Last month we were lucky to snag an interview with Bill Gardner, founder and creative director of Deep End Games, the studio behind a new horror game unlike anything else: Perception, a KickStarter-funded project which recently passed its pledge of $150,000.
Perception is a first-person horror game where the player takes control of a young blind woman named Cassie, voiced by Angela Morris, as she navigates Echo Bluff, an abandoned manor that Cassie has had multiple dreams about, via echolocation. There she encounters the mysterious, yet terrifying creature known as “The Presence” which is anything but friendly.
The Deep End Games is a small company, consisting of around twelve people or so. However, this development team has worked on well-renowned games like Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite and Dead Space. They may be small, but they have some amazing people on the team as well as an unusual idea that incorporates the player in a novel and unique manner.
Gardner was a delight to speak with and clearly was really excited to discuss Perception in further detail.
Characters, Story and Setting
Dalton White (DW): So, tell me more about the protagonist, Cassie. Is she one of those ‘random clueless teenagers’ you often see in horror games and films?
Bill Gardner (BG): No, not at all. Cassie has always been this kind of headstrong, fiercely independent, wisecracking woman. Cassie is somewhere in her late 20’s, possibly early 30’s. She has a life, a bit of a backstory: she’s from Phoenix, Arizona, and she’s a sculptor. Yet she keeps having dreams about Echo Bluff, despite never being there before.
Echo Bluff is the mysterious ancient mansion that has haunted Cassie’s dreams and is the setting for the game. Gardner revealed that the house was located in Gloucester, Massachusetts. When asked why he chose Gloucester specifically Gardner stated:
“I don’t know what it is about New England, but between Steven King, and HP Lovecraft and Poe, there are so many heavyweights in horror who lived in this area. There is just something here.”
After getting some information about the setting of the game, I asked about the cast of characters in Perception. Some horror games, such as Slender just have the player and the mysterious evil creature. Others like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have a larger cast. Gardner confirmed that Cassie’s boyfriend will be attempting to contact her via her smartphone, and will pop in and out of contact with her as he is traveling to the house himself.
Clearly, Gardner and his wife Amanda, who is the head writer for Perception, have spent a long time on developing the story of Perception; however, he remained tight-lipped on what Cassie will experience as an unwilling guest at Echo Bluff.
Gameplay and the Player Experience
Even if he wouldn’t tell us what Cassie would encounter, Gardner was more than pleased to discuss how she (and the player) are able to move and interact with things while in Echo Bluff.
BG: “We did a lot of research about how echolocation works for the blind. There are programs like World Access for the Blind who do teach blind people to “see” via echolocation. We interviewed multiple people who did their best to explain the concept to us. One of the more interesting facts we found is that there have been studies where when blind individuals, conditioned with echolocation training, make noise, their visual cortex lights up. So we did our best to recreate that with the visual sound waves you see in the trailers. I also wanted to capture the feeling of echolocation in a way that was respectful and accurate as the team could be while creating an experience that gamers enjoy.”
Echolocation: How Cassie “Sees” the World.
DW: Very commendable and practical. Will Cassie be able to use her other senses to navigate, or is it solely by hearing?
BG: We really are focusing on using sound and hearing as Cassie’s primary form of navigation. We have talked about trying to find a way to visualize smell, but in the end we thought that might be going too far.
DW: I see. All right then, so besides this new style of sight via echolocation, is there anything else that contributes to Perception’s unique gameplay?
BG: What I usually say to my team is that information is the enemy of horror. That is a catalyst of this project, as the only way for the player to gain information is a big risk. You have to create noise and there is something out there hunting you down.
With something like this hunting you down, you have to be careful.
DW: So in the last interview you had with GameSkinny, you said that all Cassie is armed with is a smartphone and her cane. Clearly her cane is extremely important, allowing her to use her echolocation, but what about her phone?
BG: She primarily uses her phone in order to get information. One of the most important functions of the phone is that it will have a program on it called Delphi. Sometimes things will be written on the walls, or on a piece of paper and Delphi basically takes a picture of the words and vocalizes them. Even though Cassie is smart and resourceful, she still isn’t able to completely make out words. You can’t just tap Cassie’s cane and read a giant bunch of text or scrawl on the wall. We are also working on an app for the phone that will take a picture of the words and then try to contact someone from the outside who can tell her what she is looking at.
