Before Your Eyes: Owning Your Life
Before Your Eyes is exquisite. Wrapped in a deceptively cozy and simple family story, GoodbyeWorld Games has captured the meaning of life. It earned the BAFTA Games 2021 Game Beyond Entertainment Award. And IMHO it deserves it.
Warning: Because I'm focused on story events working in tandem with gameplay mechanics, there are spoilers ahead. Please play the game before you read this.
No, seriously! It's only $9.99 on Steam, took me just 93 minutes to play the first time, and it blew my mind – play this game immediately!
The deeply moving themes that I took away from this game are:
Be present in the wonderful life that you do have.
Don’t obsess over the life that you think you should have.
One little change can make a difference in how you feel.
Blink and your life will be over.
As the game begins, you meet a wolf-like Ferryman who has clearly seen better days. He tells you that he has fished you out of the sea of lost souls. He’s picked you because you are bright and shiny. You’re almost literally a fish-out-of-water. He introduces you to the game world.
You’re dead. You can’t speak.
He’s taking you to the Gatekeeper. There he will earn some big coin if he can convince her to grant you a spot in her magnificent city. Because you can’t speak, the Ferryman will tell the Gatekeeper your life story. He fancies himself a "Class A storyteller", even if he occasionally needs a thesaurus to find the best words.
But before he can tell your life story, you need to show the Ferryman your life memories. Show him "What makes you so absolutely great?"
He instructs you to start from beginning of your life. Every time you blink your life story will progress, by a second, or five years, that's just the way it works. Literally every time you blink, your life passes before your eyes.
This mechanic is incredible! I was fully engaged. I was in control of the story speed. Simultaneously I was not in control of my involuntary blinking. I felt the tension between my brain and my body, between my intellect and my vulnerable humanity. Amazing. If you blink you miss it. If you don’t stay present with your life, it will pass you by in the blink of an eye.
Throughout the game different techniques are employed to give the blinking a variety of creative expressions. At first a hand-drawn eye icon appears. The player mouses their cursor into the center of that icon – re-framing the scene to a new viewpoint of the location. Then when ready, the player blinks and moves to the next clip of the scene or sometimes into a mini-game.
Alternatively, a metronome may appear. When the metronome is on screen, the game moves to the next scene strictly on blinking. No mousing is required. By taking the mouse/cursor out of the mechanic, the control is entirely in the player’s eyes. This could mean the play accelerates. But I also found that when I didn’t need to use my mouse, I was somehow more able to control my blinking and linger longer in a scene.
Once the mechanic is established, the player can now explore the world. We are a human baby boy named Benjamin Brynn. Our first memories are being on the beach with our composer mom. And then we remember being in the bathtub while Mom asks Dad what he thinks of her latest musical composition. And we learn to play piano, and we get a kitten!
This is our world. Simple, loving, brightly colored, visually and auditorily stimulating, stressful, creative, confusing, experimental…all the experiences of a human child growing and adapting to the world around them.
As your avatar grows through childhood, there are several mini-game that employ variations on the blinking and metronome mechanics. Each allowing the player to explore their creativity.
Playing the piano: The player's cursor becomes a note that must follow the lighted piano keys to play a variety of songs from simple to complex.
Typing your avatar's life story: Story choices that the player makes are recalled when the Ferryman tells your life story.
Making paintings: The player's cursor is guided to create your avatar's earliest blobs of paint, to grab scribbles and make clever cartoon sketches, and ultimately to select and place abstracted objects into sophisticated (and goofy) oil paintings that show up later in Benjamin's gallery showings.
These blinking and cursor mechanics allowed me to make art, make music, and write my life story. They connected me to the emotions of the game in a very visceral way. I really felt like I was living Benjamin's life.
Throughout the game there are many other delicious elements. The cast voice work is superior – rich, crisp, flavorful, communicating so much life in their performances. The music is exquisitely melancholic. The story is laced with mythology and symbolism.
I love that the omnipotent Gatekeeper turns out to be giant neon green cat with horns and a third eye. The Ferryman has told us that she takes on many forms depending on the soul she takes. I love that she's a psychedelic callback to our kitten watching us grow up!
There are juicy meaningful quotes throughout the game, but the one really got me in the heart is Benjamin’s Mom’s closing monologue. In the last moments of Benjamin’s life, his mom has been reading his life story. It's bothering her. She writes her own story about Benjamin.
She knows that he made up a great life because he thought that was who he was supposed to be. But in her version, she talks about how in his short life, Benjamin gave hope to others -- to the neighbor girl, and to her and to Benjamin's dad.
Her last line kills me. I’m probably misquoting but it’s something like… and I am tearing up just writing this...
“So, when he knew he was going to go, he was okay. Because he already has a great life. A full life. He was everything that he needed to be just the way he was.”
That says it all.
This game is fun and creative and lively and adventurous, but mostly… it is lovely and endearing and reminded me to be grateful for all that I have in my life.
This is the kind of game that I love.