Flashing for the first time in Before Your Eyes is a truly magical moment. I don’t mean pushing a button to close your virtual eyes. Through the power of a webcam, Before Your Eyes tracks when you blink, which allows you to step through a wonderful narrative adventure track from GoodbyeWorld Games. It may seem like a novel gimmick on the surface, but the mechanics are used so inventive that they vastly improve upon the already powerful storytelling that fans of narrative adventure titles would mistake as a shallow trick.
Players take on the role of Benjamin Brynn, a lost soul who has already passed away. At the beginning of the game you meet a dog handler who forces you to relive the events of Ben’s life from birth. All of this is meant to impress a being called a gatekeeper who wants an honest assessment of the kind of person Ben was.
If you blink when prompted, you are jumping days, weeks, and sometimes years forward in Ben’s life. I’m impressed with how accurately the game detects eye tracking. I’ve never had a problem where a blink was not registered or my camera had to be recalibrated. I’ve also never felt disoriented or uncomfortable playing with eye tracking, but these factors vary from person to person. With that in mind, it’s good that there is an option to play the entire game with traditional mouse clicks, but I think you would be putting yourself at a great disadvantage in doing so.
After playing in front of your eyes twice, once with blinking and the other with the mouse, I think the story loses some of its magic just playing with traditional control inputs. When you close your eyes and then open them to a brand new scene, there is an incredible feeling that you are reliving a life through an old school View Master toy. Ben’s memories are fleeting and the mechanic sells that point perfectly. Yes, I have been disappointed on occasion after involuntarily blinking and bringing the story forward earlier than I would have liked. I didn’t mind for a long time, however, because I found that this was due to the dreamlike quality of the game and the sensation that even cherished memories eventually fade – if we hope that it doesn’t.
Some of my favorite moments are closing my eyes to better listen to muted conversations, or so my childhood beast could leave a heartfelt note without embarrassment. It’s also just more fun to “look and blink” instead of pointing and clicking on objects. Even if you play with your eyes, use a mouse for other actions like connecting stars in the night sky, writing a cosmic message, or keeping in rhythm with a piano tempo. These interactions are largely basic, but still delightful.
No matter how you play, the story of Before Your Eyes is a heartfelt story that brings me close to tears in several places. Despite its pleasantly whimsical veneer, the themes of depression and existentialism hit the narrative hard, as does understanding the meaning of life from the perspective of a person who, despite their large family and birth with amazing gifts, struggles to find personal fulfillment. The writing is serious and thoughtful, and the story takes some unexpected twists that culminate in a bittersweet closing message that ends up harder than I was (well) prepared.
A great story needs good characters, and Before Your Eyes has that in its spades. Ben’s parents, a caring but demanding mother and an amiable dumb father, are favorites. Same goes for Chloe, your mischievous neighbor, who cuts off as a truly lovable kid to impress and hang out with. I was surprised at how much I bonded to the cast in such a short amount of time, but the outstanding performances and well-written dialogue do their job and ingratiate me with the characters.
You will make a few choices throughout the story, but I was disappointed with how little they affect the entire narrative. Don’t worry too much about sneaking out with your boyfriend or getting some much-needed sleep for your big piano recital. This is one of those games where you just choose which colors to paint the road instead of creating entirely new paths. Since the game only lasts about an hour, it’s worth replaying just to see some of these scenes, but I wish my decisions had more weight given the wide variety to choose from.
Before the Your Eyes story staggered me in the end, it’s a journey to remember, well worth going out of your way to play. You seldom get many unique gaming experiences anymore, and Before Your Eyes largely spins the execution of its primary hook. It’s a concept I’d like to explore further in a follow-up, and I couldn’t be happier that such a thing exists.