If you're looking for a unique, one-of-a-kind experience unlike anything you've played before, we highly recommend checking out Before Your Eyes from indie developer GoodbyeWorld Games.
At its core, the game centers around blinking as a gameplay mechanic, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in a story of life, death, and memories. Dig a little deeper though, and you'll find there's a lot more to the game than meets the eye.
After playing through the game twice, we found ourselves eager to learn more about the game's inspirations and development, and so we reached out to the team at GoodbyeWorld Games.
Speaking with Oliver Lewin (Game Director/Composer) and Graham Parkes (Writer/Creative Director), we were given key insight into topics like the formation of GoodbyeWorld Games and the personal experiences that helped influence the game's story.
Here's what we learned...
Before Your Eyes | Interview With Oliver Lewin and Graham Parkes of GoodbyeWorld Games
How many people are working on Before Your Eyes, and how did you all connect with one another on the project?
Graham: I’ve known Ollie since we were three years old, we were neighbors. And then Will, who’s sort of the third lead, was a friend of mine from middle school. We all went to different colleges. Will studied game design at USC, and this began as Will’s thesis project.
He discovered there was technology in most commercial webcams that could do eye tracking and he had this idea to do a narrative game about life flashing before your eyes using actual player blinks.
I was at NYU at the time studying playwriting, I had a minor in game design, and Ollie was at school studying music composition. Will brought me in to write the story and Ollie to do the music. There were also a lot of great collaborators at USC that were working on it, and our old friend Griffin who’s doing the art.
Will rallied a bunch of old friends and new together to make this thesis project and he ended up submitting that to IndieCade. It ended up getting in, and then when it got in we all rallied again to do a bunch more work around it, and it ended up winning the Developer’s Choice Award at IndieCade.
As the game got more ambitious we took it to GDC where it won the Student Award. After that, there was some actual outside interest and so we decided ok, let’s make the real version of this thing, and we went to Kickstarter.
By the time that we get to the Kickstarter we’re starting to get on track to the game that you play now.
Image Source: Kickstarter
Oliver: That went up to the Kickstarter, and that was in 2016. We had a successful Kickstarter campaign, we thought we were off to the races, but like so many first-time teams it’s a lot harder than you think turning it into a legit team with an actual product deadline.
And so we struggled with that, but we were able to secure some additional funding from this company Ryot that enabled us to expand the team more to what we needed. To your question of specifically the amount of people on the team, it’s fluctuated since that period where we secured more funding – that was in 2018.
Typically four to eight people at any given moment, it’s usually pretty right there in the middle. A week ago I think there were about five or six of us actively working on the project.
From that point forth after we got some additional funding we really started making the game in earnest with the resources that we needed, and then ultimately we arrived at our partnership with Skybound who are publishing the game and that’s taken us up to this point now, so it’s been a long road.
Graham: Before 2018 it was very much something that we had to moonlight, sort of a nights and weekends endeavor. When Ryot came on we were able to have an actual budget – that was when we wrote our new script and we settled on our final story and scope.
In a lot of ways we see 2018 as the beginning of the process on the current iteration you see of Before Your Eyes, but we had had all these other versions and they all had different names before it.
On the version we have, I would say five or six core team members, only three of which are always full-time and then people who are rotating in and out like our artists who work on more of a contract basis.
What were some of the team’s inspirations in developing a game like Before Your Eyes, are any aspects of the game drawn from personal experiences?
Graham: Absolutely, I think Will could speak better to some of this stuff. I think a lot of his initial inspirations – and all of our inspirations – in terms of other games were Blendo Games stuff like Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone.
These were smaller indie games that were coming out around the time that we started this, and they were some of the first indie games to utilize these kinds of jump cuts. Narrative games that as you’re moving through them, you suddenly jump and you’re somewhere else.
I think Will saw those and was like wow, what if we combine this with the blink tracking to create this cinematic experience. I come from a film background, so that was super exciting to me of controlling the cut with your eyes.
Early on, Will wanted this to be a game about death and how we process death and life. In most games it’s an empowerment narrative of, “I can stay in a space as long as I like and find collectibles and control it that way.”
