In the last part we met Bill Gardner, former design director at Irrational Games and now founder and creative director at his own studio. Based in Boston, The Deep End Games’ first project, Perception, is a chilling first-person horror that’s inspired by some of the best in the business, relying on subtle details and chilling environments rather than cheap scares to send a shiver down your spine.
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CALL MY BLUFF[divider type=”thin”]
The Deep End Games are trying to do something a bit different – and sometimes that’s hard to sum up.
“It’s funny, because a lot of the time you have so many pitches for selling all the things that you’re excited about, that it comes out as this big smorgasbord,” Gardner says. “But here it goes: Perception is a narrative-horror-adventure game, where you’re playing as a blind woman that uses echolocation, engaging in a deadly game of hide-and-seek with this horrifying presence that’s hunting you down as you try and solve the mystery of the estate.
“There’s a lot of run-on sentences there, but that’s it in a nutshell,” he jokes.
Perception follows Cassie, a young woman intent solving the mystery of the enigmatic Echo Bluff estate. Cassie feels drawn to this supernatural mansion, and players experience her story as they uncover the secrets of the old house.
“It’s a story of her in the estate at Echo Bluff,” says Gardner. “A site with a sordid history and all this tragedy, all this mystery. What you’re going to be doing is peeling away the layers of the onion, trying to find out what’s going on here.
“Cassie’s being called to this place, and as she’s looking for answers. You as the player will be helping her seek those answers out. There’s many different stories as you’re making your way back-and-forth through the history of the house, but it’s up to Cassie to figure out why she’s having these dreams. It’s definitely her story.”
An intrinsic part of Cassie’s character is her visual impairment and its effect on gameplay. However, The Deep End Games are wary of reducing something that affects the lives of millions of people to a game mechanic.
“It’s something that we’re very cautious about, because I do want to be sensitive,” Gardner explains. “But I do want to be very clear at the same time, that this is a game, and we’re going to air on the side of telling the story that we want to tell, and making it a good experience.
“Early on, we actually gave away quite a bit less information when you were using echolocation, and there was a lot of frustration there for people saying, ‘I love the idea, but I’m frustrated with it and I don’t think I’d keep playing’. It’s always a balancing act. You want to find what’s best for the game, but also be sensitive to the issues.”
“I hope that with this game I’m able to create a level of awareness of what it’s like to be blind, or to have low vision,” he goes on to say. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching it; I actually spent the last semester of my Master’s degree researching accessibility and blindness specifically. I was lucky enough just last week to have dinner with Daniel Kish, who heads World Access for the Blind, which is an organisation that teaches blind people to use echolocation. He uses echolocation himself, he mountain bikes, and I was able to walk around Boston with him and he does amazing things. He makes a clicking sound, and based on that his brain interprets the audio, activating his visual cortex, and it’s sort of like he’s receiving images.
“What does that look like? I have no idea. I can ask him, do a ton of research, but ultimately you’re going to have to take a stance aesthetically and represent what that might feel like. It’s a very tricky balancing act, because it’s important to try and get as close to reality as possible.”
DEADLY PRESENCE[divider type=”thin”]
Players use Cassie’s echolocation ability to build up an ethereal picture of the Echo Bluff mansion, as she moves room-to-room collecting clues. However, she doesn’t have this historic site all to herself. A deadly Presence stalks its creaking halls.
“You’re primarily exploring,” says Gardner. “Hunger is a big part of this game, you’re always hungry for more information, hungry for a spot to run and hide, hungry for a way out. I think that’s good at creating a lot of tension. You explore and investigate by picking up letters that you find in the world – and read those to get a little bit of context. It’s about trying to find way to access different parts of the estate. But then that’s weighed against a sort of Hunt for Red October vibe, you’re using sonar, but there’s another submarine out there hunting you down. So your core loop a lot of the time is moving around the space very carefully, listening, and when you hear that flutter, that sound of a moth, or a whistle, or the Presence muttering to itself, you stop what you’re doing and focus your hearing on where it’s coming from, and either turn tail and run or keep doing your best to dig away in the mansion without being discovered.”
“I think hide-and-seek is a good way of putting it,” he adds. “You’re playing this game of manhunt with the Presence.”
The Presence is a supernatural being that haunts Echo Bluff, bound to the estate’s terrible past. Ambiguous by design, the Presence is Perception’s main antagonist and was inspired by some of the best monsters on page and screen.
“Horror’s something that I’m a huge fan of, always have been,” Gardner explains. “I think a lot of my favourite icons from horror have pieces like, ‘oh, they’re unstoppable,’ or, ‘oh, they’re relentless’. But I think what separates the really effective horror villains apart is mystery, when you don’t understand something’s backstory from the beginning you’re really hungry to know what makes it tick. Information is the enemy of horror. You look at someone like Hannibal Lecter and think about how it’s not clear right off the bat what he wants. He plays with his victims. He’s a sociopath and a psychopath, but you don’t know exactly what he’s going to do, all that you know is it’ll be horrible.
