Perception: Bill Gardner on Horror Gaming and Haunted Houses

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Earlier in the week we spotlighted Perception, an in-development horror game with one of the most original premises we’ve seen in years. The game, which is currently seeking funding via Kickstarter, features a blind heroine named Cassie who must use echolocation to escape a deadly, terrifying presence. Deep End Games, who are behind the project, are made up of former Bioshock developers. Their titles also include Dead Space and Rock Band, with Bill Gardner leading the project and Big Daddy creator Robb Waters also on board.

Bill spent over twelve years in various roles within Irrational Games. On games like SWAT 4, BioShock and BioShock Infinite, he worked as Level Designer, Lead Designer, Design Director and User Experience Specialist. Having now turned his attention to the uniquely scary Perception, we asked him a few questions about the game, its horror influences and the future of horror in gaming.

You’ve worked on games which have horror influences in their design for much of your career, what horror games were your biggest influences growing up?

Indeed I have, which is convenient since I love horror so much.  My parents owned a video store when I was growing up, so I watched pretty much every horror movie you can imagine.  It’s tough to pinpoint the exact inspirations since there are so many and these films leave marks on you in ways you often don’t realize.  The Shining is definitely high on the list though.  The isolation, the paranoia, and the overall atmosphere of The Overlook definitely worked their way into the deep recesses of my psyche.  There are a lot of fragments that also dig in as well.  I was a huge Freddy, Jason, Michael fan.  While those films are completely different tonally, there are obviously aspects that resonate in your creations.  The way that Michael Meyers moves so precisely and with such calculating intent always haunted me.  The Presence is a completely different beast, but emotionally, that feeling of utter despair when it comes at you…that’s something I hope to capture.

There are also countless inspirations we draw upon outside of film.  For games, the Metroid series was probably the biggest influence.  So much so that I sent ideas for Metroid 2 to Nintendo when I was about ten.  Obviously, that’s not a horror game, but the atmosphere was rife with horror elements.  Same goes for Myst.  The isolation and immersion you feel playing both games is off the charts.  And then there was 7th Guest, which, while campy, really changed what I thought games could do with horror.  Early on, there weren’t many horror games that really scratched the itch until around the Playstation days.  I missed Alone in the Dark when it first came out.  So it wasn’t until Resident Evil that I completely became obsessed.  From there, it was on to Silent Hill and Fatal Frame which remain two all-time faves – particularly Silent Hill 2 with is revolutionary story.

Then one day, Ken Levine happened to wander into the Electronics Boutique I worked at.  I was an enormous System Shock 2 fan and managed to get my foot in the door at Irrational.

Are there any specific horror traditions or horror movies which have influenced your work?

Not so much a horror tradition as a narrative one, but coming from Irrational, I’m a big fan of the unreliable narrator.  I say this not because you can’t trust Cassie, but with echolocation, everything you “see” might be unreliable, which creates a tremendous amount of natural tension.

Presence Door

The concept behind your currently in-development game ‘Perception’ is unique, in that it features a blind central character and design based around echolocation. Where did this idea originate?

Mostly from a desire to try a different approach to gameplay and story.  I’m always looking for new ways to merge the two.  Echolocation is great not only because it’s a different way of seeing the world, but because it perfectly merges the story with the gameplay.  You’re hungry for information in the game and you are literally revealing it as you explore.  Then, with The Presence hunting you down, it adds a risk to your echolocation.  When you have that kind of compatible elements, it makes for a great core experience on which you can build.

What did your research into echolocation involve?

Our research covered all sorts of different points of references and inspiration.  The visual style is a real mix of odd pieces like Schlieren physics (check it out on youtube, some awesome stuff) mixed with different ways that audio is visualized.  I also interviewed a few blind people, and watched and read a lot about Daniel Kish, a man who teaches people to use echolocation.  Amazingly, if you go to his charity’s website, there are many stories of people who use echolocation to do things like skateboard and mountain bike.  It’s as amazing as it is inspiring.

What do you think is the scariest aspect of the game?

That’s probably a tie between the uncertainty and the risk vs. reward elements.  Information is the enemy of horror.  And so, with echolocation, the uncertainty you have is constantly contributing to your horror.  With the risk/reward, you have to constantly weigh your need for more information against the risk of being detected by The Presence.

Horror fans know that a well designed spooky house can almost become a character in itself.

Very true!  Echo Bluff is absolutely a character.  You’ll see it radically change as you explore it over different the different chapters that feature entirely unique characters, altered layouts and décor and a lot of other twists.  The estate won’t let you leave and yet, it seems as if it’s messing with you the entire time.

What can we expect from the setting of the game and what influenced the ideas behind the house?

Echo Bluff is going to keep you on your toes.  I pointed out The Shining as an influence.  Echo Bluff has a lengthy, sordid history that you’ll be unraveling.  Crucial moments of its history are scratched into the walls by former inhabitants.  You’ll get to walk through and experience many of those on Cassie’s search for answers.

Perception house

Do you believe games can evoke the same kind of fear as horror movies? How would you like to see the horror film and horror gaming communities compliment each other in the future?

Absolutely.  I think both mediums have their own strengths.  The key is to play to those strengths and not try to recreate another medium’s success in the genre verbatim.  Horror movies don’t dabble in odd bits of interactivity.  Film directors know their boundaries and play to their strengths.  Likewise with games.  Horror games are obviously interactive, so it’s important to play to that strength. It’s one of the reasons why I get heartburn when I see some horror games rely so much on cutscenes for their scares.  Film has a level of control and fidelity that games don’t have.  But games have the power to transport players to different worlds and let them explore at their own whim.  It’s only by tapping into this that games can really take full advantage of the medium

To find out more, or back the project, head over to Kickstarter or Deep End Games official website.