The pitch for Perception sells itself. Cassandra, a blind woman, uses a superhuman sense of echolocation to explore the ominous house from her nightmares. She’s visually impaired, but tapping her cane sends shockwaves across the room, briefly bathing its contents in glowing blue light. This is awesome; it’s a mesmerizing special effect that’s never been used to centrally support an entire game.
Perception is both admirably conscious of gaming’s social deficiencies and frustratingly untethered to operating them in a manner that passes for reality. On one side is a female protagonist uninhibited by assumptions of her disability. You don’t usually get to play the role of a character like this, even inside of other first-person adventure / horror experiences where Perception seeks inclusion. On the other side, Perception stumbles into conflict, sidesteps responsibility, and blows it all out with prosaic vindication. Perception has a big heart, but not enough blood to keep it running.
The nature of applying dream logic to a visually-impaired person’s psyche is intriguing. Cassandra keeps seeing objects—a rope, a ticket, an apple and an axe—and a house that apparently contains all four. Echolocation via the magic of videogames is a plausible excuse for Cassie’s navigation of the house but other conceits, like avoiding gunfire or the option to run, require a leap of faith. To accept all of this, the player either has to not be paying attention or completely submit to the entire process being an extended metaphor.
By focusing on the objects from Cassandra’s dreams, Perception attempts to expand her plight across a generational gap. Picking up documents and objects or listening to audio-logs detail dilemmas encountered by former residents of the house. Some of these stories are recent history while other go back over a hundred years. All are marred by otherworldly difficulty under the guise of the antagonistic presence, calling to mind Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher or H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour of Outer Space. Perception sidesteps cosmic horror in favor of a localized affliction, although not the same amount of style or grace.
It’s here where Perception backs away from first-person adventure and dives into a drained pool of horror. Periodically The Presence, a vague monster, will appear and stalk Cassandra throughout the house. Reasons for its manifestation are muddy (Perception says it happens when you tap your cane too many times, but some instances appear predetermined), but if it gets you you’re sent back to an origin point in the house. Hiding inside a chest or under a bed are presented as options and defuse The Presence one hundred percent of the time. It’s a penalty against your personal time, not a threat to the protagonist.
Players should able to sense the open conflict inside Perception’s own mechanic. On a few occasions getting nabbed by The Presence acts as a convenience, neatly saving you a bit of backtracking. The entire obstacle feels created out of the need to make Perception riff on something other than Gone Home, instead calling to the defenseless pioneers like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Outlast. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this idea, but Perception doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. It’s more Among the Sleep than What Remains of Edith Finch. “Figure out what happened in this mystery house” may have been popular when Perception was conceived, but in 2017 (especially so soon after Edith Finch), it’s a dated approach.
What unfolds is a three to four hour lumbering expedition across different iterations of the ghoulish house. Each item from Cassandra’s dream carries a latent correspondence to a past resident. We learn about their personal stories of misfortune and are intended to apply them to Cassandra’s advancing mortal peril. I didn’t really get to do that because I barely know Cassandra. She calls and receives calls from her significant other a few times (who rarely questions the sanity of her actions) and another person, Nick, who helps her in a few key spots. Cassandra seeks definition through these people, but a postscript from the developer is her only source of power. As a sympathetic figure, Cassandra felt empty.
Perception’s accessory characters receive more attention, but feel just as eager to submit to expectations. Betty, a typical 40’s housewife in the shadow of World War II, is constantly making inquiries to aid the American war effort. Her applications are turned down because she’s a woman. This depresses her greatly. Later it’s revealed she wasn’t fighting gender roles for her own interests, but rather to join a loved one stationed overseas. Betty’s agency belonged to someone else.
Some weird bugs further damage Perception’s character. At one point the right analog stick failed, meaning I couldn’t turn my character, meaning I had to reload my save file. Another time I tried to input the four-digit code to a lock, backed out of the lock screen, and was treated to the four square lock inputs hovering around the screen for the remainder of chapter 3. I have no idea if this will happen to anyone else but it certainly didn’t help me.
Perception’s swift deterioration doesn’t rob the entire project of merit. When I think back on my time inside that house, and the monochromatic light that colored its surface, I find details tough to recall. The house had shape, but no texture. It featured familiar doorways and objective landmarks, but no explicit sense of direction. I have no idea what it’s like to be blind, but I think Perception does kind of relay what it’s like to try and summon a visual memory from fragments and artifacts of an invisible, natural environment. Like Papa Sangre or Real Sound: Kaze no Regret, Perception proves there’s room for abstraction in an otherwise visual medium.
Perception also exhibits some neat ideas over how to handle disability. Echolocation is impossible until someone hacks bat DNA into our brains, but other creative solutions seem possible. Delphi, an app Cassandra uses to send pictures of items to a support staff (this is where Nick comes in) for instant translation is a neat idea. Blindness isn’t as crippling as it initially seems — although Perception starts to fall apart when you logically think about the myriad of bad or hallucinatory actions Cassandra is taking.
I also can’t deny the message of positivity that precedes Perception’s credits. This game and this story came from an extremely personal place, and the impassioned Kickstarter from 2015 is loaded with accredited enthusiasm. This doesn’t salvage Perception’s mistakes, but it adds humanity to its efforts. They tried. It didn’t come together. It happens. Ambition isn’t exclusively defined by results.
Perception’s attractive thesis—a blind woman should be capable of investigating the menacing house from her nightmares—creates space for an original protagonist inside of an extraordinary circumstance. A premise isn’t a promise, however, as Perception quickly abandons novelty in favor of rote objectives, aimless antagonism, and a narrative set adrift in a sea of platitudes.