Creative Director and Founder of The Deep End Games, Bill Gardner, took the time to chat with us about their Narrative Horror Adventure game, Perception which is currently in need of funding through Kickstarter.
Before forming The Deep End Games, Bill Gardner worked on many great games as a level designer with titles such as Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite to note.
PA2J: First off I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
Bill Gardner: My pleasure and I’m grateful to you as well.
We are very big fans of the Bioshock series, so it is quite an honour.
BG: Nice! Thank you. It was so much fun working on those games. I learned a ton and am super proud of what we were able to build.
When did you first decide you wanted to break away from working for studios, to forming your own?
BG: Good question, after my time at IG, I spent a bit catching up on things. Spent a lot of time with family, helped a few other developers out with some projects, Finished up my Master’s degree in Human Factors in Information Design. I had always said to myself that I wanted to clear my head and be very selective on what I tackled next. I had some unbelievably tempting offers to work on some phenomenal franchises with amazing teams but I didn’t feel ready. Then, one night in class, one of my professors sort of threw out this mini-challenge to us, he said (paraphrase) “you’re all going to leave class tonight, and by the time you get to your car’s, you’re going to think of a brilliant idea.”
I love this sort of challenge, so I took it to heart and sure enough, I got to my car and boom… the seeds for Perception were there. To me, it became a question of how to make it happen.
That’s quite a way to come up with an idea for a game.
BG: It seemed like the most obvious and best path to making it happen. I immediately shifted all my attention to starting up The Deep End Games, it was interesting, for sure. I love that sort of thing. I usually hate the kind of design where you have zero constraints. If the task had been “this semester, you’re all going to think of something brilliant” I probably wouldn’t have succeeded.
I took a look through the Deep End Games team, it’s quite an impressive list.
BG: Thanks! I’ve been really fortunate to meet the kind of talent I have over the years. These are folks that I have a very strong rapport with. Folks I’ve worked with for years and years.
I noticed Ben Johnson, I’m a massive Dead Space fan
BG: Right? I love the series after playing Dead Space, I remember loving Ben’s level. I actually did a bit of searching to figure out who was in charge of that level and found Ben. I always thought “some day I’d love to work with this dude.” Sure enough, I was able to make that happen and he is awesome. Ben just gets game design on so many levels. He’s been a tremendous person to kick ideas around with.
For gamers out there that don’t have any experience or knowledge of the kind of work that goes into making a game, can you explain a little about the transformation from idea to the game itself?
BG: For me, it’s different every time. Lots of devs may have a set process but I can never seem to either a) remember exactly how I went from idea to game in enough detail or b) find “process” to be a bit of a hideous term but once the initial concept is there, I tend to start by writing down as many questions about the game. They range from high to low level, the obvious who, what, when, where, why’s
I don’t get too hung up on answering everything right away, but as I start to know the questions, I start to try and imagine a few moment-to-moment experiences I’ll do a bullet point list of what that might feel like.The major beats along with the emotions I want to evoke and some of the mechanics involved. Based on that, I’ve always pitched Amanda, the game’s writer and producer and gotten feedback. Pitching it helps me wrap my head around what’s exciting along with what’s not so exciting.
Plus, I’m partly an oral processor so it helps me wrap my head around what I want to build. As I discover what’s great, I refine the pitch, and expand it to other trusted devs and start looking for reference pieces and try to quickly pull together crude prototypes. From there, it becomes a rapid series of iterations. Sometimes, huge changes are needed while other times, things snowball into much more exciting ideas
It’s a complicated web and again, it changes a lot. You spend years working on a game and frankly, you often forget what it was like to be standing at the bottom of this absurdly tall mountain you have to climb.
So being blind, Cassie does have the ability to see in some form and that comes through sound?
BG: Correct. Cassie uses echolocation. A technique that many blind people use in real life, in fact, Daniel Kish (aka “Batman”) teaches people to use echolocation. He is completely blind and mountain bikes. When we discovered his foundation “World Access for the Blind,” we were amazed. So much so that we decided to donate a portion of the game’s profits (once released) to his foundation. Seemed like the right thing to do.
That’s a really generous thing to do. So can you tell me a little about the story for Perception, I’m curious to know more about Cassie?
BG: Cassie is a sculptor from Phoenix. For months, she’s been haunted by these visions and these nightmares of this house. She knows in her heart that the place is real and that she needs to find it to find answers. She spends months researching the place.
She eventually discovers the house and being impulsive, jumps on the first flight across the country to Boston. She learns that the place has been abandoned for years and decides to poke around to see what she can find. She arrives right before this once-in-a-century type blizzard.
Perception is set in a fictional mansion in Gloucester, Massachusetts?
BG: It is definitely inspired by a lot of my experiences growing up. A friend of mine is from Gloucester. One summer, he invited me to a huge party in this mansion that his distant family owned. It sits vacant for all but about 2 weeks a year and we got to spend the night exploring the house. Lots of hidden rooms, an entire secret basement that could only be accessed if you found the hidden door in the ocean cliffs. Crazy stuff.
