GoodByeWorld Games CEO Will Hellwarth describes an early prototype of his game: you’re a character lying in a hospital bed. It’s not clear what’s wrong with you. A clock is up on the wall, ticking.
Then you, the player, the person in the chair playing the game, physically blink. The scene cuts forward. You’re still in the same bed, but the clock has moved forward.
“And you see the clock ticking and you’re like, ‘Oh, crap, every time I blink, I could be dying.’ That was it,” Hellwarth says.
The early idea would become Before Your Eyes, a narrative-driven game that players control by blinking, with each close of your eyes tracked by your webcam. Hellwarth first conceived of the idea for Before Your Eyes way back in 2008, when he was a student. Years later, after playing 30 Flights of Loving (a game that plays with the idea of film-like edits in a way Hellwarth was intrigued by), he picked it back up again.
It was 2014, and Hellwarth was still a student, but this time he wasn’t alone. He was joined by game director and composer Oliver Lewin, and lead writer and creative director Graham Parks. The three were childhood friends who had collaborated on film projects before, and initially took a fairly laid-back approach to Before Your Eyes. They worked on it on weekends between classes, jobs, and regular life, undergoing numerous iterations.
At one point, Hellwarth decided he would take the game more seriously if it got into gaming showcase Indiecade. It did. Then it got into the Independent Games Festival. A publisher picked it up, then dropped out. The team ran a successful Kickstarter. For seven years, every time it seemed like Before Your Eyes would never turn into much more than a fun, weird, experimental side project, a wave of interest and excitement for the concept would hit, spurring the group on. Finally, it’s ready to launch on PC via Steam tomorrow, with the support of immersive media company RYOT and publisher Skybound Entertainment.
For a long time throughout development, Hellwarth wanted Before Your Eyes’ blink mechanic to be very literal — every single blink the player did propelled them into a new scene. Now, after hours upon hours of player feedback and discussion with his colleagues, he agrees it plays much better. Instead of every single blink being an edit, blinking will only move players forward if a metronome icon is ticking at the bottom of the screen, indicating to them that the next blink will end the current moment. But if the camera rests on certain marked spots in the field of view, blinking will reveal more dialogue, make choices about how the scene moves forward, or show aspects that weren’t visible before.
Each transition acts like a cut or edit that’s reminiscent of the trio’s background in film. Parkes says he was fascinated by what he says Hellwarth described to him as “offloading the cut, the editor’s job, to the player.”
“Using this physical process that you don’t have control over– games are so often about this empowerment fantasy, but our game becomes this sort of disempowerment thing where no matter what you try to do, you have to blink and move on,” he says.
Implementing a control scheme that’s at least partially involuntary brought with it a whole host of challenges. For one, Lewin wanted to be sure that the team was using the blink mechanics to the fullest extent, rather than just making a fairly standard game with blinking appended.
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“You don’t want to fall into this trap of just replacing the B button with blinking,” he says. “We always wanted those new mechanics to be sort of thematically tied to what’s special about your eyes, and what’s special about having that immediacy, or that imperfection in the interaction.”
Another problem was the issue of anticipating player behavior. Blinking can be both involuntary and voluntary, meaning that many players (myself included!) would feel a natural anxiety as they played. Scenes will continue to play until you blink to move forward, so there’s a natural, completionist tendency to want to hold your eyes open as long as possible to see as much as possible. For instance, there’s an early scene where something seems to be waiting at the end of a long, dark hallway. Players will want to hold their eyes open as long as possible to see what’s at the end, but Before Your Eyes expects everyone to blink before the end.
“Every round of testing we did, we had to all sit down and discuss: X amount of people said there was frustration, because they would blink out and they would miss things,” Lewin says. “And we’re making a game about missing things. So where do you draw the line of saying, ‘We want this amount of frustration, but not this bigger amount of frustration?’ So it’s always been a balancing act…And credit to the way Graham wrote those scenes, because it’s really been an intentional thing every second where we expect people to leave a scene.”
Parkes, as a writer, saw each scene as effectively an interesting writing prompt.
“It’s a great writing challenge to have to write a scene that works in three lines, but then the player might listen on much past that,” he says. “So we always made sure to write those scenes as long as possible, so if you keep your eyes open, there’s something to stick around for.”
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And then of course, there was the sticky point of getting webcams to work in tandem with the game. Hellwarth says Snapchat’s various tricks with camera recognition were instrumental in the team’s realization that webcams had the power to do what they wanted to do with Before Your Eyes. But accurate blink detection was still a massive challenge. GoodbyeWorld’s early prototypes were heavily criticized and didn’t work well with most webcams, and Parkes says the team wasn’t able to really address the webcam issue until Skybound got on board and assisted with putting in place a firm quality assurance process.
According to Lewin, the biggest issue with webcams and blink detection wasn’t the numerous kind of webcams on the market so much as the variety of environmental situations players might be in, with regards to lighting or positioning.
“There are laptops out there that have their webcams built into the bottom of the laptop, for whatever reason,” Lewin says. “Dealing with those edge cases– I think that you could just spend eternity being like, ‘What if someone plays at 5:00 pm and the sun sets at 5:30 pm?’ That part just required a lot of realizing that just because it worked really well for one person, it might still not be good enough.”
Before Your Eyes has come a long way since it was a prototype of a person in a hospital bed. Parkes describes the process as “iterative, experimental, and exploratory,” and the trio says the game’s iterations have covered a number of different themes over the years — especially death and regret. Ultimately, they settled on telling a story of “the breadth of an entire life,” with the final version of Before Your Eyes seeing the main character’s full life experience from the perspective of the afterlife — albeit a strange afterlife, where the character in question might not want to be fully honest about every facet of their existence.
“We didn’t want to just look at one period; we thought part of the exciting thing about this is that we can really give you that feeling of life flashing before your eyes… Early on, we were all sure of that. But exactly how it was gonna work and how it was going to function — we really have tried so many different versions of this story.”
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With Before Your Eyes finally out the door after seven years, the trio wants to continue working on narrative games with unusual mechanics. They say they hope Before Your Eyes resonates with the general public in the same way it resonated with so many of the smaller audiences they tested the game with at various trade shows. Often, they tell me, it would bring players to tears — and yes, crying can mess up blink detection (though they hint that the end of the game plays in a way that is cognizant of that).
“We’ve always known what we want the game to say,” Parkes says. “We want it to be a game about enjoying the moment; we want it to be a game about learning to accept and not trying to fight against the flow of time. This is a game that is almost humbling yourself to the fact that time is going to push forward no matter what.”