Before Your Eyes review

Posted on Apr 15, 2021.

It’s been said that the average person blinks roughly 15 to 20 times per minute. I became acutely aware of that fact during my time with Before Your Eyes, a game you play by blinking, as my eyes watered under the strain of being kept open, locked in a veritable staring contest with my computer’s webcam (for your information, I lost. A lot).

I’ll admit it’s a really nifty concept. After a short calibration period, the game learns to recognise your real-life eye movements via webcam. Making in-game decisions, progressing through the story, all of it is tied to what your eyes are doing at any given moment, so that whenever you blink, you never quite know what’s going to be there when you open your eyes.

You play as Benjamin Brynn, a lost soul being ferried to the afterlife by a world-weary bipedal dog who fishes up other lost souls to present their stories before the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper’s judgement determines Benjamin’s fate: entertain her with a grand tale about your life and how you crossed over to the other side, and you’re rewarded with a spot in her heavenly city. Fail to impress her, and you’re doomed to live out the rest of eternity as a seagull, endlessly squawking along with other rejects.

As if these aren’t already enough pressure, the gatekeeper can see through lies in an instant, the ferryman warns, so the tale of your life must be a truthful one. Or else it’s a one-way ticket to seagull squalor.

DON’T BLINK TOO HARD

Through his retelling, Benjamin’s life story literally becomes a series of “blink and you miss it” moments. As I watch each flashback play out, interspersed within them are segments where I can interact with the environment using my cursor. I can also influence Ben’s life in limited ways by placing my cursor over an eye icon and blinking to select my decision. Each time I finish navigating these interactive bits, a ticking metronome appears at the bottom of the screen, letting me know that the next time I blink, I’ll be kicked out of this memory and move on to the next one, regardless of whether the scene has finished playing out. I can stay in the moment only for as long as I can keep my eyes open. And, as I quickly learned, that’s not very long at all.

In practice, this blinking mechanic proves both frustrating and brilliant in turn. By design, Before Your Eyes hinges upon the subconscious nature of blinking, using these largely involuntary movements to craft an atmosphere where you rarely ever feel entirely in control of what’s happening. This underlying sense of volatility melds gameplay with the themes of its plot—coming to terms with our own mortality, being haunted by the fear that you somehow wasted your potential—in a truly unique way that, at times, is also frustrating as heck. By the fourth or fifth time an ill-timed blink accidentally skipped me ahead while characters were still speaking, I quickly started getting annoyed, though I couldn’t tell whether it was with the game or myself. The internal struggle of trying to keep my eyes open sometimes made it difficult to concentrate on what was happening, and though I did my best to calibrate the game, in order to detect only the most exaggerated blinks, it would still recognise the occasional strained wince as I tried to ignore how much my eyes burned.

As someone who routinely exhausts every possible dialogue option when given the chance, it pained me to accidentally cut off scenes still in progress. Thankfully, the developers of Before Your Eyes took pity on us completionists, and included an option to substitute blinks with mouse clicks.

CLOSE TO HOME

Those minor frustrations aside, I marveled at the range of creative executions for something as simple as blinking, particularly in the game’s latter half. Watching a toddler-age Benny, I see him paint an immaculately detailed boat, only to blink and reveal what it looks like outside of his mind’s eye, the canvas transformed into a mess of shapes and smears of colors. With a blink, fuzzy scrapbook images instantly become clear, as if I’d been wracking my brain to recall a half-forgotten memory and finally put my finger on it.

What I found most impressive was how Before Your Eyes uses this to seamlessly incorporate environmental storytelling. In one flashback, I hear Ben’s mother cooing over his talent at playing piano and mention plans to enter him into a contest. In another, I’m in his childhood bedroom. I blink and see the formerly empty shelf above his desk now displays a sparkling trophy. Later, I blink again, and two more take up space beside it. Moments like this seem stuffed into every corner of the game, so that even on subsequent playthroughs I continued to discover new details I’d missed.

Before Your Eyes cleverly iterates on its blinking mechanic in later chapters. This is evident in how the developers expertly flip the script in the second act, using a player’s eye movements to shoulder just as much of the heavy lifting in terms of storytelling as its written dialogue and visuals. To get to the heart of his life story, Ben is forced to face the moments of his past that he would rather blink past—and again, I mean that literally.

By tying progression to blinking, Before Your Eyes fosters a haunting sense of evanescence that underlines the major themes of its plot. And while I think the game more or less executes this successfully, honestly what left the most lasting impression on me throughout the experience had nothing to do with blinking at all. Instead, what hit far too close to home for me was how the game portrays living with an illness, a struggle it captures in uncanny detail.

Before Your Eyes accomplishes this through a combination of visuals, audio, and a series of escalating but almost imperceptible adjustments to cursor sensitivity. At first, you cycle through a checklist of mundane tasks, eating and drinking, taking medication, without a second thought. It’s as easy as pointing and clicking.

SOME TEDIUM

But slowly and insidiously, these previously mindless tasks become endeavors. I scrape my mouse across my desk to budge the cursor. Prompts melt away as I mouse over them, as if my willpower is dissolving along with them. All the while, a physical manifestation of the unnamed illness crackles loud and bright on screen, so much so that at times I can barely hear or see anything else in the game until I click a prompt to dispense more medication. It’s still there, of course, humming in the background, but receded enough that I can do what I need done. For a while, at least, until finally the scourge becomes so deafening and all encompassing that it becomes impossible to ignore.

As someone who struggles with chronic illness, these details came together in a pang of familiarity I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

When Before Your Eyes’ credits rolled, it was a bittersweet moment. Its story, while ham-fisted at times, drives home this idea that our life is just a collection of moments, of some moments we have control over, and of others that we don’t. The culmination of our experiences and how we frame them makes us who we are, but at the end of the day, who tells our story can make all the difference no matter what we do or say.

It may all sound a tad fatalistic. But thinking about what my own life story might look like to someone else is a concept that’s both liberating and terrifying. Accepting that you can’t control someone else’s perspective is to accept your own helplessness in the face of something larger than yourself. Or, framed a different way, when this illusion of control dissolves, so too does the weight of expectation from others. Before Your Eyes ultimately suggests that happiness, fulfillment, that warm sense of a life well lived—that doesn’t come from other people’s perceptions. Rather, it comes from self-acceptance.

And, incredibly, that’s something we do have control over.