Gaming

Before Your Eyes devs reveal how they created 2021’s most unforgettable video game

“Using different parts of your body for interaction opens these doors to empathy.”

As my hour and a half journey with Before Your Eyes reached its end, I could barely see the screen, thanks to the tears blurring my vision.

Somehow this webcam-controlled indie game had utterly broken me — eliciting a stronger emotional response than any TV show or album in recent memory. As the poignant riff of a guitar-led ballad softly rung out over the game’s credits, I found myself bawling uncontrollably.

Playing the debut release from LA studio GoodbyeWorld games is an incredibly powerful experience — and that’s largely down to its innovative control scheme. Reading your webcam as a controller, players use a combination of blinks and mouse movements to navigate environments, closing their eyelids to jump between protagonist Benny’s memories, as his life flashes… Before Your Eyes. (See what they did there?)

While Before Your Eyes’ emotive yarn and clever tech impress, this largely hands-free control scheme triumphs for another reason – its accessibility. Where some players can enjoy games without giving inputs much thought, complex control schemes make enjoying modern releases far more difficult for people with disabilities.

The game’s director and composer, Oliver Lewin, wasn’t expecting the outpouring of praise and emotion Before Your Eyes has elicited.

“We always talked about wanting players to walk away [from the game] with something that was meaningful,” Lewin tells Inverse, “But we didn’t expect this.”

Three core members of the development team at GoodbyeWorld Games — Lewin, CEO and founder Will Hellwarth, and lead engineer and designer Bela Messex — spoke with Inverse about why they believe accessibility is the future of video games, and revealed how they created one of gaming’s most unforgettable narratives.

The right time

In the short span since their game was released, the team has been inundated with messages from players sharing their reactions to Before Your Eyes - with many using the game to tell their own life stories. Even on a Zoom call from the other side of the planet, the team’s sense of joy feels palpable.

“Because of this last year, people are looking for a cathartic experience right now” adds Lewin, “ A lot of players have been like, “I cried my eyes out. Thank you, I really needed that.” It’s a sentiment that I understand all too well. Despite finding comfort in many stories during the pandemic, Before Your Eyes’ reflective take on mortality and anxieties about the future was the first story that really allowed me to open the emotional floodgates.

Chatting with the team just an hour after finishing my devastating playthrough, it was comforting to hear that even the game’s creators struggled to hold back tears.

“I'm probably the most jaded person to this game, and even I started crying,“ reflects Hellwarth. “I had a really rough year. I lost my dad to Covid - and a lot of Before Your Eyes was about my dad, as I’ve always worried about him dying. I knew the script and yet I still cried two-thirds of the way through — and I didn’t stop until the end. I guess even I needed this game.”

A new way to play

GoodbyeWorld Games

Co-director Graham Parkes' brilliant writing is a huge reason for the game’s emotional catharsis, yet its story wouldn’t feel so personal without your body calling the shots. Staring intensely into my webcam, with each blink, I instantly leave the memory on-screen behind – sometimes mid-conversation. As the story progresses, I find myself physically straining to keep my eyes open, willing my annoyingly over-sensitive eyes not to blink. For the first time in 30 years, I find myself completely focused on an action I usually perform without a second thought.

“Back in 2014, we decided to use the players’ eyes as our controller — and we knew the story had to be about time passing, “ recalls Messex, “When you think about blinking, you have your eyes closed — it's about what you're missing. So there was just this really natural sort of metaphorical partnership between that and a reflective story of looking back at a person’s life.”

This strange new focus on your physicality becomes oddly meditative — syncing up your actions with the screen in a way that mashing a button simply can’t match. As this brilliantly woven tale begins to unravel, your level of empathy - and attachment to - protagonist Benny deepens. For Lead Engineer and Designer Bela Messex, he hopes the limited control scheme of Before Your Eyes will help players better understand the experiences of people with physical limitations.

GoodbyeWorld Games

“Using different parts of your body for interaction opens these doors to empathy,” says Messex,“ You’re basically controlling the game with your subconscious, which is what blinks are. This different, unusual kind of interaction opens new doors for understanding.”

Yet this innovative input method is of course even more beneficial for those who find using a controller difficult. While we often take how we play video games for granted, there are many who simply can’t enjoy the medium due to restrictive controller and input designs. It’s why for Hellwarth, making accessible games has always been an important part of his work.

“I had a friend who was in a motorcycle accident in game design school, and he suddenly had very limited use of his hands. He told me ‘I can only play certain types of games,’ and would often comment ‘it's really nice when games offer controller remapping.’ Until I met him, I thought that video games were all about skill and multiplayer, competitive stuff. It made me realize how many video games are completely unusable to so many people,” he explains.

Still, not every aspect of Before Your Eyes can be controlled with blinking; players use the mouse cursor to move the camera around. The unique control scheme is a huge achievement, but that doesn’t stop this scrappy indie team from downplaying the brilliance of what they have accomplished.

“If we had more time and familiarity with blinking, I would want to see even more accessibility,” Messex reflects. “I would love to see a game that is controlled via webcam with just your eye movement, which we experimented with, but sadly it didn’t work. Still, this is our first game as a studio and also the first game ever to use blinks. We had to discover ourselves as a studio and learn about this new technology on our own.”

Looking ahead

GoodbyeWorld Games

Thanks to the game’s early success, the team is now hard at work making Before Your Eyes even more accessible.

“We’ve always wanted to have a game that someone who only has use of their eyes is able to play — and play well,” says Hellwarth, “At the risk of Peter Molyneux-ing here, I think that there's gonna be an eye-only version [of Before Your Eyes] at some point. It's really, really hard with the webcam, but there's some 3D trackers that are built around doing this and really simplifying it. I want to work with them in the future, for sure.”

Following the pioneering work that companies like Microsoft are doing for accessibility in gaming, Messex hopes that at the very least, Before Your Eyes will make people aware of different players’ needs.

“People should be talking about making games from the get-go using different types of interactive inputs,” agrees Messex, “At this point, what we have to do is sort of continue that exploration and bring more people into the conversation.”

When it comes to bringing more people into the conversation, it looks like GoodbyeWorld Games is achieving its mission. As well as the growing love from the enthusiast press and hardcore community, Before Your Eyes has also been a huge success among those typically intimidated by games. Thanks to its minimal input commands and social media notoriety on Tik Tok and YouTube, many non-gamers seem to be discovering the power of interactive entertainment for the first time.

GoodbyeWorld Games

“Really new mechanics have a kind of disarming effect on everyone,” reflects Lewin. “I've been kind of obsessively watching streamers play the game, and I've seen literal pro gamers who happen to blink too much. And in that sense, they’re maybe not as good at the game as this non-gamer with a laptop. ”

For many ‘pro’ players, it’s a humbling realization, and one that will hopefully make a sometimes insular community a bit more welcoming of newcomers. The interactive nature of video games makes them a uniquely powerful tool for creating empathy, and the more people that can enjoy them - the better.

“The disarming quality of the control scheme makes [Before Your Eyes] a universal experience. It doesn’t matter what kind of game literacy you have going in — you just need a webcam and a computer that can run it,” says Messex.

Just as crucially, the success of Before Your Eyes shows that there is a market for accessible games. As conversations around welcoming players with disabilities grow, let’s hope that more developers take note.

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