BG: It was, the place stuck with me. Lots of similar inspiration on the North Shore of the Boston area. There’s a lot of horror that comes from this area. There’s a reason for that.
New England is known for being one of the most haunted parts of America.
BG: It’s true. Something in the air up here. From Poe to Lovecraft, to King.
Can you tell me a little about Perception’s core mechanics, what kind of things can you do?
BG: Much of the experience is this intense, life or death game of hide and seek with The Presence. It’s hunting you down in the estate. As you explore, you need to create noise to be able to “see” So there’s a tremendous risk in that. It’s a bit like The Hunt for Red October.Thankfully, you can create distractions by throwing items like, say, a candlestick. But you can also use the house’s sounds to help you along the way.The house will make a lot of groans and creaks as old houses do. But there are also some elements you can cleverly use to draw The Presence’s attention.
I’m picturing a lot of creaky floorboards
BG: Exactly. For example, clocks can be set to go off and create a bunch of noise. The soundscape is incredibly rich.
Is Cassie fully free to explore the mansion without restriction?
BG: Yes, you can explore freely. However, the house doesn’t necessarily want you poking your nose in every nook and cranny. There will obviously be obstacles to overcome. And as you explore more of the estate, you piece together what went on in the mansion and eventually will essentially exorcise The Presence from that time period and you’ll be thrown further back in time.
What was it like to create the game with Cassie’s lack of vision in mind?
BG: It was a delicate balancing act. Games are obviously an intensely visual medium so we wanted to make sure that we found the right spot on the believable vs cool aesthetic spectrum. Obviously, this is not meant to be a simulation. Rather we’re interested in capturing the feeling of what it might be like to explore echo bluff using echolocation. To pull it off, it was a series of prototype, feedback and iteration.
It does look amazing, for example when Cassie is outside the Mansion, the subtle colouring and the wind blowing, it’s quite impressive. It makes the game stand out for me.
BG: The folks at FX Ville have been fabulous collaborators. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to create this far.
So can we expect certain doors to be locked?
BG: Sure, some doors will be locked. But other paths will be blocked in much more exotic ways. Discover the mansion’s secrets to work your way back through its history. The house changes over the years. You’ll see architecture change, along with the characters and décor.
Can you talk a little about the Presence, what can players expect when encountering it?
BG: They can expect to be freaked the hell out! haha. You’ll need to pay extra close attention while exploring. It’s going to wander the halls searching for you. Sometimes you’ll hear it muttering to itself in one of its many voices. Other times, you’ll simply hear its swarm of moths fluttering about. When you hear it, you’ll need to find a place to hide. You’ll have no weapons and even if you did, they wouldn’t do you much good.
So listen carefully, proceed with caution, and use your environment to your advantage. That includes keeping tabs on places to hide if you hear it approaching.
Ok, so it’s not necessarily a case of the Presence lying in wait for you, but actually stalking Cassie throughout the mansion?
BG: It’s very actively stalking you. Sometimes it may get tricky and wait for you, but for the most part, it really, really wants to find you and doesn’t want to wait.
Are there any other ghosts to look out for other than the Presence in Perception?
BG: There are many inhabitants of the estate that you’ll run into, Some in the form of ghost living out their key moments in the house’s history and then there are the Poppets, which we’ll be getting into soon…
Are all the spirits within the mansion malevolent?
BG: The ghosts can be unpredictable but The Presence is definitely your main threat. The spirits are busy reliving their torment but they are also confused so they might lash out on occasion.
You’ve been working with Angela Morris who plays Cassie, was she a lot of fun to work with?
BG: Angela is super talented. She’s also been a ton of fun to work with. She really just gets Cassie but also games in general. If you check out her twitter account, you’ll see she’s a certified nerd just like me. From her audition, she just clicked. She nailed everything we wanted in her character. It didn’t feel like we had found an actress playing Cassie, it felt like we’d found Cassie. When you have an actor who is delivering lines as you’d imagined them when you were writing them, it saves a tremendous amount of time.
When you receive your auditions, there’s always some apprehension when you get to the actual studio. How many takes were those cuts based on? Sure enough, we got in the studio and Angela hit the ground sprinting. We were even able to do a lot of additions in the booth. It was a fantastic experience. Amanda beamed for days.
How do you feel the Kickstarter experience is coming along, you’re quite close to your target now.
BG: We’ve made a lot of great progress so far. I’m confident in how we’ll do but I’m getting really itchy to see us hit some of our stretch goals. GTFO mode would be amazing.
Personally, I would love to see Perception get VR Support
BG: Oh man, yes. I am stoked about VR. Perception would be the perfect fit. Fingers crossed.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Perception
BG: Only that we’re incredibly thankful for all the support we’ve had with Perception so far. We hope that our fans will continue to help us blow past our goal so we can start smashing some of our stretch goals. The game is trying to do a lot of things differently. We hope to be given the chance to take what we’ve learned over the years and blow your minds once again.
A massive thank you to Bill Gardner for taking the time to chat with me. Head over to Perceptions Kickstarter to support the game.