Screen shot courtesy of GoodbyeWorld Games
It's rare a game moves me to cry, but the moment children are involved, all bets are off. The nearest sentimental TV commercial about a tissue box set to sappy orchestral music can and will destroy me, but for whatever reason, holding a controller puts a strange distance between me and a story. This was not the case, however, in Before Your Eyes, a new game whose big hook is that scenes end and the story moves forward when the player blinks their eyes. A real blink, too, because here, your eyes are being watched by the same webcam you're been using for Zoom meetings this past year.
So as globs of tears roll down my face, my body's response to this unexpected situation is that, ironically, my eyes simply cannot stop blinking. It's a mess, but a mess the game has clearly prepared for; the scene in question knows you're going to blink and cry and has prepared accordingly. It's hard to explain how this works without spoiling it all, but trust, the result is an unforgettable mashup of technology and storytelling. It was a beautiful moment, one that elevated Before Your Eyes from neat experiment into a uniquely special experience.I adore games with gimmicks, and it's a term I use with affection. It's exciting to see potential new ways of telling stories, and helps explain my early enthusiasm for motion controls on the Wii or early experiments with virtual reality. In these and other scenarios, the gimmick in question could, in theory, be removed and the game would be playable—but would it be lesser? Is the experience not just shaped but defined by the new form of interactivity? It should be noted it's possible to play where the blinks are replaced with mouse clicks. When you select this option in the game, it notes you'll "miss out on some of what makes the game special" but "is still a completely viable way to experience the game." I'd echo that. Before Your Eyes is a short story—no more than two hours—about the life of a family and the relationship between a mother, father, and a child. But everything starts off in a weirder place. Your soul has been plucked from obscurity by a strange boat captain, who claims that if he brings someone with an interesting life to a mysterious entity, he'll be rewarded. Your life, he hopes, is interesting, but to find out, you need to show him what your life was like.
You've probably surmised, then, the game's title riffs on the phrase "life flashing before your eyes," because Before Your Eyes is about experiencing snippets of life from the perspective of this family's child, from birth to...well, whatever situation you seem to be stuck in now. And the game is serious about the snippet part, because scenes rarely last more than a minute, and come and go—often right in the middle of dialogue—literally in the blink of (your) eye.When a scene opens, you can blink freely, and there are, occasionally, objects you can interact with that're triggered by actively blinking at them. Maybe it'll reveal a new line of dialogue, or part of the scene that was otherwise covered in darkness. But the moment a metronome appears at the bottom of the screen, slowly ticking and tocking back and forth, the next blink will immediately prompt a snap transition to the next scene. At times, it's possible to sense a scene is coming to a conclusion and the metronome is approaching, but usually it quietly fades in, taking the player by surprise when they accidently let a blink slip.Next!Which is all to say that when that frickin' metronome appears, your eyes widen, and you become painfully aware how easy it is to blink when not actively resisting. How badly do you want to hear what your mom is saying? Is it important enough to pry your eyes open with your fingers? I never actually resorted to forcing my eyelids open, but early on, I was definitely avoiding blinking to keep a scene going and it was detracting from my enjoyment.
My advice: blink freely and often. You'll be fine.Yet, by design, it's meant to provoke a stressed response, though it's quickly clear scenes have been written knowing players are going to blink through them. You cannot not miss any story-necessary dialogue, because the game doesn't introduce the ability to blink forward until it's delivered the lines it absolutely needs to. (An IGN interview, however, notes an early version of Before Your Eyes actually did move scenes forward as soon as players blinked.)When I first saw a trailer for Before Your Eyes, I was already convinced this game was gonna gut me on an emotional level. The trailer had all the hallmarks of Making Patrick Feel Things: parents, children, funerals, searing violins, weird talking animals piloting a boat in the afterlife. But an hour into Before Your Eyes, I'd had trouble connecting with it. Perhaps my inability to emotionally connect with a video game was rearing its head again? Maybe Before Your Eyes was just an interesting execution of a novel idea? There are worse fates.I'd begun to suspect, too, the blinking mechanic that'd drawn my intellectual curiosity was, in reality, holding it back. Being so aware of what your eyes are doing and trying to control their movements second-to-second may have created a barrier between me and the storytelling.And then the last act of the game happened, which recasts everything I'd witnessed in the hour before in such a completely different light that, at times, I felt the air go out of my chest.It's the kind of sad that I feel compelled to warn parents about, but also, it did not feel exploitative or melodramatic. The core of Before Your Eyes is about acceptance, it just so happens this journey to acceptance is one that has some profound sadness along the way. You'll also blink a lot, and likely for the first time in a long time, you'll care.Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is email@example.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).