Before Your Eyes
GoodbyeWorld Games

The Game You Control With a Blink: An Interview with the developers of ‘Before Your Eyes’

When I reviewed Before Your Eyes, 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 of the game’s development. 

It’s a piece lovingly crafted by close friends and the 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 more I understood the remarkable creative process involved in making games.

An eye-opening chat

It was really us sitting down and bringing in more of our personal lives and things that mattered to us; I think that’s when we really unlocked the story and it really started to work. —Graham Parkes

Unique to this team’s development period was the uncharted territory of the blink mechanic. The player moves through the game by physically blinking at their webcam: a wholly unique method of interaction and control.
Development got going through the reunion of friends from the same Californian neighborhood, but the game began as CEO Will Hellwarth’s thesis project.

He discovered the capability of these commercial webcams to do this eye-tracking,” Graham explained.

He had this idea of having a life flash before your eyes; that was really the initial concept that he got excited about, and he knew early on that it was going to be very story heavy.” 

It wasn’t long before 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, and 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 soon after, and the three childhood friends set to work building the game. The trio would embark on a roller coaster of a journey. In 2014, an initial 15-minute demo would win them the developers choice award at the independent games festival 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 at the time, instilling confidence in the team to take the project further and launch a Kickstarter project: 

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?” 

Beach scene blink
GoodbyeWorld Games

Following a successful Kickstarter, the team would gain additional funding when they partnered with media company Ryot. Among other assets, the additional support would enable them to bring on new talent. 
The main team would consist of four or five people with contracted artists coming and going throughout the process. 

Bela Messex would join as a highly influential member of the team — a game designer and programmer who’d recently launched his debut title Little Bug to critical acclaim in 2018.
Along with engineer Richard Beer, he was instrumental in taking the novel idea of controlling the game by blinking and forming it into the tight mechanic it is today.  

Being a fan of titles that subvert common convention Bela saw huge promise in the game. He explained that although the process was thoroughly rewarding, it was unsurprisingly no easy feat:

Graham and I had so many friendly arguments; I’m trying to make this unique mechanic work and Graham’s trying to make his story work. So much of this ground wasn’t covered, no one had ever used this, so we were simultaneously trying to make this mechanic work in the game while trying to functionally get things to work with a random person’s webcam or lighting situation. All of that needed to work, but on top of that, blinking needed to work with the story — it needed to work as an actual game mechanic.

Of course, they’d figure it out in the end, and the results were one of a kind.

Efforts in ludonarrative harmony

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. —Graham Parkes

Ludonarrative harmony refers to the seamless relationship between story and gameplay. The two aspects are synergistically aligned to form an engaging, fluid experience. Titles like Portal and Dead Space have been praised to this end, and Before Your Eyes absolutely falls into this category as well.

Graham spoke to 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 and let’s essentialise this. There was this constant push and pull with the project between design and story, but I think that out of that conflict and out of that fight came the most beautiful stuff in the game.

Both developers stressed the importance of playtesting in achieving this ideal balance. As well as ensuring players clicked with the story and that the blink mechanic enhanced the degree of immersion within it, the team also had a lot of practical challenges to work through. Bela told me about the complexities involved:

Every scene is like a new mini game that involves blinks…each of these scenes — of which there are 120-130 scenes that you blink though in total — each of them had its unique needs and had to match the story; each had to have that moment of “oh, I missed it”. We had to do that 130 times in each scene doing it a different way. It has to be playtested so many times.

The above was indicative of one of the aspects that made this game so special from a ludonarrative sense. Before Your Eyes deals with the impermanence of life, the inherent fragility of the human experience we all neglect to take notice of. As Bela explains, it’s the relationship between the blink mechanic and the story which drives this home: 

“In our game, the fail state is the blink. So if you blink you skip ahead, wherein most games when you fail you usually go back to the beginning.” 

Just like in real life, you can’t hold onto a moment forever — one of many poignant messages conveyed through clever gameplay and storytelling. The team’s efforts resulted in the blink mechanic being as crucial to telling the story as the script was.

About that script

While their game was wholly unique, the team would draw upon many other indie titles for inspiration. 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 title Florence provided inspiration.

They would also draw a great deal from their own lives. The in-game home of the protagonist was modelled one-to-one on Oliver’s parent’s house. Then there was the madcap coyote character tasked with orating your story to the gatekeeper of the afterlife: the ferryman. He also 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.