I think what was so interesting about this game is the inevitability of a blink. That’s a physical process that the player can fight against, but at some point you’re going to have to blink.
There was something very poignant about that for us, and so we always wanted to bake that poignancy into the narrative. This has to be a game about accepting the fact that in life you can fight and you can try but at the end of the day time is going to move forward and life is going to move forward.
We saw this as a game about helping the player come to terms with that, but when you ask about personal influences, I think we tried a lot of versions of this story that were a little more abstract in all those prototype versions.
I would say we wrote probably three full scripts before we got to the one that we felt great about. I think it was when we brought in more personal stuff.
We had the benefit of all growing up together, growing up in a similar neighborhood, and early on in that process when we had that next chance of doing the game we knew this was a great opportunity to bring in more of our personal stories.
We even started digitizing old family photos and watching home movies and trying to really bring ourselves into the game.
The game that you see now is really a reflection of a lot of memories and personal things and things that resonate with us.
Does the game’s story feature more of a linear narrative, or can the player make choices that lead to different paths and scenes in the game?
Graham: That’s something that was always important to us, that it wasn’t just a straightforward linear narrative.
I would say that the game definitely has one story that it’s telling, but there are key moments where you get to make choices that will inform sort of the texture and some things that happen down the road.
What was the creative process like in coming up with visuals for things like character designs for the Ferryman or the ways in which different memories are shared?
Oliver: In terms of the character design, Hana Lee is our lead artist and did the designs for all the characters then modeled them, so there’s definitely Hana’s vision in those.
We went through a lot of iterations with the Ferryman, just with finding something that felt a little bit scary but also friendly, a little comical... I’m really happy with that.
In terms of the global look of the game, I would say there was certainly a breakthrough where Graham and Coyan (who was our 3D art lead at the time) and I had the realization that to go through so many memories and so many different environments so quickly there needed to be some kind of visual focusing principle.
That’s how we arrived at using these techniques like the paint splotch look of it where there’s blackness surrounding a memory, and then there are more visual focal points, and the memory seeps in front of your eyes.
Also using depth of field techniques with the camera to help focus you which is also an economical technique for small indie teams like us where you don’t have the resources to actually create the 3D props for an entire life so those were kind of our key guiding lines initially.
Graham: We were always trying to build out the environments more fully but they ended up feeling kind of empty. It was one of those great breakthrough moments where you realize you don’t have the time or the money – especially because our game is so much about breadth of environment – you don’t have the time or money to do that right.
And then you come up with this idea of revealing things – making each space only reveal the thing that matters – and it kills two birds with one stone. It’s something that was born of limitations, but I think it made the game play and work so much better cinematically because you could suddenly always guide the player’s attention to what was important in that scene.
It was almost like what the camera can do in a movie where it can focus you on one element in an environment. This was this kind of workaround way to kind of get that focusing effect so that we could really guide the player’s consciousness.
Definitely one of those happy accidents that’s born out of limitation.
Oliver: And it allowed us to do certain kinds of tricks as well like when we use mo-cap, we weren’t able to do that for every scene. So you’ll see in some scenes the characters talking and then they walk out into the blackness and that allows us to carry on with the dialogue without having to animate every little detail of it.
Is it similar with the sound design in the way you incorporate voice acting and musical elements with the visuals?
Graham: Those are two big things. Ollie is both our game director and project manager and our composer so he can go deep into the music stuff, but I think it’s really one of the strong suits of the game.
In terms of voice acting, because I have that sort of film background, that was something I very quickly zeroed in on when we had the bigger budget. Before we’d always done text, we’d never done voice, and I quickly knew that with this I really want to get a great voice cast together and really lean on them.
We’re super happy with our voice cast.
Stephen Friedrich plays the Ferryman, he also did all the mo-cap for him and he plays a smattering of other characters.
Ollie’s girlfriend Heidi – who’s not an actor, she was just being very helpful at doing all the temp – was our temp for Chloe who’s the neighbor friend. Her temp became so popular among the team that we were like alright, she’s got the part.
