Before Your Eyes Review: Don't Look Away
Sitting down to write this review, I found myself totally wordless for the first time ever in my career. I've started and stopped these first few sentences half a dozen times, deleting every attempt before this one, not knowing what to say or how to say it.
Eventually, I landed on these specific words that you're reading now, the ones cataloging my discomfort and frank awe after having played Before Your Eyes. I didn't know how else to do it justice other than to just sit in it.
Some long-winded intro about its novel game design or the unique qualities of interactive media just seemed improper as a starting place. This is a game that earns accolades in those areas, and I'll get to them, but its lasting impact is felt, overwhelmingly and long after you've hit the credits. Before Your Eyes is a game like no other, so it's no wonder it's brought me to the brink of paralysis.
Before Your Eyes Review: Don't Look Away
Before Your Eyes' concept, and really its thesis, is in its name. You know how people say your life may flash before your eyes? This experimental indie from GoodbyeWorld Games tries to gamify that in such a manner I don't believe anyone else has ever done.
In Before Your Eyes, players relive the life experiences of a person named Benjamin Brynn. Played in first-person, Ben's first moment in the game is aboard a ferry to some sort of afterlife.
The Ferryman of this vessel, an anthropomorphic wolf who dreams of being a stellar orator, acts sort of as your advocate. He brings you to the doors of the gatekeeper, who determines if your life was extraordinary enough to earn safe passage into whatever's next. It's as though the place beyond purgatory is an exclusive club, and The Ferryman helps you fill out your application.
From there, you recount your life's tale to The Ferryman so he can prepare to grandiosely submit it for further scrutiny, and in this moment, the game's unique central mechanic takes over.
Using a webcam, Before Your Eyes tracks your face with particular attention paid to your blinking habits. With each scene, beginning from infancy and extending to much later in life, players will witness as much of a moment in time as they can before blinking.
Refrain from blinking and you'll linger in a scene long enough to hear more conversation, perhaps even all a scene has to offer. Blink earlier in the scene, and you'll lose part of the moment forever. Time jumps accompany every blink, so you never know if you're advancing to later that day or later that decade.
That's not to say each scene should be treated like an endurance test. On the contrary, there is something satisfying about blinking midscene and losing some of the memory. It's realistic in that way. When we recount our most cherished, or perhaps most painful, memories, we don't replay them shot-for-shot. They are hazy, perhaps even dreamlike, more evocative than documentary.
We confabulate to fill in the gaps we forget. We act first and rationalize after the fact. As years go by, this process only burrows itself further into our minds to the point where one day we have this narrative, like a storybook of our own lives, where every action had a clear consequence and every choice was apparent at the moment we made it, but it's hardly ever truly that way.
Before Your Eyes captures this magnificently by giving players moments to affect the story in subtle ways, but one can never really see where it's going. Benjamin, like all of us, forms a story in his head that makes sense of his place on the ferry, but by the end of the 90-minute experience, you remember the universe is fueled by unpredictable chaos, not the sort of order Ben had devised for himself.
The webcam usage is opt-in and Before Your Eyes is totally playable as a more traditional narrative adventure, where mouse-clicks stand-in for your blinking. The game loses a bit of its magic when played this way, as a few crucial scenes that demand you don't blink or else reset a moment are given this cheat code of simply resisting the click rather than holding your eyes open. But some of the game's most powerful moments ask you to instead close your eyes, which I found were just as affecting without the camera so long as I still kept my eyes closed anyway.
The voice acting is always at least very good and more often exceptional, while the stylized visuals offer a painterly setting that comes into focus as Benjamin the infant begins to understand the world around him. As he grows older, you'll see his life from behind the camera, at his piano, and beside his best friend, each time through his artful eyes, which allows the game to get rather exploratory with its visuals.
Every scene includes only what's important to the memory, fittingly. No one could recall every tile or tree, car or cabinet, from even their happiest moment, so Ben instead remembers the important things like how his mother dressed on the day of his piano audition, or how his best friend wore her hair the night they snuck out to sleep under the stars.
Whether it's played with or without the camera, the sights and sounds of Before Your Eyes are beautiful, often hauntingly so. Each scene has a purpose, there's not a moment wasted, and the small cast collectively pulls you an intimate portrayal of one person's life and the loved ones who surrounded him. Despite the supernatural introduction, this is a very grounded, human story about a boy, a family, a neighbor, and what a life well-lived might look like to those leaving it behind permanently.
So much of what makes Before Your Eyes unforgettable is tied to spoilers no one should ever have ruined for them, but if you're like me, the best endorsement one could give to this game is to know that it will break you.
Without a doubt, Before Your Eyes is one of the most memorable, cathartic, gut punches ever made in video games. Its unique use of blinking to advance the story is no gimmick either. It genuinely improves the game in a way only video games can really benefit from, by putting players behind Ben's eyes, daring them not to look away should they want to hold onto a moment just a bit longer.
Just when I'd think I had Before Your Eyes figured out, the proverbial rug would be pulled out from under me, knocking me down. This happened so many times in just 90 minutes that by the end I could hardly stand up anymore. This is a game that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and does it. Impressive enough even if it had modest goals, Before Your Eyes dreams bigger by introducing novel mechanics and telling a twisting story that would need to hide the magician's prestige until exactly the right moment.
That's precisely how it played out for me, and I'd be surprised to hear anyone figures this one out before the game wants them to. This consistent excellence, accented most of all in the game's final minutes, makes the 90-minute experience my favorite game of 2021, and in fact, one of my most cherished games I've ever played.
Before Your Eyes Review — The Bottom Line
- An unforgettable tale examining what makes a life well-lived
- Gorgeous visuals give the world an authentic but painterly tone
- An inventive mechanic that uses your real-life blinking to play the game
- Heartstring-tugging music hits hard
- Has something to say and does so eloquently
- Opting out of the webcam gameplay dampens some of the game's magic
Before Your Eyes is the kind of game that only comes around once or twice a decade. Its novel approach to the narrative adventure genre is genius and yet unlikely to ever be duplicated. It fits perfectly, but only really here, in Ben's story.
Just as Edith Finch and Firewatch before it told stories only games can tell and used mechanics we would likely never see borrowed elsewhere, Before Your Eyes feels like it's immediately timeless and permanently unique.
[Note: Skybound Games provided the copy of Before Your Eyes used for this review.]