“I was never that much of a fan of Jason, because you knew he was just going to come at you and slash you. That’s not as interesting. I like the idea of not knowing exactly how Hannibal Lecter’s going to deal with you. With the Presence, I think that you’ll get the sense that it has all of these different perspectives, all of these different tortured souls wrapped up in it, and as you hear it muttering to itself roaming around the halls, painting this weird picture in your head about what it wants. I love that ambiguity.”
As well as the Presence, Echo Bluff is home to other ghosts and ghouls – but at this point, more detail would only spoil the surprise.
“Everything’s heavily focussed on the Presence, but we’ve shown some shots of the Poppets,” says Gardner. “We haven’t gone into too much detail about the other enemies that we’ll create and introduce into the game; not that there’s going to be a lot. They’re all about putting twists and additional wrinkles into your encounters with the Presence. The Poppets are about keeping you on your toes and adding that additional layer as you’re looking out for the Presence .They’re there to trip you up and force you to make mistakes.
“There’s this one character that has this weird doll fetish, obsessed with automation and automatons. He’s created these Poppets that we’ll talk about more down the line.”
Perception is divided into chapters that progress as you piece together the puzzle that is Echo Bluff. The mansion changes as the story moves forward, sending Cassie back in time to explore the house as it used to be.
“When you get far enough in the mystery you’ll gain enough insight to enable to exorcise the Presence of that time period, and you’ll jump back in time,” Gardner explains. “You won’t see it change dynamically, you’ll essentially be teleported back to a different version of the house in the past; you’ll see Echo Bluff a few decades, or a few centuries ago, and you’ll be starting from scratch to solve the next mystery. You’ll see the décor change, the characters change, entire sections of the house come and go.
“I really love when games allow you to build a relationship with a space and then shed a different light on that. That’s what we’re hoping to do with the different time periods. You’ll be familiar with, ‘oh, I can’t go down there, it was damaged in a horrible fire’, and then you go back in time and you’re like, ‘I can go down here now’.”
When supernatural houses are involved, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King are always going to get a mention, but there’s more behind Perception, both from gaming and wider popular culture.
“I’m guilty of calling The Shining an influence, I think that it’s one of the best horror films in history – I’m a big fan of the book as well, I don’t want to completely write that off,” says Gardner. “The richness of that world, the Overlook Hotel. Maybe I’m just a weirdo, but I often find myself walking through the halls in my head and wondering what happened in every nook and cranny. You see some of that in the movie and the book, but I just feel like there’s so much more depth there. I’ve always wanted more.
“That’s effective storytelling, leaving people wanting more. I think that it’s a lived-in, believable space lends itself very nicely to a game. Too often in games we build spaces that’re throw-away. It’s like, ‘I’m in a military instillation, or sci-fi thingy’, but who cares? I’m just going to blast through and shoot everyone in sight and be done with it. I think that’s a huge missed opportunity.”
Gardner continues: “Every game has its own drives, motivations and goals, and not every space in a game has to be meaningful. I just want to make it so that they are. That in my games, you come into whatever the space is, if it’s a bathroom, a bedroom, a basement, a hallway, there’s a story to tell there. That’s part of my DNA now thanks to Ken [Levine] and Irrational.
“Thematically, Super Metroid was always a big touchstone for me. I think if you look at some of my levels in Bioshock, a lot of those themes of isolation and the way that game was able to, despite being 20 years old, you really slow things down and create more atmosphere than most games today with very few pieces – music, graphics and very tight controls.”
“Fatal Frame is also a big influence,” he goes on to say. “I’m a fan of that series because again, they were able to really slow things down and as much as I love Silent Hill 2, I feel like the environments were kind of there just to be there, I don’t feel like they leveraged the kind of mise en scene that I’m talking about. In Fatal Frame they slowed it down enough that you really appreciated each time you hid in a closet.”
OBSCURING INFOMATION[divider type=”thin”]
The Deep End describe Perception as a narrative game with a heavy emphasis on story. But this doesn’t mean that they’re skimping on interactivity. The Deep End are building Perception to be an involving experience – games don’t always have to be about hitting things with a wrench.
“I’m a big fan of puzzles but it’s rare that I find ones that work,” explains Gardner. “Valve does puzzles the best because they’re organic and grounded in reality, the solution’s always right in front of you. But I feel that more often than not in other games they kind of miss the mark; I can’t think of too many in horror games that worked well.