Ferryman intro scene blink
GoodbyeWorld Games

The writer went on to describe the core message they were hoping to convey from the start:

Early on I think that the conversations were always about regret, and I think we knew the game was going to be about the inevitability of time. The natural state of playing it is trying to hold onto these moments that you’re inevitably going to blink out of.
Will and I discussed early on: 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 you can’t? That felt baked into the mechanic.

Graham is traditionally a filmmaker. I wondered how different the process of writing for games was 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 there’s so much variability. 
It taught me a lot about how iterative game writing needs to be. Obviously, all writing is iterative, but 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, so it’s much more about feeling confident about it and staying true to a vision.

If there’s one important thing that stood out to me about the development process, it was the importance of collaboration. In big-team AAA game development, we often see developers being grouped with others in their specific area of expertise to work on one aspect: artists working on one thing, programmers on another, without much collaboration between groups.

One notable company which went against the grain in this regard was Valve. For their games, they split off into smaller groups called Cabals, consisting of a mix of developers across several disciplines. During the development for the original Half-Life, this method combined the strengths of many and facilitated greater collaboration. It inspired the out-the-box thinking the company is known for.

With independent development teams often consisting of very small groups of people to begin with, so strong collaboration between disciplines is essential. Graham explained how the group fed off of each other’s strengths: how programmers help story writers, writers help artists and vice-versa:

“Bela really helped with this [looking at the story from a design perspective]. We realised that we can keep the soul of this thing, but we need to open it up. We need to follow what the players are doing, we need to let it evolve alongside the play experience. So you just have to be much more willing to rewrite, or willing to throw out things you thought would work but didn’t. I think in general 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.

Kitchen scene blink
GoodbyeWorld Games

I was interested to explore what Graham and Bela considered a “player” to be and what sort of audience they were targeting. Games that excel ludonarratively are naturally 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. 

I think there are lots of different ways to play games and this is a new way to play. I think our hope is that it’s accessible to basically anybody who’s interested in this concept. If you’re interested in blinking to play this game and you’re interested in the story, it’s going to give you something new, but it’s not going to give you something that’s over your head, and I think for every game designer that’s what you shoot for — at least for me that’s what I shoot for.

Brain-controlled user interfaces: the future of unconventional game control 

It dawned on me about three-fourths of the way through making this game: the blinking wasn’t so much a mechanic, as it is a new controller device. —Bela Messex

Graham told me that they 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 to great success, 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), suggesting that we’re “way closer to The Matrix than people think”.

I asked the pair about their thoughts on BCI’s and the technology’s potential application in narrative-driven gameplay. Bela gave his take: 

I think that’s fascinating, honestly. One of the weird things about it, almost a kind of troubling thing, is if you’re tracking the way that your brain is interpreting things, and being able to capture your impulses and your subconscious before you actually know what’s happening, it does have potential to make something very accessible.

He expanded by delving into some of the more troubling thoughts surrounding this sort of tech:

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 does a game interpret your thoughts as much as your thought impulses?

I think there are very scary implications to that, I don’t think we want to be closer to The Matrix, personally, I think we want to kind of keep a healthy distance from something like The Matrix…but I do think it’s interesting in that you can be more connected to a story via your impulses. What if a game forced your brain to take that step before it did? What if a game sort of guided you down this path you thought about and then the game did it? To me that’s fascinating.

Piano school scene blink
GoodbyeWorld Games

Despite the potentially ominous implications of BCI’s, both developers were excited about the future of unconventional control in general. We circled back to the blink mechanic and how it and similar inputs offer exciting opportunities. Graham described the powerful ability unconventional control has to stir emotion:

Using your body in these different ways, getting away from the controller, one of the things that we found is that it disarms a player emotionally, and I think it puts you in a different state. When you’re experiencing something completely new, and you’re being listened to in this physical way that you’ve never been listened to before, we found that it just cuts through the layers of distance between you and the story. 

We have these moments that come later in the game where we don’t just track your blink but we actually want you as the player to hold your eyes completely closed. You kind of 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 my 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 part of human physiology so instinctive, so binary, so simple, but reimagined to form one of the most unique, meaningful games we’ve seen in a while. 

I’d like to extend thanks to 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 in their future endeavours. 

You can read my full review of Before Your Eyes here.

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If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our other work such as Balan Wonderworld Review (Xbox One) — Not So Wonderful After All or Does Metroid Prime Deserve its 97% Metacritic Score?

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