Shaun Munro reviews Before Your Eyes…
Affecting, character-driven drama is undermined by a clumsy central gameplay conceit in the well-intentioned yet only partially successful new indie “experience” Before Your Eyes. Said conceit is nothing if not daring, though – to shepherd players forward by using their own eye blinks as inputs, which the game tracks through their webcam.
Considering the oft-frustrating clash between this envelope-pushing new control scheme and the more delicate core narrative, it’s something of a saving grace that developers GoodbyeWorld Games also allow more traditional, non-ocular play, using mouse clicks in place of blinks.
The first-person dramatic adventure game begins with our protagonist, Benny, sat on a boat being ferried to what appears to be the afterlife by an anthropomorphic, animalistic Ferryman. As they embark on their journey, the player explores choice moments from Benny’s life, their eye blinks pushing them forward seconds, days, or even years in time as the full extent of Benny’s existence – his joys, his anxieties, his unrealised dreams – are unfurled.
To that end there certainly is plenty here worthwhile from a story and character perspective; a wistful, aching meditation on the passage of time, memory, parenthood, mortality, mental health, and the pains of an artist’s life. While hardly treading new thematic ground for the artsy indie game, these touchstones are nevertheless rich enough to merit continued exploration. Across its brief 90-minute play-time, Before Your Eyes conjures an appealingly off-kilter existential odyssey, the particulars of which are best left unspoiled.
But the successful emotionality of the story is constantly at war with how it’s presented to players. The potential for technical issues per the eye-tracking gimmick – yes, it is a gimmick – speak for themselves, even as the developers have made a fair effort to compensate for players with glasses and non-ideal lighting conditions through a pre-game calibration process.
Still, the overall outcome isn’t nearly convincing enough to justify the clear effort expended on its implementation, as the blinking is rarely able to get out of its own way and simply let the far more interesting story play out. Even in a well-lit room with a relatively high-quality webcam, I found tracking calibration fiddly and time-consuming, the latter proving all the more frustrating given the game’s brief length.
The bulk of the game sees players living through Benny’s memories and dreamlike visions from infancy to demise, moving across these scenes by blinking whenever a metronome appears at the bottom of the screen.
Though the game insists upfront that you shouldn’t fight the tide and just ride the wave it takes you on, that does little to quell the frustrating fact that players will end up blinking their way through tender, carefully curated moments and missing crucial emotional details. For the game to encourage players to speed their way past gorgeously crafted sequences in mere seconds – and you’ll probably do so accidentally more than a few times – devalues an otherwise mature and transfixing throughline.
In order to linger on small details of a given scene or even hear dialogues to completion, you’ll need to betray one of your body’s most unconscious behaviours by fixing your gaze unnaturally and straining to avoid blinking. It’s just as unpleasant as it sounds. In its worst moments, it feels like you’re locked in a staring contest with the game, though if you can keep your eyes open long enough, some amusing hidden dialogues await. It’s certainly easy enough to “cheat” the game by looking away from your camera’s field-of-vision so it can’t see what you’re up to, but that’s hardly the intended spirit of play.
If you just let yourself blink as you would normally, you’ll end up skipping ahead of insightful dialogue and arresting visuals constantly. Even as someone who would never call themselves a completionist, it’s irksome that so much emotional context is an active chore to glean. As such, the gimmick really ends up taking away more than it adds, and it’s hard to accept that the dev team put so much time into details that can be so easily, even unintentionally, skipped by players.
There are however some inspired moments that really work – particularly a sequence where your blinks change the style of art that Benny paints, and another where blinking darts you between two different planes of reality – but overall it feels like the admittedly innovative form was created first and then had the narrative uneasily piped around it. All in all I had a far better time with the game in the second go-around when I disabled the eye tracking and played it with mere mouse clicks.
This way I could linger on the artistry, hang on every line of dialogue, and savour the gorgeous environments in the manner of an interactive movie. It may betray the dreamlike “flashing before your eyes” vibe the developers were trying to invoke, but also encouraged an emotional tether to these characters that felt lost when I blinked my way past them so swiftly.
What keeps Before Your Eyes afloat even amid its many stumbles is the clear work that has gone into crafting a vibrant, poignant collage of memories. The heightened, cartoonish art-style doesn’t detract from the humanity of the piece one bit, while the frequent switching-up of environments means the visuals never get stale – some occasional clipping glitches notwithstanding. Just as crucially, the voice acting is splendid throughout, namely Stephen Friedrich as the Ferryman, and the musical score from game director Oliver Lewin and audio lead Dillon Terry is gently evocative.
But mileage is sure to vary massively on the success of the eye-tracking. From what’s shown off here, it seems clear that an eye blink is too instinctual a motion to tie to a video game mechanic, and though the tech employed is impressive to a point, it doesn’t so much support the storytelling as upend it. As such, when played as intended this has the overwhelming feeling of a half-formed tech demo, so if you’re married to the idea of playing it with your eyes tracked, prepare for mixed results.
This is a tricky game to review – and even more so to assign a score – because while its attention-grabbing gameplay hook is more a hindrance than anything, there is at least an alternate, far more satisfying way to play the game, even if replacing blinks with clicks does seem inherently dissonant. Simply, if the eye-tracking setup was your primary attraction to the game, it’s tough to recommend as it is, but if you’re in the market for an emotionally engaging drama, there are scattered rewards to be found. I do find myself wondering, though, whether it might’ve been overall better-suited for VR, using head tracking instead of blinks.
Before Your Eyes almost loses its intriguing story and sumptuous aesthetic beneath an unpersuasive eye-tracking gimmick that’s more irritating than boldly forward-thinking. Mercifully, though, there is the option to ditch the blinking and just play through it with a mouse.
+ A compelling, emotional story.
+ Sharp, enticing art style.
+ Excellent voice acting.
+ Stirring musical score.
– Eye-tracking is fiddly and annoying at times.
– Short play-time with minimal replay value.
– Occasional glitches.
Reviewed on PC, with a Logitech C920 PRO HD webcam.
A review code was provided by the publisher.