When I reviewed Before Your Eyes earlier this week, I described it as a human story. I was referring to the multi-layered message conveyed through its captivating narrative, but the same can be said for the story behind the game’s development.
It’s a piece lovingly crafted by close friends and their passionate belief in an idea. The more I talked to Graham Parkes—lead writer and creative director—and Bela Messex—lead designer and lead programmer—the better I understood the remarkable creative process involved in making games.
An eye-opening chat
Developing a title like this was uncharted territory; this is a game whereby the player moves through the world by physically blinking at their webcam, after all. Following the story of his life from child to adult one blink at a time, we see the world through the eyes of Benjamin Brynn. It’s a touching and seamlessly integrated tale. Development got going through the reunion of friends from the same Californian neighbourhood, but the game began as project leader Will Hellwarth’s thesis project.
“He discovered the capability of these commercial webcams to do eye-tracking,” Graham explained. “Will had this idea of having a life flash before your eyes. That was the initial concept that he got excited about, and he knew early on that it was going to be very story heavy.”
Graham, who was studying playwriting at the time, was brought on to flesh out the game’s story. Excitingly, it would be his first opportunity to write for a game: “It was such an exciting call. I still remember it because it was my last year of college. Even though I was doing a bit of that at NYU, I didn’t feel like I had much of a connection to people who actually made games.”
Game director and composer Oliver Lewin joined the team soon after, and the trio embarked on what would become a roller coaster of a journey. In 2014, a 15-minute demo won the team the developers choice award at Indiecade. Later, they presented a more fleshed-out version at GDC and won the student award.
According to Graham, even these rudimentary demos stirred strong emotions in playtesters. This instilled confidence in the three men to take the project further and launch it as a Kickstarter project. He recalls thinking at the time, “If we can make them cry with that, you know, what could we do if we had some actual production value behind this and could tell a fuller story?”
Following a successful Kickstarter and a partnership with publisher Ryot, Bela Messex—a game designer and programmer who’d recently launched his debut title Little Bug—joined the team. Along with engineer Richard Beer, he was instrumental in developing the idea of controlling the game by blinking.
Bela saw huge promise in the project, but getting it to work was no easy feat. “So much of this ground wasn’t covered, no one had ever used this,“ he said. “We were simultaneously trying to make the mechanic work while trying to functionally get things to work with a random person’s webcam or lighting situation. On top of that, blinking needed to work with the story.”
Efforts in ludonarrative harmony
Ludonarrative harmony refers to the seamless relationship between story and gameplay. Titles like Portal and Dead Space have been praised to this end: these two games envelop the player in atmosphere and environmental storytelling, but neither elements overshadow or juxtapose the gameplay. Considering the novel method of control in Before Your Eyes, the team had to think carefully about how best to achieve their gameplay-story balance.
Graham spoke of the push and pull between story and game design — a crucial force in realising the vision: “It was sort of Bela’s job to go ok, this is way out of scope. That was an important, like, eat your vegetables — let’s break this down, let’s essentialize this. There was a constant push and pull between design and story. I think out of that conflict came the most beautiful stuff in the game.”
Both developers stressed the importance of playtesting. As well as ensuring players clicked with the story, the team had a lot of practical challenges to work through. “Each of these scenes, of which there are 120-130 scenes that you blink though in total, had its own unique needs and had to match the story,” Bela explained. “Each scene had to have that moment of, “oh, I missed it”. We had to do that 130 times with each scene doing it a different way. It has to be playtested so many times.”
The above drills into the key aspects that made this game so special from a ludonarrative sense. Before Your Eyes deals with the impermanence of life and the inherent fragility of the human experience — something we all neglect to take notice of. This was a concept baked into the fundamental mechanics of the game: “In our game, the fail state is the blink. If you blink you skip ahead, wherein most games failing sends you back to the beginning,” said Bela.
Just like in real life, you can’t hold onto a moment forever. It’s clear that the blink mechanic is as crucial in telling this story as the script is.
About that script
While their game was wholly unique, the team drew upon the successes of other indie titles. Independent developer Blendo and their 2013 title Thirty Flights of Loving was cited as an early influence. Further on in development, 2017’s What Remains of Edith Finch along with the IOS game Florence provided inspiration. They would also draw a lot from their own lives.
The in-game home of the protagonist was modelled one-to-one on Oliver’s parent’s house. Even the madcap coyote character, tasked with orating the protagonist’s story to the gatekeeper of the afterlife, has his roots in the dev’s childhoods.
“Growing up in southern California, you come to learn of a coyote as a symbol for death,” told Graham. “All of our earliest memories of death are having memories of one pet or another get eaten by a coyote.”
I was keen to know how the story developed in the beginning. “Early on, the conversations were always about regret, and we knew the game was going to be about the inevitability of time.” Graham told me. He also touched on the sort of questions the team pondered during the planning stage: “The natural state of play is trying to hold onto these moments that you’re inevitably going to blink out of. How do we make this a game about acceptance? how do we get the player to go from the state where they’re trying to hold onto every moment…to then accepting the fact that they can’t?”
