Horror has a long, awful history with the disabled, often using them as props to evoke fears of the unknown, or forms of gross exaggeration. It doesn't take long to realize how poorly it treats different groups—often the same groups—over and over. (Don't get me started on the rape and revenge subgenre. It's a goddamn genre.) Video game horror isn't exempt from this, either. There's a reason the genre has a litany of terrible mental illness tropes, such as setting games in "insane asylums," where everyone's locked away in a padded cell. Tropes are patterns.
You can imagine my apprehension, then, when learning about Perception, a horror game in which a blind woman finds herself attracted to a mysterious mansion full of secrets. It's not satisfyingly explained why she decided to catch a cross-country flight because of some pesky nightmares, but horror stories have been predicated on far flimsier premises. I was concerned with a bigger question, anyway: Could the game respectably translate an experience few could really understand?
The short version: Yes. The longer version: Yes, but...
Though the character in Perception is blind, the player is not, and to help bridge that gap, the game deploys a form of echolocation to visualize the environment. If you stand completely still, everything turns black, a darkness broken only by the ticking of a clock or hissing of a pipe. The character taps with a cane to build awareness. It happens in waves, with players getting an ever-so-brief glimpse of the world. It is, as it turns out, based on a real technique, and for accuracy, the developers told me they consulted with blind people and accessibility experts.
(The blind echolocation story that you might have heard about more recently, involves clicking your mouth to produce noises that bounces off objects. It should be noted neither is the predominant approach for the majority of blind people.)
In practice, the echolocation mechanic in Perception looks like this:
It's creatively effective for a game trying to keep players in the (literal) dark, and while obviously an exaggeration of how the technique works in real-life, it's doesn't come across as opportunistic or exploitative. It does have some unique design problems, though. Specifically, the game isn't sure how to communicate goals to the player, so it's hand waved away by giving them an unexplained psychic ability to always know where the next objective is. It's not elegant.
And to keep players from simply banging every object over and over, an evil spirit—The Presence—roams. If you cause too much noise, you need to hide. It's difficult to understand how much noise the player needs to summon them, though, which means you either A) Stop tapping to avoid causing a problem, which is effective for survival but frustrating for actually getting around the house or B) Tap furiously until the bad thing shows up, reload a save, and use your previous knowledge to move forward. In either case, the game would've benefited from more information on what you're doing; most of the time, if I happened to find The Presence, I'd wait for it to kill me. It was faster that way.
In reality, I found myself more invested in understanding the different ways the player is able to understand the world around them. Echolocation might tell you where an object is, but it doesn't help you understand what it is. At various points, you can use a text-to-speech application on your phone to read books and diary entries, and if something just doesn't make sense at all—like, say, a locked chest—it's possible to call a specialized hotline where sighted individuals help describe what's in front of you. These moments in Perception are scripted, rather than a form of organic puzzle solving, but they're based on real-life forms of adaptation, and provide both insight and empathy for the character's situation.
Unfortunately, that's about all I've gotten out of my few hours with the game. It's different, and tries something genuinely new, but it's not enough to carry a whole game in its current form. (I've finished three of the four chapter in as many hours.) The underlying mechanic remains sound throughout, but despite early promise, Perception doesn't do much with it as the story rolls forward.
Here's hoping another developer is able to learn from Perception's mistakes. There's something here, even if the developers behind this game weren't quite able to figure it out.
Side note: If you're interested in a modern horror film that effectively avoids tropes about the disabled—in this case, a deaf woman!—check out Mike Flanagan's Hush on Netflix. It's about a deaf woman who's stalked by masked man in the middle of the woods, and it's super good!
Additional site note: There are a surprising number of blind characters in the Souls games. According to this fan-driven list on Giant Bomb, there are five, including a freakin' dragon?
Yet another side note: Perception isn't the only game to tackle being blind recently. Beyond Eyes, which Mike Diver profiled in a feature last year, is available on a bunch of platforms, and is a more peaceful take on what it's like to venture around in a sightless world. Mike's feature also has this really wonderful quote from Beyond Eyes designer Sherida Halatoe:
"I wanted for players to understand others and themselves a little better after playing it," she says, when I ask about what she wants gamers to get out of their time with Beyond Eyes. "My main 'lessons' that I hope people take away from it are that life can be what you want it to be, that sometimes things happen that are terribly unfair and out of your control but you can still decide how you will let them affect you. Be brave and enjoy try to enjoy life, as there is beauty everywhere, even in scary or mundane things."