Perception is as Funny as it is Haunting

In one of Perception’s first scenes, a mansion appears from out of the darkness. Cassie, the game’s protagonist, walks through its front door. Outside the wind whips snow; inside it’s quiet except for the creaks of old wooden floorboards against the weight of her footsteps. Without needing to be told what kind of story is about to be told, the environment communicates everything about its genre. An abandoned house, old and huge, layered with decade upon decade of history will always be a ghost story in and of itself. Its halls and rooms contain eras past and present all at once, defying linear time like the spirits of the dead.

Perception leans into this. Cassie is a blind woman come to the mansion to find the source of troubling dreams, digging into the past of a place that haunts her daily life. She explores a house by tapping a cane, the sound mapping itself for the player as dimly lit architecture displaying the edges of nearby furniture, walls, and objects. Aside from lending the game a distinct look, Cassie’s perspective turns the entire game world into a transitory place. Without player input, it exists only as endless darkness and faint sound. During the intervals between one glimpse of her surroundings and the next, it seems possible that the mansion might reconfigure itself entirely. This, it turns out, is something the game takes advantage of. As the story unfolds, Perception burrows further and further into its setting’s past, beginning with a chapter set during what must be the 1990s and continuing backward through the early 20th and late 19th centuries before reaching an endpoint somewhere around the era of the 17th century colonial American witch trials.

The game wants to be scary, and it’s made up of everything it needs to make this happen. Like the best ghost stories, the root of its horror comes not just from an ominous atmosphere and shrieking poltergeists but the sense that social and cultural wrongs are manifesting with a tangible vengeance. In Perception, the treatment of women over centuries of American history provides the thematic backdrop. The story shifts from a woman frustrated by living in the shadow of her doctor husband to another, stuck at home and wanting to join her husband in fighting a world war. Eventually, there’s a mad scientist trying to create real girls out of porcelain dolls and a woman whose intelligence finds her burned as a witch. The through line is meant to explain both Cassie’s nightmares and the origin of a demonic presence inhabiting the mansion, but these are only manifestations of a more realistic social horror whose roots stretch back over centuries.

All of this, from disorienting visuals to rich plot, provides a foundation for effective horror. But the seriousness of Perception‘s set-up isn’t carried through to its finer details. Dialogue prompted by Cassie picking up important objects or, of course, finding letters and diary-style tape recordings, is delightfully schlocky. She speaks as if constantly bemused. Voices from the past talk like parodies of the time periods and people they’re meant to represent. There’s the German-accented scientist who creates automated dolls, describing the obsessions of his work with the overwrought language and tone of a creepshow B-movie. There’s the soldier’s wife who talks in the curled flapper-y intonation of a first year theatre student doing their best Zelda Fitzgerald impersonation.

But the moment it becomes clear that Perception‘s camp is something truly special comes when one of the mad scientist’s little girl dolls, gliding along railroad-style tracks laced across the mansion’s floors, opens up on Cassie with a revolver. The dolls, up to this point, have been de rigueur horror set dressing, peering blankly from dark corners, hoping to unsettle simply as liberally applied props. They become something else after firing guns clutched in stiff artificial hands, bullets richocheting around their curly little heads. Hiding in a corner, waiting for the metallic click of a reload before running to the next spot of cover, the game has abandoned its occasional jump scares, unarmed flight from the demon, and hiding beneath beds and in cupboards for something closer to the world’s most ridiculous shooter.

By this point in the game, the experience has been entirely coloured as a comedy, but, rather than acknowledge what may or may not be intentionally hilarious, Perception makes the good decision to stay the course. It continues to wrap up a multi-generational story where the devil stalking the halls of a rural Massachusetts mansion is both real and metaphorical monster. It ends on a note meant to make its audience reflect on the insidiousness of misogyny and, despite how goofy the trip to this point may be, it sticks the landing.

What the player is left with is something unique—a game whose ghosts wail with the real pain of social inequality but linger more because of the laughs they create than any scares. It’s maybe too easy a criteria to call art or entertainment successful purely based on how well it communicates its message, but in the case of Perception it might be enough. Entertaining and inventive, as ridiculous as it is intelligent, there’s a lot to recommend in its unorthodox brand of horror.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen, PC Gamer, GQ,  Paste, and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), edits Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.

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