Note: This will contain spoilers. I would recommend playing the game (with a webcam, if possible) then coming back here to read.
Throughout the years, video games have tried various gimmicks using peripherals. Whether it be plastic instruments for music games or fake bongos for Donkey Kong, developers and publishers have tried various ways to further bridge the gap between the player and the game. One of those peripherals involves the eyes, such as Tobii eye tracking or VR. In 2021, GoodbyeWorld Game’s Before Your Eyes released, offering an experience that connects with a webcam to track blinking.
Peripheral-based gaming isn’t the easiest to trust. Some peripheral-based games feel in-service to the accessory its designed around leading to a lesser experience, some peripherals are made for one game, some peripherals are too difficult or tedious to set up to be worth using multiple times, and some peripherals simply just aren’t needed. Xbox doesn’t support the Kinect anymore, VR still has a long way to go, and there are many plastic guitars and Nintendo accessories collecting dust around the world. The last time I remember playing a game that used an accessory was Binary Domain with voice commands, which I gave up on almost immediately. Before Your Eyes is different though. Rather than require some obscure piece of equipment or feel like some cheap experience trying to sell webcams, it instead crafts a narrative that fully utilizes the peripheral it’s designed around, which as a result ends up being an experience that is not only impactful but shows just how great the interactive medium can be to storytelling.
So, for those who can’t or decided not to play the game, you must be wondering what this game is about. It follows Benjamin Brynn, who recently died and was picked up by the Ferryman. While awaiting judgement, the Ferryman requires that he sees Brynn’s life so he can present a compelling case to a God that will determine Brynn’s judgement. From there, the game is a look back at Brynn’s life from birth to death.
For my first playthrough of the game, I used my laptop and its built-in webcam. I didn’t really know how the peripheral played into the experience other than the fact that blinking controlled the game rather than clicking or pressing a button. I was a bit skeptical going in because while it sounded neat, I didn’t know how it could be implemented in such a way that felt needed or effective. Thankfully, I was wrong.
The screenshots I have of this game are of my second playthrough when I didn’t use a webcam, and I think there is a notable difference between playing with and without a webcam.
For those who don’t know, how the game works is that there are two main forms of interaction around blinking. The first involves pointing the cursor with a mouse to a blinking icon which will interact with the game in some way. It could be opening up more of the environment, making a decision, or further playing out a scene. The second form of blinking happens when a metronome at the bottom of the screen shows up. When it shows up, it means that the next blink will move the game forward into the next scene.
While the first form of interaction is important in its own ways, it’s with the second form and the metronome where the magic is. The story is about a quick summary of Brynn’s life, and what better way to represent that than by having his life flash before your eyes? It takes the idiom “blink and you’ll miss it” and applies it to the story, and I think it shows a lot of confidence in the writing by writing around the fact that things can and almost should be missed. Conversations can be cut short, interactions can be missed, and scenes may not be seen. Rather than detest the fact that I can’t really witness everything, I actually appreciated it as I think it perfectly captures the feeling of fleeting memories. You want to spend time with Brynn’s parents or his neighbor, but you can only reminisce in the past for so long because life is over and it is time to move on.
As for the first form of interaction which involves blinking while pointing at eyeball icons, I think it also plays into the game’s narrative well. Interacting with these points and expanding the scene is similar to remembering more detail about that moment in time the longer you stew in it, which makes leaving the scene all the more fleeting. These moments can be giving further detail into an environment or spelling out a word using the stars, but I think they all the same intended effect of giving deeper meaning to the moment and showing why it’s important to Brynn. Some choices can also be made with the blinking, though I’ll get into that in a bit. The best form of this interaction is with listening in on conversations. There are a couple of spots in the game where the game will ask you to close your eyes to better listen in on a conversation, often times on the other side of a door. More than depict a greater concentration into a conversation so it can be better heard, these moments feel personal by both stripping away and using its blinking mechanic into conversations that are often somber, and I believe closing your eyes for these moments best reflects what someone would do if they were to listen in on these conversations. More than just move a scene forward, this game plays around with blinking in such a way that transforms it from being a gimmick to being a necessity for the story it’s telling.
Interactions like this add greater emotional context to the scene.
With a lot of peripherals like this, however, it isn’t perfect technically, and this is no exception. All of the technical complaints could be the result of factors on my part, but I ran into technical issues around the blinking throughout my time with the game. Sometimes, blinks weren’t properly tracked, which would take me out of the moment as I would stare into the webcam wide-eyed trying to exaggeratedly blink to move the game forward. Also, while the game is about not being able to see every moment of the game, that didn’t stop me from trying to not blink and see everything, resulting in my eyes drying out not far into the experience. None of these things surprised me going into the experience, but they were still limitations I experienced nonetheless.
When I finished my first playthrough of the game, I admittedly didn’t find it as gut-wrenching as everyone I heard talk about the game made it out to be. It was emotional for me for sure, but even with the added bonus of having the same first name as the protagonist, I didn’t find it as emotional as, say, the final ride in Red Dead Redemption 2. That doesn’t stop it from being an incredible ending though. The twist in the story that the first half of the game was just a fantasy dreamed up to live up to the expectations of a demanding mother and the end scene where blinking goes back and forth between the afterlife and a memory is nothing short of pure brilliance and hallmark story moments in video game storytelling.
