God, it’s been a long time since I sat back and thought just how clever a game was. When I was a kid, that pleasure felt reliable, a semi-regular occurrence that had me raving about games that my friends just had to try for themselves. The sense of wonder feels lost on me these days, another console, another graphics update… but I never really feel like much has changed. I like detail, I like innovation, but for a long time that has been represented as a storyline twist, or a predictable ARG extension. We just don’t get enough wacky gimmicks anymore.
Does anyone remember that game where you’d speak to the main character through the computer mic and she would be “directed”? Or the game that called you up at work and sent you faxes to blur the lines between fact and fiction? Or URU Online, where you were dumped in an alien world and essentially had to figure out everything from the basic controls to the intricacies of a new language? What binds all of these (great) ideas together is the scope of their ambition… and the fact that, beloved as they are by a few, they never really worked.
The hubris of a game developer is understandable, but here in Before Your Eyes, there is no such comeuppance. A lovely, engaging, fun idea is executed with care and attention to create an unusually stirring experience. Before Your Eyes utilises your webcam as though it were a controller, tracking where you’re looking and prompting you to blink instead of clicking. Not to spend too long on the technical intricacies of the concept, it actually bloody works. After minimal calibration I was able to look around the screen, interacting with whatever the pointer hovered over when I succumbed to the need to blink.
This in itself was a lot of fun, and surprisingly easy to get used to. I love the idea, and it bought up all sorts of flurried thoughts about accessibility and progressive software. But is the game actually any good? Did the gimmick have to do all the heavy lifting? Well, honestly, Before Your Eyes might just be a masterpiece.
Beginning your journey on a riverboat, faced with a fox that sounds like a watered-down John Goodman, your character is already dead. You are on your way to tell your story to the one who will decide your fate, persuading her that you are worth a trip to paradise. The fox warns you against lying, exaggerating, and confirms that the yawning frogspawn-like entities all around you are souls left in limbo.
The casual art style alleviates some of the heaviness of this scene, and you begin the game excited to experience the life of this person in detail. Your guiding fox shows you scenes one at a time, moving to the next whenever you blink and prompting you with choices to steer the story. Each scene is voice acted to perfection, making already moving moments even more effective.
I won’t spoil the game, but be aware if I was in a spoiler-y mood there would be a lot to spoil. This game is clever. It’s clever in how it works mechanically, it’s clever in how it directs your eye and reacts to your glances, and it even recognises when you close your eyes to better hear whispered conversations. Most of all, the narrative is devastatingly clever.
Although there are a few twists and turns you can influence as you go along, the overarching feel is that of a visual novel, guiding you gently in a certain direction, only to sweep you off your feet at the last moment. For the majority of the game you feel as though you are involved in an experience rather than actually playing, but the interactive parts are genuinely fun and the achievements give you something to aim for on multiple playthroughs.
The fact that you are focussed so intensely on the screen goes a long way in emotionally connecting the player with the subject matter. You really have to look. To experience, literally through someone else’s eyes. By the end, my own eyes were filled with tears. The emotional content of this game is never ham-fisted or aggressive, despite the sensitive subject matter. It’s gentle and moving, occasionally shocking, but feels deeply organic throughout.