Much to her dismay I think at points because she does not consider herself an actor, but we think her performance is so strong and one of the most charming things in the game.
And then for the mom and dad we cast Eric Edelstein and Sarah Burns and we’ve actually made a short film with them before and they’re just amazing character actors. They know each other well and they’re good friends.
We weren’t always able to – especially at the end with COVID, the last batch they had to do separately – but one of the really fun things with their VO sessions is we tried to make sure to bring them in together so they could play off each other and you don’t get that stilted VO that you sometimes hear where you can tell those actors are in two different locations and you’re piecing it together.
You can make that work, but having those two in the same room and really playing off each other in those scenes (whether those are comic scenes, later in the game they become quite emotional scenes) I think it really brings a life to it and a drama.
And allowing them to be loose with the lines, they’re great improvers. I’d write one version of a scene, but we need these scenes to go so long because it’s like writing a scene in a film, you don’t know where the cut’s going to go.
It might be a 10 second scene, it might be a 50-minute long scene, so it was really helpful to have actors who could really play and live in their characters and go past the point where I stopped writing and just have fun and keep exploring.
We were super lucky to have the two of them, and the entire voice cast on board.
Oliver: In terms of the music, it’s similar to the visuals. There’s this question of what makes something a memory as opposed to just a normal lived experience. With the music and sound design – we had an amazing sound designer Dillon Terry – there’s this added job of helping to smooth over this gameplay where you’re jumping between memories really fast.
Which is pretty atypical for a player to jump through so many environments so quickly, and so the music and the sound design is there at times to help smooth that journey. For the sound, I think it comes down to that thing of, “What do you remember?”
Not necessarily the perfect, accurate sonic picture of every scene, but what would you remember from the sound of your fifth grade classroom? Or the bedroom that you were staying in through a summer?
It’s finding those key elements that feel nostalgic, and the music helps to reinforce that too. They always say sound can really help the shortcomings of a low budget, and so with the voice acting and the sound design and the music we just tried to try to support the story as much as we could.
Were there any technical challenges in incorporating the blinking into the story, and why did you choose to use a webcam versus something like a VR headset?
Oliver: There are tons of technical challenges that come with trying to repurpose blinking and your eyelids as an input for interaction. Making sure that the algorithm isn’t detecting a twitch as a blink, or a movement of the head as a blink.
That’s something that our lead engineer Richard Beare spent countless hours optimizing. On more of a design level, there’s the question also of do you want every blink that the player has to be this thing that just catapults them forward in time, or do you want to give them a little more flexibility and a little more empowerment with their blinks?
At a certain point in development we expanded it so that it’s not just about jumping forward to the next scene, there’s lots of different types of interactions you’re doing with your blinks or choices that you’re making with your blinks or parts of the environment that you’re engaging with with your blinks.
So, figuring out how to do that but also keeping it sort of thematically in tune with why we’re using blinks and what it is that’s unique to the themes of the story without just being like, “Oh you can do anything with your blinks.”
That was the big design challenge.
Graham: Early on in the game the core experience that we found so interesting is also one of the experiences that players can sometimes find frustrating. Blinking is inevitable, and at a certain point you’re going to have to blink, you’re going to move on.
Our early demos had it so every single blink jumped you forward in time and that worked as a very interesting, overwhelming experience to be played in 10 or 15 minutes. When we were trying to expand this game into a longer experience, we saw that that wasn’t going to get us all the way through.
We brought on Bela Messex who became our lead designer later in that process. After 2018, we were able to hire up and bring him on, and he had just finished shipping his own game called Little Bug.
He’s a really interesting thinker about games and he played it and was instantly so excited by what he considers basically using the eyes as a new peripheral, almost like a new controller.
He saw that jumping forward was one great way to engage with blinking, but there are all these other things that we can do. As Ollie was saying, blinking on things and blinking to reveal environments, and that maybe we weren’t exploring how cool this could be.
