No game takes the old saying "gone before you blink" as literally as Before Your Eyes. The narrative experience from GoodByeWorld Games drives a powerful story fueled by memories across a lifetime. Telling his tale to a mysterious ferryman in the afterlife, flashbacks of Benjamin Brynn's life flicker by with a blink of an eye, going from his early childhood until his eventual passing.
Before Your Eyes has a riveting, touching story full of childhood friendship, hopes, and dreams; it isn't a grand tale, but it hits close to home. Yet even more compelling than its content are its mechanics.
The game uses a webcam to detect eye movement -- blinking and closing -- in order for players to interact with and progress the narrative. In some cases, pointing the mouse at a specific object allows players to "activate it" with a blink. In others, a blink moves on from the current moment. Most scenes are very short, representing the fleeting nature of memory. While a scene won't end so long as players eyes remain open, they eventually have to blink and move onto the next part.
"The mechanic came for an idea of a game where life flashes before your eyes," said Graham Parkes, lead writer and creative director at GoodByeWorld Games, in an interview with Game Developer. "You're trying to hold on to these moments but inevitably you're going to have to blink. There's stake in this feeling or disappointment. We wanted the message to be that you have to learn to accept and celebrate what you have."
Gone before you blink
That feeling of fleeting memories is felt through the impermanence of each scene; as we witness his parents trying to teach Ben piano to transform him into a prodigy, there's often more to hear, but we can't stay. As soon as a metronome symbol appears at the bottom of the screen, the next blink will take us away. In some scenes, it pays off to resist blinking in order to get a little more context or find some Easter eggs or achievements, but ultimately the team made sure to keep all the important story tidbits early in the scenes.
"How do we give people a story even if they blink too early?" said Bela Messex, lead programmer and lead designer on Before Your Eyes. "The mechanic was very much in danger of taking away from the story of the game because it was too powerful. The biggest challenge was how to tell a coherent story even if you skip most of it."
Parkes had to make sure to write the important parts early on in the scenes, but in their extensive testing, they also noticed that some scenes weren't long enough. To help with that, the two main voice actors ad-libbed later parts of the scenes, playing up the father-mother relationship. Parkes knew Sarah Burns (as the mother Elle) and Eric Edelstein (as the father Richard) from working on a short film before. Burns plays a musician who tries to carry the legacy of her father, a composer, but ends up in accounting, and tries to push the main character to be a music prodigy.
The themes of music and art resonate throughout the game, layering a building soundtrack throughout relating scenes that sometimes rapidly pass for the player. Music ended up covering over half of the game's small art budget.
"Our game director, Oliver Lewin, is a very gifted composer, so we made music really central. Our audio lead, Dillon Terry, produced tracks and layered them using Wwise, it really helped, which allows you to have player actions affect the music beat by beat," said Parkes. "Focusing on music is something I decided early on, also thanks to the composition of our team."
Glasses, eyes, and webcams: spectacular engineering
Eye strain can definitely be a concern when picking up a game focused on the eyes. Though there are moments where it really pays off to stare unblinking, part of that physical pain and frustration is intentional.
"The physical pain gives you an incentive to leave the scene, but your body fights it," said Messex. "That's the point, the point of the game is to let it go and not to keep your eyes open for as long as possible. There's a couple of 'game theory' things that you could apply to it, but probably the most straightforward answer to this is 'keep the game short.'"
Messex posed a bigger question: how does one get this blinking-recognition technology to work in any environment, with any lighting, with various webcams and PCs? It took the team years to polish a Unity plug-in as the starting point, which initially required strict positioning and angles to work effectively.
Richard Beare, an electrical engineer by trade, joined the team in 2017, and took the ULSee Unity plugin they initially worked with and rewrote it.
"I developed an adaptive algorithm that calibrates to the features on your face. It would work better in certain conditions and adapt to them," Beare said. "It has points on the left and right side of your eyes, the top and bottom. But you also have to take into account someone's head rotation — then those points shrink. What if someone's squinting?"
Over lots of trial and error, Beare said he got the framework about 80 percent of the way over the first few weeks. Some of the design iterations happened in small chunks over three years, and it often involved cutting down some features of the algorithm. The company ended up buying as many webcam models as possible (a bit difficult during the pandemic, they said) to facilitate testing.
Beare had another challenge standing in the way of accessibility for many players: glasses. Reflections off glasses can cause the face tracking to lose detection. The game asks about glasses and suggests a brightly lit room with ambient light, which aims to significantly mitigate reflection.
"On average, with glasses, we've found that the detection is less sensitive and doesn't catch blinks as reliably," said Beare. "There are many adjustable 'knobs' in the algorithm, and some of them had more impact over blink sensitivity. I found two of those parameters that allowed it to be more sensitive to subtle eye motion: sensitivity to the rate of change of eye movement and the threshold that would automatically adapt to your eye shape."
Beare had no previous game development experience, but he cites that as a plus, with his electrical engineering experience proving useful. Messex initially studied interactive sculpture, while Parkes worked in TV and film with a minor in game design under his belt.
"We have people from a diverse set of backgrounds and skills," Beare said. "You can really vibe off each other and produce something amazing when your skills are complementary and often different."
Seeing eye to eye with Kickstarter and funding
Before Your Eyes evolved from a student project, Close Your, which won IndieCade and IGF awards in 2014 and 2015. A prototype for a game to play by blinking, the graphics and design of Close Your weren't as presentable. However, the story and the concept resonated strongly with those who played it. The 10-15 minute experience led to continuous development of their next title until its April release this year. The proof of concept convinced GoodByeWorld Games to keep going with this idea.
"Even with this much-less produced version of it, it would still produce tears in people and emotional reactions," said Parkes. "If it's working in its most basic form, that's always a sign that you got something you should keep building on."
Over the years, the team built experience working around the blinking mechanic by writing various stories around it, learning better and better how to work with it. Parkes describes those years as "dark and difficult." Even though the Kickstarter succeeded in 2017, ($35,000 from backers out of a $20,000 goal), the team couldn't deliver the game. A large reason for that was the fact that most team members had full-time jobs to support themselves and could only work on the project occasionally.
A partnership with RYOT (a Verizon Media content lab) saved the project, granting the much-needed funds to allow the team to work on the game full-time (and hire Messex).
"Getting investment helps in multiple ways. It brings structure, a sense of excitement, a deadline," said Parkes. "Indie development with just passion can let things slip. Having that external sense of structure helped whip us into shape. But if we didn't have that strong mechanical hook, we probably wouldn't be here."
"What helps your game stand out is something that is fresh and new," said Messex. "Right now, there isn't a game that uses face-tracking the way that we do. The closest thing that I can think of are Snapchat filters. I wonder how many people had a similar idea to us, but threw it out? You have to stand out somehow, and that will help you get a publisher."
In 2020, publisher Skybound Games took on the project, providing some additional funds, and helping with QA and localization. Parkes mentions that one good thing to think about early is translation and having the engine ready to handle it. The way the game's dialogue was produced made it difficult to retroactively modify it into different languages.
With the story of Before Your Eyes turning out successfully, the team turns to their next project in a similar vein. Parkes said they plan on exploring face-tracking in new ways and want to push the medium with new narrative experiences.
"Our purpose is telling stories and reaching people's hearts."