puzzles and completing the main objective for each chapter, you’re transported to an older version of the house, each loaded with their own nostalgia-tinged flavor. And with each incarnation of the estate comes new sets of disturbing visuals in an attempt to sustain Perception’s idea of horror. Disappointingly, the third, 19th century version of the house relies heavily on one of the lowest hanging fruits of horror imagery: dolls. Perception eventually doubles down on this trope by giving them–of all things–guns, firing at you on sight. Like the tapping of your cane, the gunfire easily calls the attention of The Presence and ruins what would have otherwise been an intriguing sneaking mission as you try to hide behind columns and furniture. If you can put up with these funhouse-style shenanigans, you’re rewarded with the creepiest version of the house: a dilapidated colonial abode where the floorboards creak with every step.
Besides the faint surroundings of what the echolocation reveals, many of Perception’s actual sound effects add tension to a playthrough that is often bereft of suspense. The positively liquid sounds of treading knee-deep in mystery fluid or the squishiness of stepping in mud can make one wince. The walking cane itself, however, proves to be obnoxious despite its utility. Depending on what surfaces you hit, the cacophonous taps and the repeated clangs produce the kind of noises that would annoy anyone. You can’t blame The Presence for wanting you to stop that racket.
Along with Cassie’s journey of self-discovery, Perception is also about how we leave traces of ourselves in places we no longer inhabit. Its engaging moments–of which there are few–marry metaphors of regret with heavy-handed symbolism. Much of this theme is conveyed through the objects our heroine discovers and the messages these items retain. Although the various incarnations of each house have their own sense of character, their confining designs and the looming threat of The Presence limit opportunities to savor an exploratory experience that would have been reminiscent of the acclaimed Gone Home.
Perception feels like a lost opportunity to showcase the beauty of mundanity. The routine-like flow of going from goal to goal as you rely on Cassie’s sixth sense feels like a series of chores lacking in stimulation. And while reaching the end rewards you with an additional thematic message that no one could have anticipated, it doesn’t redeem the game from its lack of nuance and overreliance on hand-holding waypoints.
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