That was when we went to the drawing board and came up with this concept of what we call the “Blink Counter” which is that little metronome that comes up at the bottom of the screen. Now it’s not every time you blink you jump forward, but when that thing comes up you know the next time you blink you’re going to jump forward.
That was this piece of language that really unlocked a lot for us because we can design the scenes around what happens before that comes up and then once that comes up the player knows the next time I blink I’m going to jump unless I can find something to interact with.
That created this tension and a gameplay loop we were able to settle into that kept what was good about the other version where you jumped on every blink – it had a little of that tension – but allowed us to live in those moments and tell a story where you could be sure that there’s a certain amount of the scene that you know that they experienced, so we can design what goes before it and what’s after.
Would players be able to strategize the way that they blink, either to hold the blink back or like you mentioned, interact with the environment, or skip through using a blink?
Graham: Absolutely, I think that different players are going to interpret that differently, and we’ve seen that through playtests and we want to leave that open.
Often if you do keep your eyes open there is something, and we tried to design it so that if you fight to keep your eyes open you’re going to be hearing more dialogue, you’re going to be deepening the story.
Or you’ll get additional interactions that allow you to stay in those scenes.
If that’s what you want to do to try and optimize your playthrough that is supported, but also if you want this to just be a cinematic experience and you want to move at your own pace in the story, you can blink as soon as you see that Blink Counter.
We tried to design it so that it can be both things that you described. However you want to play this game, it’s supported. We don’t want to have it tell you how to play it or how to engage.
Oliver: Adding to that, there was a time during development where we would really be thinking about rhythm games because with blinking comes this inevitability of a timer.
It is very much designed in a way where if you do want to be strategic like we’re talking about, there are these opportunities and interactions that will come up right when we think people will need to blink and if you can blink on that it prolongs the amount of time that you can stay in that scene and experience that memory.
In addition to blinking, are there any other elements of gameplay that players can expect, like puzzles?
Graham: We were influenced again by games like Blendo Games, and games like What Remains of Edith Finch or Florence.
We’re not a puzzle game, it’s very much about being immersed in this more cinematic experience and we never want to slow that rush down with something that the player has to solve or has to do.
That would really take away from what we think is the kind of magic of the game, this forward momentum, but along the way we had designed these mini games.
The story centers around a kid whose mom used to study music and she had to give up her dream and get a day job. As a result, she’s pushing her son really hard to get very good at the piano.
For example, we have this music making mini game on the piano that you have to try to get good at, and then later in the game you follow his career as he changes his career into becoming an artist and a painter and we have these painting mini games that allow you customize your own painting that gets saved in other places.
There’s a lot to do in the game. It’s like those WarioWare mini games where it’s very, very clear what you’re supposed to do. Very clear, a little bit of fun, and then you move on.
There certainly is gameplay, but less in the puzzle variety and more in the quick, fun, mini game variety.
When you're playing the game, is it something that can be completed in a single sitting and then replayed? Or is it slightly longer?
Oliver: I think it’s definitely intended as a single sitting, movie length, one evening experience. It doesn’t have to be played that way, but it’s definitely that sort of duration where it is angled for that.
We’ve had a lot of testers replay it out of their own volition and I think that because there’s so much variability in terms of what you see – also in terms of some of the choices that you make in the game – it definitely is worth replaying.
Or jumping back into the chapters that you want to see other sides to.
Graham: There’s a lot there, whether that’s on the choices or in terms of just how long you’re able to keep your eyes open. No matter what, there’s going to be choices that you want to see the other side of.
But also, I think that players find it quite an overwhelming, emotional first experience and there’s going to be a lot that you haven’t explored and found out about.
There’s definitely reasons to go back in.
Regarding the game’s story, how did the narrative come together and how were the characters developed? Is anything based on people and things you know, or is it more of just a cool story that you wanted to tell?
Graham: The themes for the story, it was something that Will brought on early where we wanted this to be about life flashing before your eyes, and it’s an end of life story. I think I was always attracted to the breadth of – let’s take someone from childhood all the way through adulthood.
Early on, we started talking about this game being set in the afterlife.
