Navigating the Sound of Darkness in Perception
Darkness is often a central theme in horror, but for Perception's protagonist, Cassie, it is a constant reality. Blind, she uses her extraordinary hearing and echolocation to 'see' the world around her.
Hounded by nightmares, she travels to the mansion at Echo Bluff to confront her fears once and for all. But, once inside, Cassie's greatest strength is turned against her as she comes face to face with the Presence; a relentless, supernatural force that uses sound to track its prey.
Co-founded by husband and wife duo, Bill and Amanda Gardner, The Deep End Games is a relatively new studio with a small development team, but one with an impressive list of credits including BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and Dead Space.
We have to ask…what is it like working as a married couple in game development?
Amanda: It's really unique, I have to say that. There's no real separation between work and life. We could be changing diapers (we have TWO production babies) while talking about a scene, or we could be making lunch and discussing the dynamics of a particular scare. We work really well together, thank goodness, but it has certainly changed our dinner table discussions.
What was the inspiration for Perception, and how has the idea evolved?
Amanda: The initial seed for Perception was when Bill was in grad school. His professor said something to the effect of, "By the time you get to your car, you'll have a brilliant idea," and lo and behold, the first stirrings of Perception were born. He came home, talked with me about it, and a story started weaving itself from there.
We had thought about a creature that you could only sense when it was behind you, and you had to use mirrors or other methods, but ultimately, the echolocation mechanic was much better and provided a much clearer vision.
Tell us about the story of Perception. Why is Cassie drawn to Echo Bluff?
Amanda: Cassie is a blind woman from Phoenix who is a sculptor and a bit of a stubborn, independent type. When her nightmares become too much to bear, she throws herself into research and finally discovers that the place she's dreaming about is an abandoned mansion across the country. Once she gets there, she begins to figure out why she was having the nightmares, and how to make it all stop.
Sound is vital for Cassie to see, but it's a double-edged sword in that it attracts the Presence. What is your thought process when building around this concept?
Amanda: Expectation is a tricky thing in a horror game. On one hand, you need to have rules. A player needs to know that X-action equals Y-result. On the other hand, routine is the enemy of horror, so you have to find ways to constantly bend those rules while staying in the guidelines.
The fact that Cassie is moving through time and different versions of the house means we can toy with players' expectations constantly since they can't always be sure what's on the other side of a door, which is especially tense when being pursued by the Presence. Without giving too much away, there's a room that…let's just say you'll discover a newfound fear of bubble wrap.
Cassie is much more vocal than the typical protagonist. What was the reasoning behind this decision?
Amanda: We wanted Cassie to be as real as possible. It was important to us that she wasn't a trope or stereotype, so we really threw ourselves into crafting this very plausible human. She's flawed, funny, frank. I'd have a beer with her. And yes, she’s chatty and snarky. My background is in writing Urban Fantasy, and all my characters have had very Buffy-ish verbal styles. Cassie is no exception. I think that when a lot of people are nervous, they snark a bit, and so I sort of gave Cassie that trait. If you select "Silent Night" mode, however, you’ll get a much more reserved Cassie.
We seem to be in the midst of a horror renaissance, and yet, it seems like such a counterintuitive genre. What is about being scared that attracts us?
Amanda: I think the great thing about horror is that it taps into such a huge range of emotions and physical responses, from the quick jolts of adrenaline that come with jump scares, to the joy of releasing tension upon escape. Our real goal, though, is to create the sort of enduring dread that can seep into your own reality. Thinking back to movies like The Blair Witch Project or The Descent, who in their right mind wanted to go camping or spelunking afterward? That's the sort of psychological effect we hope to create with the narrative.
How would you describe your approach to horror in Perception?
Amanda: We've always said that the enemy of horror is information. Our game is about a blind woman, and already that takes away so much information. Something lurking in the shadows is much more frightening than actually seeing up close what is scaring you.
What is the biggest challenge in creating a game that relies so heavily on providing limited information?
Amanda: It's fun, actually, rather than being challenging. We think of all the ways we can get something across, and not be limited to just what something would look like. What would this sound like? What would be something inside the house that would make a really amazing noise if you stepped on it?
There is so much that can scare you, not just things you overtly see. In Perception, we really try to push the envelope with the amount of different sounds, flashes, and underlying anxiety to unsettle you in many different ways.
What were your reasons for choosing Unreal Engine 4 on this project?
Bill: Our previous work on the BioShock games and familiarity with Unreal Engine was the number one reason, but the graphical capabilities definitely make it a must-have. Plus, the tools are just phenomenal. As a UX guy, I really appreciate what Epic has done to make the tools as easy to use as they are powerful.
I am far from the most technical designer out there. Heck, if I can figure this stuff out, anyone can. To me, that's one of the biggest wins of the engine – the time you spend struggling with the engine and the workflow are practically non-existent and you're able to focus almost entirely on creating amazing content. This engine is where it's at.
Is there a favorite tool or feature you would like to mention, and how has it aided development?
Bill: I'm really impressed with how much the narrative tools have advanced since I last worked with Unreal Engine. Sequencer is just…well, unreal, and so flexible in what it can do. And, it's not just Sequencer; you can find so many different approaches to implementing ideas in UE4. I've found myself increasingly relying on it for things I never would have thought.
UE4 is still relatively new to me, but that's one of the other amazing benefits of the engine – there is so much help out there! No matter how obscure your question, you can generally find an answer or even a video tutorial on just about anything.
How many people are part of The Deep End Games, and how does Unreal Engine 4 affect your workflow given that much of the team works remotely?
Bill: We're a very small team and we are relying on contractors quite a bit for a lot of our content. Unreal removes pretty much all the pain points with remote teams. Everything from importing assets to hooking into source control is a cinch.
How can people best stay up-to-date with development?
Amanda: Perception is currently in development for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. We post regularly on Twitter via @thedeependgames and on Facebook, and we love hearing from fans.