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 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 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
Developing a title like this was uncharted territory. The player moves through the game by physically blinking at their webcam: a wholly original method of interaction and control. Framed within this unique approach to game design is a touching and seamlessly integrated story, one with an appreciation for the crucial balance between gameplay with narrative.
Development got going through the reunion of friends from the same Californian neighbourhood, but the game began as CEO 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 really 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, 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 trio embarked on what would become a roller coaster of a journey. In 2014, an initial 15-minute demo won the team 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, instilling confidence in the team to take the project further and launch it as 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?”
Following a successful Kickstarter, the team gained additional funding when they partnered with media company Ryot. The additional support would enable them to bring on new talent.
The main team consisted of four or five people with contracted artists coming and going throughout the process.
Bela Messex would join as a highly influential member — 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 developing the idea of controlling the game by blinking.
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 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.”
They’d figure it out in the end, of course, with the result being a story and gameplay hook that meshed brilliantly.
Efforts in ludonarrative harmony
“The success of your story is completely contingent on how much you’re willing to listen to and work with your designer.” —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: two games that envelop the player in atmosphere and environmental storytelling, while not having these elements overshadow — or be overshadowed — by the gameplay. Considering the novel method of control in Before Your Eyes, the team had to think carefully about how best to achieve this 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 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. 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:
“Each of these scenes, of which there are 120-130 scenes that you blink though in total, 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 the key 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 that we all neglect to take notice of. It’s the relationship between the blink mechanic and the story which drives this home:
“In our game, the fail state is the blink. If you blink you skip ahead, wherein most games when you fail you usually go back to the beginning.” Bela explained.
Just like in real life, you can’t hold onto a moment forever: one of many poignant messages conveyed through subversive gameplay. 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 did draw 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 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.”
The writer described to me the core message he and the team hoped to convey:
“Early on the conversations were always about regret, and 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. 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?”
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 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. Game writing is much more about feeling confident about it and staying true to a vision.”
If there was one thing that stood out to me at this point in the discussion, it was the special creative spark born out of this small team collaborating together. It’s clear each member of the team did stay true to the vision, and that the way they functioned as a small unit was at the cornerstone of the game’s success.
In AAA game development with huge teams, it’s natural not to expect much collaboration between disciplines; artists work on art, programmers on programming.
One notable developer which went against the grain here was Valve. For their games, they split off into smaller groups called Cabals, which consist 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 productive collaboration. 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. We need to follow what the players are doing, we need to let it evolve alongside the play experience. Bela really helped with this. You just have to be much more willing to rewrite, or willing to throw out things you thought would work but didn’t. 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.”
I was interested to explore what Graham and Bela considered a “player” to be, and what sort of audience they were targeting with the game. 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.
“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.”
The future of unconventional game control: Brain-controlled VR and beyond
“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. How much does a game like this track your thoughts as it does your thought impulses? ” —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), prophetically stating, “we’re way closer to The Matrix than people think”.
I asked the pair what they thought about 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 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.”
In terms of accessibility, there are clear parallels between the above and controlling a game with your eyes. For both, the possibilities for exploring player agency and choice within a game’s story are exciting, as are the implications for people with physical disabilities who can’t use a traditional controller.
Brain control is certainly taking the concept a step further, though. Although intrigued by possibilities, Bela was cautious to welcome it 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, that’s fascinating.”
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 similar inputs offer exciting opportunities. Graham described the powerful ability unconventional control has to stir emotion:
“One of the things we found is that using your body in these different ways disarms a player emotionally. I think it puts you in a different state. 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 — we actually want you 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 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 in their future endeavours.
You can read my full review of Before Your Eyes here.