We always wanted to build this Ferryman character, and we started building mythology around this Ferryman that fishes out these souls from the water, and it’s this Ferryman’s job to discover what life it led and see if it's a soul of quality that he can go bring to this mysterious Gatekeeper figure and try to get into the City of the Dead.
He almost becomes your legal representation who’s going to make your case for you. In order to make your case, he needs to see the life that you lived, so that became the sort of framing device to tell this story.
The problem is there’s a big twist and I’m trying to work around how to talk about it without spoiling that twist.
The core idea that really unlocked it for us narratively was figuring out the first story you tell him and the first life you show him in what’s maybe 45 minutes of gameplay, or between 30 and 45 minutes of gameplay.
You think, oh I’ve just told a whole story and that was a great whirlwind, full life experience, and you come back to the Ferryman and he starts to doubt your story and realizes that you were leaving some things out, like some of your darker memories.
And maybe some of the memories that you’ve shown him later have been altered or changed to give a more rosy picture of what happened in your life. Ultimately, it becomes about him forcing you deeper and deeper into the truth of who you were.
The experience is built on memories. In a lot of ways, the game became sort of a work of therapy for all of us, working out things that really matter to us. So I would say that, yes, the themes are definitely personal.
Oliver: I can say at a general level – and Will entrusts me to talk about this – this game has been going so long that at the outset Will was very concerned with mortality and his father had health issues.
Since then, towards the apex of business on development, we lost Will’s dad to COVID. And that was like, this became totally a therapeutic thing for him. And I know that I have his blessing in terms of talking about that, but that was very much a kind of, perhaps full circle thing.
You know, you start developing this thing as an inquiry into things like mortality, and then it becomes your own therapeutic tool while you’re finishing it. That was a very amazing experience for all of us.
It was really tough, but I think it bonded us together as well.
With the blinking mechanic, I’m curious if the team has plans to explore different mechanics like that in future games? And as a side question, talking about how the mechanics are exciting in terms of accessibility, with the blinking potentially making it easier for people to play the game who may not be able to play as well with a keyboard or controller…
Graham: We were very excited early on, I think that the impetus to make this game came more out of the excitement around that kind of mode of interaction for all players. We got some great emails on our Kickstarter from disabled gamers who were excited about it from an accessibility angle and that really, really excites us and Skybound too.
We had to be full steam ahead on this version of the game, which is definitely something that we think is more accessible and we can invite in a really wide variety of gamers already just because of the interaction, all you have to do is look around and blink.
There’s no button presses, there’s nothing like that, but we’re also starting the process as we get to the end of this in figuring out how we can support those communities and those gamers more as we move forward with development. Looking into some additional modes, even additional control schemes that we can add to the game to make it more accessible.
It’s something we’re new to and we really want to work with the right communities and the right people to figure out how we can make this. And as we continue in post-launch support, we can even go further with this accessibility stuff because we agree with you that it’s one of the more exciting things about what we’re doing.
Finally, do you have any post-launch content planned, and where can people go to follow Before Your Eyes and GoodbyeWorld Games?
Oliver: It’s tough to speak on sometimes because there’s a lot of things we want to do, but at the same time you don’t want to get people’s hopes up for things that don’t have official dates.
On April 8th, we’re coming out on PC (Windows, on Steam, and the Epic Games Store). From there, we’ve always intended to do a Mac version, so that’s definitely in our sights.
We’ve always been really, really excited about the idea of the mobile/tablet version because of course the built-in webcam aspect there, but it’s something that we need to scope out and really look at from a development perspective, and we haven’t done that yet. So, it’s something we’re eager on, but no official plans yet on those fronts.
And then in terms of your question of where to follow along, definitely Twitter if you’re interested in these kinds of games. We encourage people to follow along with us there, and we’ve got a Discord now too!
We want to send a huge "thank you" to Oliver and Graham for taking the time to speak with us about Before Your Eyes, which is scheduled to release on April 8.
We also want to remind readers to wishlist the game on Steam, and to stay tuned as we'll have a review for the game up on the site this week!