Graham is traditionally a filmmaker. I wondered what new challenges he faced writing for a game and how different he found the process from writing for picture: “You’re going to be introducing this force of chaos into the middle of your story which is the player, and they might just not look in the direction you want them to look. There’s so much chaos and so much variability.”
He also told me that game writing is a much more methodical, back-and-forth process than film writing: “It taught me a lot about how iterative game writing needs to be. In a film, you write it, you get it as good as you can, then you go shoot it and you have to figure it out in post. Game writing is much more about feeling confident about it and staying true to a vision.”
Collaboration: the key to retaining a project’s spark
Perhaps it goes without saying that developers need to collaborate properly in order to produce their best work, but the collaborative process can take many forms. With the often huge teams involved in AAA game development, it’s natural not to expect much collaboration between disciplines. More often than not, artists work on art and programmers on programming. One notable exception is Valve. For their games, they split off into groups called Cabals: smaller teams consisting of a mix of developers across several disciplines. During the development of the original Half-Life, this method combined the strengths of many and facilitated more interesting ideas. It inspired the out-the-box thinking the company is known for.
Independent development teams consist of small groups of people to begin with, so strong collaboration between disciplines is evidently essential. Graham explained how the group fed off of each other’s strengths: how programmers helped writers, writers helped artists, and vice-versa.
“We realised that if we hope to keep the soul of this thing, we needed to open it up,” he said. “Story-wise, we needed to follow what the players were actually doing; we needed to let it evolve alongside the play experience. Bela really helped with this. You just have to be much more willing to rewrite and be willing to throw out things you thought would work but didn’t fit mechanically.”
Chuckling as he said it, Graham told me of the need to stay grounded to the game design aspects even though his job was story writing: “Writing for games is amazing because it’s the most humbling experience. You really can’t have your artiste hat on — it’ll humble you one way or another once you introduce players into the mix.”
“The success of your story is completely contingent on how much you’re willing to listen and work with your designer and the other people in your team,” said Graham. We’ve all heard of games stuck in development hell because the project is being pulled in too many different directions.
I was interested to know what Graham and Bela considered a ‘player’ to be. Games that excel ludonarratively are considered great titles for people who don’t usually play games. “We wanted it to be so that your mom should be able to play it and have the same experience,” Bela told me. “It’s going to give you something new, but it’s not going to give you something that’s over your head.”
The future of unconventional game control: Brain-controlled VR and beyond
Graham explained that the group were still only in the very early stages of deciding what they wanted to do next. With the team having tested out a VR version of the game using the Vive Pro Eye, I was keen to know their thoughts on the advancements in VR technology. Valve CEO Gabe Newell recently discussed the company’s foray into brain-controlled user interfaces (BCIs). He divulged that technology was much closer to The Matrix than people think.
I asked the pair what they thought about BCIs and the technology’s potential application in games like theirs. Bela gave his take: “I think that’s fascinating, honestly. One of the exciting things about it, but almost a kind of troubling thing, is if it’s tracking the way that your brain is interpreting things—and is able to capture your impulses and your subconscious before you actually know what’s happening—it does have potential to make something very accessible.”
There are clear parallels between the above and controlling a game with your eyes. For both input methods, there’s the potential ability to make a story more intrinsically accessible by tapping into the core of player agency and choice. The tech also offers promise in regards to making games more accessible for those with physical disabilities — people who struggle to use a controller.
Although intrigued by the possibilities, Bela was cautious to welcome BCI tech with open arms: “Instead of it being this thing that you need to very intentionally figure out how to use, you’ll almost be able to use it too quickly, like, “oh, I didn’t mean to do that” or, “I hope the game didn’t actually catch me thinking that because I don’t want anybody knowing that I think that.” How much does a game like this track your thoughts as it does your thought impulses?”
“I think there are very scary implications to that,” Bela warned. “I don’t want to be closer to The Matrix, personally, but I do think it’s interesting in that you could be more connected to a story via your impulses.”
Despite cautioning the adoption of this particular technology, both developers were very excited about the future of unconventional control in general. We circled back to the beauty of the blink mechanic.
“One of the things we found is that using your body in these different ways disarms a player emotionally,” said Graham. “When you’re experiencing something completely new, when you’re focused in this physical way, we found that it cuts through the layers of distance between you and the story.”
He continued, hinting at potential future game ideas: “We have these moments that come later in the game where we don’t just track your blinks — we actually want you to hold your eyes completely closed. You get lost in these audio moments while your eyes are closed…once we happened upon that that it became such an exciting thing to us…we’re still very far out from knowing what our next project is, but we think there’s more to explore with that.”
I closed our discussion with a potentially platitudinous question. If you were to use one word to describe Before Your Eyes, what would it be? For both men, “Blink”: a fundamental part of human physiology—something so instinctive, so binary, and so simple—reimagined to form one of the most unique, thought-provoking games we’ve seen in a long while.
I’d like to extend thanks to both Graham and Bela for such an enlightening discussion, and I wish them and the rest of the talented team at GoodbyeWorld Games all the best.