A small project about blinking through life became a seven-year journey
It was during IndieCade 2014 that the team behind indie hit Before Your Eyes knew they had something. They were showing a student project, titled Close Your at the time. And even in its earliest state, it was emotionally resonating with people who played it.
“People were crying, you know, after sitting down with it for 15 minutes,” remembers Graham Parkes, creative director and lead writer at GoodbyeWorld Games.
The group had brought a student project to show off, next to up-and-coming experiences like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. They didn’t know at the time that it would kick off a seven-year journey, eventually leading to a published release under Skybound and a BAFTA.
Will Hellwarth, Oliver Lewin, and Graham Parkes all knew each other growing up. The old high school buddies met at a young age before splintering off to different places for higher education. Parkes went to NYU to study playwriting; Lewin studied music at the New School; and Hellwarth went to USC, to study game design.
It started with Hellwarth figuring out how webcams could utilize eye-tracking. Leveraging a demo from Mixamo, an animation company in San Francisco, Hellwarth used it to read and react to the movement of someone’s eyes via the built-in webcam.
Around the same time in the indie scene, Brendon Chung and Blendo Games had been making waves with Thirty Flights of Loving. Its use of cuts, a film-making concept transposed into video games, would soon collide with the webcam tech, as Hellwarth conceived the basic concept for Close Your. Parkes says they started to pick up on this tension of holding onto memories as you blink through them.
“And so we very quickly got to this idea of life flashing before your eyes,” Parkes says. “Let’s do a whole life. Let’s jump through an entire person’s life in a single game.”
Hellwarth and several others from USC, alongside Parkes and Lewin, who composed music for the project, put together Close Your. The crew took it to IndieCade, where it won the Dev’s Choice Award. Then, at IGF 2015, Close Your would win the Student Award, at the same show where Outer Wilds, 80 Days, and This War of Mine took home trophies.
The team saw the awards and the emotional reactions to the project. Parkes describes that early version of what would become Before Your Eyes as rudimentary, similar to a sketch. But there was something there, and the team had ideas on how to make it better. So it turned, like many indies of the time did, to Kickstarter.
Eyes wide open
For a new start-up, Kickstarter offered a lot of enticing opportunities. It can encourage a little groundswell, and get funding to the developers; in this case, to help GoodbyeWorld Games, as they dubbed themselves, secure the support needed to add more features. A long and more branching narrative, an emotional score, and homegrown blink recognition software that would work on any computer with a webcam were all part of the goals.
At first, GoodbyeWorld said it accounted for a margin of error. But it would be years before Close Your would ever morph into Before Your Eyes. Parkes acknowledges that, as years went on, the project was in a rocky place.
“A lot of people had other commitments,” Parkes said. “We had realized that we had asked for too little money, we’d over-scoped, we had over-promised. But we really didn’t want to be, you know, one of those failed Kickstarters.”
Much of the original team was made up of students involved with the project from USC, alongside a few from outside the school. And as time went on, the team size reduced.
“As years go by on a scrappy project, peoples’ lives move in different directions and the team lineup evolves because of that,” Lewin told me. “Some of the original crew went on to work at AAA companies, some went outside of the games industry. Some people stuck with it from inception to completion, and some people (very important ones) came on in the last year.”
But the crew kept working away at it, even as it was a nights-and-weekends project. And soon, new funding arrived. In 2018, Verizon Media’s Ryot would let them “take a bigger swing” at the project. More members could go full-time, and more people could be brought on.
Floating on the river
This also let GoodbyeWorld Games step back and figure out exactly what kind of story they wanted to tell. Inspiration came from many places—the Book of the Dead, psychopomps, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, and even Parkes’ own time dealing with chronic illness.
What emerged was what you see in Before Your Eyes today. Players see through the eyes of someone who died, and is having their life rolled back to judge whether it was a life lived well. Like the weighing of a soul against a feather, the player blinks their way through many twists and choices, with the ultimate question of whether it was all done well hangs overhead.
To say more would ruin what is, ultimately, a concise and wonderful story. It deals with heavy topics and material, finding the bittersweet and even sometimes the little joys in every moment. Because, in Before Your Eyes, you can’t stay in one moment forever.
“You can hang on for as long as you can, but you’re gonna have to blink,” said Parkes. “And so that failure is sort of embedded in there. You’re going to lose, like how you’re going to die. And then the question sort of becomes, are you raging against that? And what makes your time valuable? Is it about, you know, how much you try to fight and maximize your time? Or is it more about sort of learning to appreciate the moments that you do have?”
Before Your Eyes asks what a moment means to someone, and how long they might push to stay in it. And especially, whether all those moments add up to some greater perceived value of a life.
Parkes says it all clicked around the idea of what our world labels as greatness. But in a pursuit of greatness, the value of goodness is often missed.
Soon, the project was brought in front of Skybound Games, not too long after COVID-19 lockdowns started. Skybound signed on, and Before Your Eyes was set to launch on April 8, 2021.
Expectations were, as the GoodbyeWorld crew put it to me, modest. The team had been going through rounds of testing, trying to account for tons of use cases. Everything from low-light and glasses to wearing a balaclava was on the docket.
GoodbyeWorld Games also added an accessibility feature, which allowed for users to click to blink, rather than use the webcam. Lewin notes that webcams are, themselves, a factor in playing this game or not; the pandemic made webcam adoption much more widespread, but the team still wanted to make sure that people could play their game, even if they didn’t own or couldn’t reasonably use a webcam to do so.
Parkes jokes that there’s already many other ways to “cheese” the blinks anyways. One he mentions, literally drawing eyes on a sheet of paper and holding them up to the webcam, is remarkable in its ingenuity.
GoodbyeWorld was shocked and humbled by the reception they saw. After winning the award back at IndieCade, they had lofty aspirations; but after years of development, they were just looking forward to having a game on Steam. Once a tech demo in a parking lot, Before Your Eyes would win a BAFTA in 2022 in the Games Beyond Entertainment category.
And yet the development team referenced seeing others play it, when I asked them about the reception to the game. Lewin jokes that it’s like getting to go on the first date again. After years of growing, developing, and building up towards it, Before Your Eyes was finally playable for the public.
The next vignette
What’s next for GoodbyeWorld Games? Well, a few things. The team teases that it’s working on two projects under the GoodbyeWorld banner right now.
They won’t elaborate too much, but one of them does feel like a “continuation” of Before Your Eyes, exploring more of what the studio calls “camera as controller.” Essentially, cameras as a way to control video games.
They’re also exploring ways of bringing Before Your Eyes to new players. One notable way is the news that, in collaboration with Netflix, the team is bringing Before Your Eyes to phones. Many devices have cameras built in, and that makes it a natural fit for a port.
Whatever is next, the GoodbyeWorld crew certainly seems like they’re ready for it. After years of development, working and reworking a student concept into an award-winning game, the team has learned a lot. And while it resulted in one excellent game, it also gave them a drive.
Lewin told me about how the team wants to make things no one else does. “We only really want to be doing this if we are in our own little world, with our team, making something that we know no one else is really going to do and there’s no competition out there.”
So I think it’s safe to say that whatever is next for the Before Your Eyes team, it’ll be something quite different. Don’t blink and miss it.