“Most of the time they’re just weird, pulling a player out to go and check GameFAQs saying, ‘unless I know how to play the piano, or know which verse of the Bible they’re talking about, I’m never getting that’.
“In Perception you’re going and picking up the different pieces of story, you’re using echolocation on demand, so that’s interactive, and then there’s all the hiding spots. Cassie has a bunch of apps on her phone, she can dig into her voicemail and text messages to get little bits of her own backstory.”
Gardner and The Deep End are also looking to incorporate unique and interesting mechanics that make sense for the protagonist, blending the fantastical world of Echo Bluff with concepts more grounded in reality.
“Because Cassie’s blind, and echolocation isn’t always going to give her all the information that she needs from the world,” Gardner says. “There’s an app on her phone that lets her take a picture and reach out to someone fictionally in that world and say, ‘hey, what am I looking at’. That’s something that we were exploring for a mechanic, and we went out and found this app called Be My Eyes, which lets blind people connect with sighted people anywhere in the world. I was interviewing one blind man and he described how he was at a vending machine that didn’t have braille, so he took a picture and was able to connect through a video chat with someone in Australia. That seemed liked a really compelling potential mechanic.”
However, when you strip everything else away, horror is at the core of Perception, and The Deep End are committed to making it really effective.
“A big thing is obscuring information,” says Gardner. “There are a number of different ways that you can do that. You can make things dark, or so you can’t see. I was interested when I worked with Eric Brosius, who was the sound designer on System Shock 2. He always said that you want to make it so a lot of the sources of your audio are unclear or ambiguous. I think when you can just kind of tune into those things, or they tap into your subconscious that helps quite a bit.
“Sound is such a critical part of this title, so we’re doing a lot to push that.”
He continues: “The richness of the space means that we can hand-pick the creepiest bits of information to share and not give it all away in one big chunk. Ken and his writing team at Irrational were obviously masters of that, so I’ve learnt a lot about how to withhold the right amount of information without frustrating. If you’re not careful there, people can tune out and not care.
“I think that horror games are particularly difficult for people to wrap their heads around, because you really have to sit down with a headset and play it and immerse yourself in the world and understand the stakes. To achieve that mood and tension, these things take time, it’s like coming into a joke on the punchline; that does nobody any good, right? Particularly with this title, there’s so much wrapped up in the narrative, I think that there’s a bit of a leap of faith here. People need to look at the gameplay we’ve released so far and know that there’s a lot more here. There’re pieces of this story that’re very important to me, that’re very rooted in the history and a lot of the interest of this part of the world.
“I’ve learnt a lot from my days developing at Irrational and I hope to be able to show people more of Perception, because I think they’re really going to like it.”
Perception is being developed primarily for PC. However, although the stretch goal wasn’t met on their Kickstarter, The Deep End are still keen to take Perception to console.
“Good gosh, yes,” Gardner says. “We’re going to aggressively pursue them. I’m not going to commit to anything unless I believe we can knock it out of the park, but I’d love to see this on PS4 and Xbox One.”
“I love the platforms and I think Perception would be a great fit,” he adds. “I’ve had a number of conversations about how to make it happen.”
The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More
After a protracted development period, fixed-time thriller The Occupation is set to release in one month’s time. Between its retro aesthetic and immersive sim-inspired gameplay, the game is shaping up as one of 2019’s most unique titles.
In light of that, OnlySP recently spoke to Pete Bottomley, designer of The Occupation and co-founder of developer White Paper Games to find out more about the promising project.
OnlySP: I thought I’d start off with a fairly obvious question. Given the real-time nature of The Occupation, how long can players expect a single run through to last, and by how much can that time be shortened or prolonged by the player’s actions?
Bottomley: The core gameplay is designed around 4 hours of play. There are some sections that are untimed, whether it be for narrative impact or tutorialisation for the player. As we’re playing through the game as a team, it’s taking us around 6.5 hours to play through the game.
OnlySP: How many endings does the game have?
Bottomley: The game’s outcome is a reflection of the steps the player took through the game. I think when playing games, you always want the outcomes to reflect your approach and we’re massively inspired by how games such as Dishonored can tackle that. Our hope is that the ending you experience feels like it reflects their approach and actions.
OnlySP: Tied to that, approximately how many playthroughs would be required to see everything that the game has to offer?
Bottomley: Our intention wasn’t to design a game that required multiple playthroughs. I’m personally the type of player that plays through a narrative, gets an outcome, and that’s my story. That being said, we’ve tried to fill the world with a lot of content, and because of the real-time character simulating actions, hopefully with second and third playthroughs, players will uncover different ways to solve challenges or narrative threads they hadn’t picked up on before.
OnlySP: How did you come to settle on the politicised premise of an Act robbing citizens of civil liberties?