And while I am no expert of pulling out intricate and subtle themes through narrative (something I should be better at), through this game I found acceptance. Acceptance of death, acceptance of who you are, acceptance of failure and struggle, acceptance of the fact that you may never live up to the expectations of your parents or from others. On a game level, there’s acceptance that you will miss dialogue and story moments, and that’s okay. Hell, maybe I found acceptance in the fact that just because I didn’t get as emotional as others with its ending doesn’t mean it’s any less of an emotional story for me and maybe it’s just a matter of expecting it versus it surprising me. I think the most evident moment of this acceptance is when the twist is revealed about the true fate of Brynn. Through the Ferryman, Brynn accepts that his life isn’t as grand as parents’ expectations, but it’s better to live a short truth than a long lie, and when he accepts that is when the Ferryman finds his words and tells the true tale of Benjamin Brynn: a tale of acceptance.
I’m sure this God has heard many incredible stories, but it still accepts Brynn because he accepted himself.
A few days after my first playthrough, I decided to go back through it again but without the blinking mechanic. Rather than blink to interact, you simply click to interact and move the scene forward. The biggest difference between the two playthroughs is that I could stay in a scene for as long as I’d like. Sounds great, but in reality I think it loses some of its magic. Blinking can be a voluntary action, but it’s also an involuntary one if you don’t blink for too long, and I think the involuntary nature of blinking plays well into the fleeting feeling of the story. You want to stay in each scene for as long as you like, but you can’t because you eventually have to blink just as you have to move on from the past. Without the blinking, however, you can just stay for as long as you’d like, and having that voluntary control over the story isn’t what this game is about.
The bright side to playing in this way is that it only strengthens the need for a webcam to truly experience this story. Like I said earlier, one place where peripheral games can fail is when the game is in-service to the peripheral (in this case, the webcam), but that isn’t the case here. Yes, the game can be experienced without one, but the experience is stronger because of a webcam, similar to how music games like Guitar Hero are more fun with plastic instrument controllers.
One can argue that this game is in-service to the webcam because it doesn’t have a strong gameplay presence and that technically most peripheral games are designed around their peripheral thereby making the game in-service to it, but I think there is a difference between designing around it and sacrificing the experience for it. Yes, this game is designed around the use of a webcam, but I don’t believe there are any sacrifices to the story for it. Instead, it utilizes the webcam in a way that not only beats playing the game without one, but also enhances the storytelling experience compared to other narrative-based games. As for the gameplay side of things, I think it’s no different than any other narrative game sacrificing its gameplay for the sake of storytelling, and I wouldn’t really blame the peripheral for that because I personally don’t really know what gameplay features could be added to a story like this. Sure, it can be further argued that development of the game was downgraded to a narrative-based game because of its technical limitations, but that’s just trying to guess intent by that point. Whatever the intent is, playing without the webcam shows that playing with it is a better experience, and I can see the interactions from an accessory like this further enhancing the immersion into the story of narrative-based games.
As I played through this game, I tried playing around with some of the story options. In my first playthrough, I could tell that the game offers different story options like a musical versus an artistic path or telling the neighbor you are best friends versus boyfriend-girlfriend, but I found choosing the other options in my second playthrough didn’t really make much of a difference. The twist in the second half ultimately bottlenecks everything down to one linear path, but even in the first half I could tell that the choices didn’t matter. Music is dropped for art no matter what, the neighbor doesn’t act any different to your choice of relationship, and the few characters and scenes that do change around are mostly built into the lie, which means they end up being rather pointless. I don’t want to rag on the choices here because they didn’t really affect me in any serious way, but I just don’t really see the point in them other than to experience something slightly different on a second playthrough, and I think excluding them would’ve been a little less distracting.
While the lack of the webcam did make for a lesser experience, I still found the ending to be just as incredible and emotional as the first time. I did find one moment, however, where I found not playing with the webcam was better. The last scene in bed when the red tentacle ball that represents Brynn’s terminal sickness finally engulfs him was one I accidentally blinked through right away on my first playthrough. On this playthrough, however, I watched the whole scene unfurl. I didn’t have the subtitles on, so I thought it was just the Dad speaking, but upon re-watching the scene with subtitles I realized it was both the Dad and the Ferryman speaking. Both are attempting to comfort in the face of death. The Dad is trying to comfort the Mom and the Ferryman is pleading with Benjamin to just let go in his final moments. It’s a scene worth watching through its entirety, and it’s the one moment in my second playthrough where I found it better to not blink through scenes.
I believe the final moments of Brynn’s life when the lines between the Father and the Ferryman bleed together is done on purpose to create a connection between the two.
Peripheral gaming is a hard sell, but Before Your Eyes is an example of how to do it right. GoodbyeWorld Games crafted an incredible narrative that works in tandem with blinking that shows both how to properly use peripherals to bridge the gap on immersion and how powerful the interactive medium can be on storytelling. None of this would work without a strong story to back it up, though, and fortunately this game has that too with an emotional roller coaster that explores life, death, and acceptance. If other narrative games can craft an experience around a peripheral equal in quality to this game, then I believe there could be a new future for peripheral and narrative gaming.