Bill Gardner spent 12 years at Irrational Games, and his work at the studio included leading the design on some of BioShock's most striking locations: Welcome to Rapture, the Medical Pavilion and Fort Frolic. Now he's launching a Kickstarter campaign for a new project with a studio of his own: Perception, an adventure game that marries the horror and mystery sensibilities of the BioShock series with the first-person adventuring of Gone Home.
"I think if you look at the levels that I worked on, you get a sense for a little bit of my perspective of, like, I'm really passionate about horror — really passionate about trying to build up the tension and really slow things down," Gardner told Polygon in an interview last week.
Perception takes place in an appropriately creepy setting: a fictional abandoned mansion called the Estate at Echo Bluff. The grounds of the estate sit on a peninsula outside of Gloucester, Massachusetts, a city that's not far from where Gardner grew up. The game's protagonist, a 29-year-old woman named Cassie Thornton whom Gardner described as "fiercely independent," has been seeing visions of the house for months — which is odd for a number of reasons, but particularly since she lives in Phoenix.
Once Cassie figures out where the estate is located, she drops everything to fly across the country and check out the place. When she gets there, she finds a decrepit mansion that is haunted by a supernatural being. This creature, the Presence, is now stalking Cassie. She has no traditional weapons at her disposal, and even if she did, a shotgun would be useless against the Presence. Instead, she must use her wits alone to uncover the secrets of the Estate at Echo Bluff and make it out alive.
Cassie also happens to be blind, a fact that makes her nightmarish adventure all the more treacherous. She navigates the world using echolocation, with every sound illuminating the environment around her. This manifests in Perception as an otherworldly blue cast on her "vision," sort of like the way Daredevil sees in the 2003 film Daredevil.
"Every sound that you create is a risk," said Gardner. "You're going around, and the way you see is creating noise. But that also can attract the main baddie in the game, the Presence." Cassie can also perceive ambient noise, like the chime of a grandfather clock or water dripping from a leaky pipe, to fill in her view.
"Every sound that you create is a risk"
Cassie is aided in her quest by her smartphone, which she can use to scan the environment and look up information. Gardner described this feature as similar to the codec in Metal Gear Solid games, where her boyfriend, Serge, is communicating with her and helping her along. However, he's not a constant companion like, say, Atlas in BioShock — because of a snowstorm raging outside and because the house "fucks with you," explained Gardner, Cassie won't always have cellphone reception.
The Presence roams the halls of the house muttering some "insane, schizophrenic nonsense," and the minute it spots Cassie, there's nothing she can do except run and hide. She may not have weapons, but she can pick up and throw objects to create diversions, buying herself time to flee. The rest of the time, she's looking for clues to the history of the mansion. As she figures out what's been going on, she'll jump back in time to learn more about the estate as it was in, say, the 1940s.
"I think it's a really interesting way to build a relationship with the space and see how that changes," said Gardner. Throughout the various eras, Cassie will see different incarnations of the house, along with new mysteries and additional characters. In each generation, there is one constant: Cassie must root out some evil that plagues the estate.
Gardner told Polygon that he drew on New England's particular reputation for the spooky concept of Perception.
"I don't know what it is, but people from the area — and that's part of why, I suppose, Lovecraft and a lot of great horror takes place in New England — there's just something in the air in that part, in the North Shore of Massachusetts," said Gardner. He added that the architecture of the Estate at Echo Bluff was inspired by time spent "running around the neighborhood and — it sounds terrible, but — peeking in people's windows when you're 8 years old."
"there's just something in the air in that part, in the North Shore of Massachusetts"
That setting combines with Cassie's blindness to dictate much of the gameplay of Perception, and making the game's protagonist blind turned out to be a great decision for the small team at The Deep End Games. After all, if an environment will only ever be "seen" in a ghostly blue outline, the developers don't need to expend the effort to render the world in super-high detail.
"We can just focusing on crafting those feelings — that emotion I was talking about — rather than" worrying about graphics, Gardner explained.
Gardner is the creative director on Perception, and his wife, Amanda Gardner, is writing the story and serving as a producer. The Boston-based team at The Deep End numbers about a dozen people, many of whom are ex-Irrational developers, with credits including BioShock, BioShock Infinite and Dead Space. The studio has been working on Perception for about six months, with Gardner self-funding development during that time. Now the team is asking for $150,000 on Kickstarter to develop Perception for release in June 2016 on Linux, Mac and Windows PC.
Even considering the past month on Kickstarter, which has produced two massively successful campaigns in Playtonic's Yooka-Laylee and Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Gardner is aware that The Deep End's goal is a lofty one. Granted, it's much lower than the $550,000 that Day for Night Games — another ex-Irrational team — was seeking last fall; that studio failed to meet its goal and shelved the project, The Black Glove, earlier this month. But Gardner is hoping that Perception's novel premise will draw people in.
With the Perception campaign, said Gardner, The Deep End is "trying to present a case for 'why do I give a fuck'" to potential backers. That includes added value with stretch goals like one for "GTFO Mode," in which Cassie would have to escape from a procedurally generated house that is actively trying to stop her from leaving. Support for virtual reality headsets is also a possibility, since Gardner believes Perception "could be exceptional on VR."
Gardner and the developers at The Deep End have a long road ahead of them, regardless of how the Kickstarter campaign turns out. But Gardner knows a thing or two about that. Plucked from a Boston-area Electronics Boutique by none other than Ken Levine, Gardner started at Irrational in quality assurance in April 2002. A decade later, he served as the design director on BioShock Infinite.