“Blink and you’ll miss it,” is something of an old adage, usually prescribed to an event happening so fast that you’ll need to focus your complete attention to actually witness it. This is how publisher Skybound Games chose to present one of the trailers for Before Your Eyes, a game that uses a camera to track the player’s blinks to progress the game.
While this mechanic was originally conceptualized in 2014, before a Kickstarter appeared in 2016 for Close Your (the title that would eventually become Before Your Eyes), it wasn’t until 2021 that it would release as a fully realized project. The game pairs soft, rounded visuals with a melancholy narrative that demonstrates what the passing of time can mean to an individual person. It also tackles the great question of what comes after death.
Players assume the role of Benny Brynn, an errant soul wandering the afterlife, freshly plucked from the river styx by the enigmatic Ferryman — a strange, dog-like creature that explains the premise of the game. To gain passage to the afterlife, players must experience Benny’s life from his first memory to his very last. Through these memories, we also meet Benny’s mother, whose failure to become a renowned composer makes her project her regrets onto Benny. However, Before Your Eyes quickly spins what could be a predictable narrative of a child inheriting impossible expectations into a powerful tale about the lies we tell ourselves to get through our darkest moments.
The narrative also heavily interrogates the societal expectation (in some cases, cultural) that we must leave something grand behind after we pass on. Before Your Eyes is acutely aware of how the need for awards, accolades, and praise can weigh on a person — it also understands how quickly the parent-child relationship can fray as a result. It’s this very tension that strains Benny’s relationship with his mother, and fuels the game’s examination of poignant, fleeting moments that Benny can never get back, despite reflecting on them mournfully.
Before Your Eyes deploys Egyptian mythology as the story’s backbone. The Ferryman draws clear inspiration from Anubis, as he judges the soul of a child so desperate to paint the picture of a life well lived that he lies. Benny did not die an accomplished artist with a substantial legacy, but instead as a hopeful child musician. Benny’s deceit is called out when the Ferryman makes Benny relive his earliest experiences with death. The first finds Benny eavesdropping on a phone conversation about his grandfather’s passing. The second is much more grisly: It forces you to stare, unblinking, as coyotes push around the corpses of kittens you had just moments before watched nurse on the family’s beloved cat.
“The Ferryman is probably a good example of Benny’s fear. He’s the coyote who is constantly trying to pry the truth out of Benny,” Lead Artist Hana Lee told me in a recent Twitter DM. “This directly ties into the very tense scene where Benny sees a pack of coyotes eating his cats. The existential fear that Benny felt from recalling this memory makes the game transition to him telling the truth about his life.”
It is in that taste of existentialism that Benny finally begins to confront his own mortality. These short, but increasingly meaningful instances draw upon a child’s understanding of life and death; something simple, but sorrowful and harsh. The vignettes are deeply affecting on their own, but by making the player relive these instances in their entirety, it forces them to reconcile with their own understanding of mortality, and how their perception has shifted from childhood to the present. In exploring our own perceptions of death, Before Your Eyes challenges the notion of a “meaningful” legacy. It instead purports that the life we’ve lived is enough, including hardships we may have faced along that journey, and ugly truths we may not have been willing to face otherwise.
Along with the game’s unique use of blinking, Before Your Eyes has created a convincing narrative that works in tandem with the mechanic. Its storybook-style visuals help soften an otherwise tragic narrative that makes a child confront one of humanity’s darkest fears. And despite the severity of its subject matter, the game handles this theme with care, opting for hope: It elevates the interpersonal relationships we forge with one another as something worth being proud of. Before Your Eyes questions whether awards and renown are the only worthy legacies we can leave behind. Instead, it suggests that maybe, the life we’re living, as mundane as it may seem, is already a story worth telling.