Bottomley: Since we invest so much of our lives into making games, you have to work on something you feel is meaningful and rewarding of your time. At the time of concepting The Occupation, there was a lot of friction between what was happening in the UK and abroad. It affects us all and we wanted to work on something that may put people’s views into perspective.
Our previous game Ether One dealt with the difficulties of seeing a family member suffering with dementia and our aim is to continue these important themes throughout all of our games.
OnlySP: Also, issues surrounding privacy and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties, are pertinent right now. How close to your mind were the modern concerns about the topic while you were concepting the game? And have real-world events impacted the story of The Occupation across the development period?
Bottomley: The world around us always inspires us, but we don’t really rely on specific events to drive any part of the game’s narrative. When you’re developing a game that tries to get its own narrative across but ground it in the real world, you have to try to distil them to focus on the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, real world stories inspire us but it’s more of an observational thing rather than a particular event we want to depict faithfully. We tend to focus on the emotional and societal impact of the event itself.
OnlySP: How present will those sorts of themes be within the average player’s experience? Or should players expect to be able to lose themselves entirely in the investigation without really leaning on the context?
Bottomley: We aim to put context on all of your actions in the world otherwise there’s not much meaning behind the choices being made. That being said, you can choose to follow certain narrative threads over others, which allows the player to follow the most interesting lead they come across.
OnlySP: Players take the role of a journalist in the game; how accurate would you say your portrayal is of the technologies and general aesthetic of late ‘80s Britain? How much research went into getting the language and atmosphere of the era right?
Bottomley: It’s interesting you raise that point as we’ve just been speaking about the world limitations in this game. In our previous game, Ether One, we aimed to deliver a grounded narrative that had certain sci-fi elements. With The Occupation, we wanted to go even more grounded and aim to deliver a world that belongs in the ’80s so any aesthetic and technological choices were always taken into consideration. Surrounding yourself with these limitations can create really cool gameplay mechanics such as our pager as a message delivery system, public payphones to update your objectives, and fax machines to deliver information.
OnlySP: The game has been delayed twice now, both times quite close to the scheduled release. Is there any chance you could shed some light on the causes of the delays?
Bottomley: Delaying a game is a gut wrenching decision. You’ve put a promise out there and you push yourself to deliver. We’ve aimed incredibly high on this game both technologically and in the game’s design. On top of this, we wanted to deliver the game in as many languages as we could along with sim-shipping on PC, XB1, & PS4 and doing a retail disc submission so that people could pick up the game in stores if they wanted to hold a physical representation of the game. Because of these platforms, the game has to be ready a couple of months in advance to help distribution and all the different regions to have the version of the game you intend for them. With complexity always come more bugs and since our last game shipped in a buggy state, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. We’ve QA’d the game for months and had support from our publishers in helping to identify the issues. As with any game, we’ll no doubt spot some issues on launch, but we’ve already put processes in place to address these as quickly as we can and hopefully the execution of the game will immerse people and keep players engaged so that nothing disrupts the experience.
OnlySP: I recall on Twitter that you once wrote that you were testing the possibility of a Switch port. How seriously have you looked at that possibility and what’s the likelihood?
Bottomley: Right now we have a Switch development kit frustratingly gathering dust in our studio. Since we’re a small team, it can be a tough choice trying to figure out where to best use your resources. We’d absolutely love to get the game onto Switch but we’ve not tested a build yet. It’s the first thing we’ll be moving onto in March so we should be able to update people as soon as we know how The Occupation runs on it. Thankfully using Unreal Engine makes this process a lot more straightforward and we’ve seen a lot of developer friends find success on the Switch so it’s a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.
OnlySP: How does it feel for you and the team to be just about ready to wrap development after four years of work?
Bottomley: It’s not quite set in yet. Although we’re done with the game and excited to see the reception it gets from people, it’s really only 50% of the work, especially when you’re in a small team. We’re currently planning all the marketing and PR opportunities along with reflecting on the development cycle and figuring out what we can do better (to hopefully not spend another 4 years on a game!).
OnlySP: Finally, do you have any closing comments for our readers or anything else you’d like to say about The Occupation?
Bottomley: The whole team has put an incredible amount of energy into The Occupation. If you look at our previous game compared to The Occupation, you can see how far we’ve come. It’s been a huge learning curve for the studio both technically and in production and we’re excited to move onto another game to push ourselves. We’re unable to do that without game sales. It sounds corny, but we really can’t develop games without our community’s support. We value each purchase and we want to grow and keep pushing to create more interesting games. We have a lot of goals and drive and we’re focusing on growing and creating more experiences for the player. If you’re reading this and have purchased any of our games, thank you. It absolutely means the world to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited to develop games. Thank you.
The Occupation is set to release on March 5, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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