DW: Wait, if that is the case, couldn’t she just use that app to call someone for help?
BG: Not exactly, no. That app won’t always be available. Most of the time Cassie will not have any reception while in Echo Bluff, which would be required to use this second app. That is also why Cassie’s boyfriend is popping in and out of contact.
Clearly Gardner had looked at all the angles in order to give Perception the true isolated feel of a horror game. He was also rather vocal about the various modes that a player can select for a different experience. Many of these modes were also inspired by or streamlined thanks to feedback from fans. One mode, known as “Silent Night”, cuts a large amount of Cassie’s lines, making her more of a silent protagonist.
Another way the game can be played is in “Mode 7” or, as Gardner called it, “Retro Mode”. This setting styles the house and the game itself in a SNES pixelated 3D art-style for those who love some of the classic 16-bit visuals. Gardner stated that he was really thrilled with the inclusion of these modes as they “allowed players to find an experience that resonates with the gamer, and produced multiple ways replay the game.” Gardner expanded on that idea of accessibility, stating:
“I think that when there is a possibility to make a game that better suits a person’s play style, especially if it represents a majority, I’m going to look for opportunities to fulfill or address them.”
Technical Questions and What Lies Ahead
DW: Clearly you are pro-fan feedback and care about what your fans and patrons think. So, then lets ask some of the hard-hitting questions that the backers for Perception really want to hear. Any idea what this game is going to be rated? Also I saw that the release date on the Perception Kickstarter page was slotted for June 2016, can you possibly give us an even smaller release window?
BG: I am not exactly sure what official rating we are going to get, but Perception covers a lot of mature content. I’ve never been a huge fan of gore and blood and there isn’t much of that in Perception. I want to tell the story that we want, set the mood we like and one that we think will resonate with our fans. I mean Cassie talks a decent amount, she’s gonna swear a few times like any normal person would in her situation. There’s gonna be some violence and a lot of mature themes. As for the release date, I don’t want to go more specific than June 2016. I want to make sure that I can deliver top quality products. I really want to make sure that this is a game that people are gonna love.
DW: Glad to hear. I have to ask, what made you decide to use Kickstarter for funding your project?
BG: I felt that there is so much changing in the [gaming] industry; there is a lot of opportunity for independence. I feel like this is a new renaissance for Indie Games. There is so much potential with how advanced the tools are. We are using the Unreal 4 engine and you look at all the crazy effects we are doing for echolocation, these sorts of things three or four years ago would have taken 10x the effort. I felt that Kickstarter seemed the best way to take this game and idea to the audience. I could have definitely gone to a publisher, but I prefer the direct feedback from the audience that Kickstarter provides.
A house looking like that. Right, totally not haunted.
DW: Moving right along, you guys have already surpassed your pledge to have the game completely funded and you still have a few hours left for funding. If you get enough support and funds do you plan to release DLC or an expansion?
BG: One of our stretch goals is to be able to add a “bonus” chapter to the game, one written by Josh Fialkov, who has written comics for Marvel, DC, and a bunch of indie book titles like the Life After under his belt. Going back into the history of the house, there is almost limitless potential for levels, based on different time periods. I see potential in it, but I want to offer value to players when choosing how to present additional content. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of additional chapters or scenarios for Cassie, but I think it is still all about fan feedback and bringing value to the gamers.
From there Gardner explained that his team plans to continue taking pledges in order to fund additional content, and mentioned that he really hopes they could bring Perception to consoles, if they get the funding. Gardner also said that he and Amanda have been coming up with some ideas for possible future games, but currently their priority is with Perception.
DW: Last question: Do you have any words for those who are on the fence about supporting or buying Perception?
BD: I think if there is any reservation, check out what we have presented. We are a small team, we have a lot planned for Perception, but it is strictly a horror game, and games like that are rather contained and personal. If you have any questions, reach out to us. I hope that we have proven, so far, that we are devoted to providing the best gaming experience possible but also listening to feedback, anyone interested in a strong narrative, games like BioShock, games that tell a story through gameplay or the world itself and not forcing the player into cut scenes.
Now that it has been funded and given the green light, Perception seems like something to look forward for fans of indie and horror games alike. How do you feel about Perception? Leave a comment or visit The Deep End Games’s website or follow them on Twitter @TheDeepEndGames.