There’s been an uncannily large influx of games about death released recently. Could it be due to the rise of the death positivity movement? An increasingly frank openness of conversation on topics such as these? Regardless, they’re there, and are especially evident in 2020 indie darlings like Hades and Spiritfarer.
Yet unlike these, GoodbyeWorld Games’ fresh new study on life and the end of it, Before Your Eyes, employs the innovative mechanic of eye blinking to determine how the player progresses, all through webcam technology. In so doing, it meditates on the future of death games, yes – but also on the future of gaming itself.
Before Your Eyes begins as you awaken in a boat with a strange, husky-voiced anthropomorphic wolf asking you questions. It quickly becomes clear that he’s a sort of ferryman escorting you to the afterlife: all he wants to know is who you are, through your own eyes. So he takes you, a boy called Benny, on a journey right from the beginning, informing you that when a ticking metronome appears all you have to do is blink to move on to the next memory, which could occur minutes, hours, weeks, months or even years later. This all sounds simple enough – until you realise that blinking isn’t totally voluntary.
In most people’s definitions, one key – maybe the key – facet of a video game is that it’s interactive. The player, to varying extents, controls what’s happening. So for almost all gameplay (the player also has control of the mouse for mainly visual purposes) to hinge on an action we don’t have absolute power over complicates matters to say the least. All we can do is try to prolong the inevitable, and strain to play every note; see every picture; catch every off-screen whisper. Every moment of Benny’s life is fleeting, and all the more precious for it.
Benny leads a charmed life, we’re led to believe. An only child brought up by pushy but loving parents, he’s a little lonely at school, but soon finds solace in his neighbour Chloe. In a similar vein to the slew of ‘choice-driven narratives’ the wider industry has adopted, later on we can choose exactly how Benny perceives his loved ones, among other decisions – but given the nature of the gameplay here, it’s fascinating to watch the ‘You decide the outcome!’ angle that’s saturated other games for years clash head-on with this distinct lack of control we’re allowed in-game.
Narratively speaking, Before Your Eyes also seems to engage with the ongoing discourse on productivity, which seems especially to ring true in the throes of a pandemic. When the fun in our lives has been snatched from us and the only thing a lot of us are still allowed to do is work, it’s easy to conflate what we do with our intrinsic self-worth. Without going too much into spoilers, Benny retrospectively makes this all-too-common mistake, and while his story is devastating, it still inspires a certain relatability because of this. However long he lives, or however much he does, he would do well to remember he’s everything he needs to be, just as he is.
Not that the technical aspects of the game can wholly live by this sentiment – the webcam tool needs frequent recalibration to run well, and though the game makes this easy to set up, it can deprive those virtual moments of the ambience needed to fully step into them. There also seems to be a problem with foreground figures repeatedly jumping in and out of focus, especially on The Ferryman’s boat. The developers, however, have been rather communicative and speedy so far in solving issues such as these, so they’re no doubt already on the way to being rectified, if not fixed already.
It would be easy for the developers to construct a serviceable gimmick to make a point and just leave it there. But it’s not. There’s a clear sense – despite the at times grating voice acting and general melodrama – that the designers have grappled with what it really means when we lower our eyelids, even for a second: are we dead? Are we asleep? Are we just resting our eyes? For however long, we’re absent, and absence means we can’t be there for everything. But that’s okay.
Tested on PC
Also available on N/A
Developer GoodbyeWorld Games
Publisher Skybound Games
Disclosure a copy of Before Your Eyes was provided by Heaven Media