INTERVIEW: ‘Before Your Eyes’ Developers Oliver Lewin, Graham Parkes, and Bela Messex
They say that when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. Using a webcam that tracks when the player blinks, GoodbyeWorld Games have taken this idea and use it in the upcoming Before Your Eyes, a game all about life, death, and blinking. You play as Benny, a spirit telling his life story to a ferryman in the hope that he will secure a place in the afterlife. You’ll experience Benny’s life in first person—but blink, and you’ll skip forward in time.
We got to chat to Oliver Lewin, the game director and composer; Graham Parkes, the writer and creative director; and Bela Messex, the lead programmer and designer from the GoodbyeWorld Games team about the process of making Before Your Eyes and why this was the perfect story to tell through blinks.
Abbi Ruggles: First of all, could you tell me a bit about how GoodbyeWorld Games came together, and what the initial inspiration was behind the game?
Oliver Lewin: Will Hellwarth was the creator of the initial concept and it was his senior thesis game at college. He reached out to Graham, who was studying playwriting and game design, and said, “I want to make this game where you blink forward through time, and I want it to be about death and mortality, help me figure out the story.” At that point, I got called in from a purely musical standpoint, and that led to the version that went to Indiecade and IGF and evolved through the Kickstarter.
AR: That early version was called Close Yours and it won awards from Indicade and the Independent Game Awards. What has the journey been like to get from that version to Before Your Eyes?
Graham Parkes: Yeah, it’s taken years. Only when we got this additional funding in about 2018 has it become a full-time gig. From 2014, it was a lot of meeting up on Sundays, doing nights and weekends, and trying our best to keep going. It was when we Kickstarted it that we really started moving, but there were two years of struggling even after the Kickstarter. We just always believed that there was something special here and we couldn’t give up. Luckily that perseverance paid off, and we were able to get an outside investment which allowed us to take it to the next level.
AR: The game uses a webcam that tracks when the player blinks. What do you think it brings to the game and the story?
GP: The game came out of Will discovering that almost all commercial webcams have this functionality, so it was about how we can use that in interesting ways and landing on this idea of life flashing before your eyes. There’s this idea that games usually empower the player and give them something that they can master, but with the blink there’s this inevitability; no matter what you do, you’re going to have to blink at some point. So instead of this feeling of empowerment and mastery, it’s much more about having to let go and surrender yourself to this experience. Even in early prototypes there was something about that, that broke through emotionally for people.
Bela Messex: From a design perspective, it required some really interesting problem solving. As Graham said, it’s inevitable that you’re going to blink. So what we built our game around was skipping ahead of time, so you are going to miss something if you blink. But actually making that work as a game is really weird, because most games punish you by sending you back in time when you fail; checkpoints are a really good example of that. When you don’t complete a challenge the right way, the game doesn’t let you go forward. This makes sense, because why would you want somebody to go forward in your game if they haven’t mastered what they need? But what we’re saying here is whether you want to or not, you’re going to skip forward in time. It’s this a really interesting dilemma, which is that you’re going to fail because you’re going to blink. So it was important that the whole game depended on players wanting to stay in the scenes. Luckily, Graham is such a good writer and our voice actors did an incredible job so you do want to actually hear what these characters are saying.
AR: Talking of the characters and the story, it’s a really emotional one. It’s also quite specific to the character of Benny, but you managed to cover quite a lot of ground that’s very universal and relatable. So how did you come up with Benny’s story?
GP: Early on, we knew that we wanted this to be a story about acceptance because of how the blinking mechanic works. It’s this thing that you might try to fight, but ultimately you can’t. That’s the same with death, and that metaphor always felt really poignant for us. This is a story of somebody who’s dead and is recounting their life to this ferryman, who is going to present a case of what made this person worthy of entering the afterlife. I think what was interesting to us was thinking about what we think makes us worthy and what actually makes us worthy. In our culture, especially in your early twenties, you start to feel like what makes you a good person is what you achieve or how you’re doing in your career. But in the grander scheme of things, what actually matters? Is it those achievements? Or is it how you lived every day and how you treated the people around you? We felt we needed to remind ourselves and others of that, and that became the guiding force. Then we began focusing on our own childhoods, and we had done a lot of versions of it that were less specific to us. But I spent a lot of years off school because I was sick, and I decided I was going to pull from those memories. Then we were pulling from our shared experience growing up, because we all grew up in the same neighbourhood.
OL: Just to add to that, because I think it’s cool, we did so many iterations of being dead and recounting your life. Then there was a night where Graham had this burst of inspiration and brought a one page version of the story that is our story now, and it was a light bulb moment, realising that we needed to draw on personal experience.
AR: One thing that comes up in the story a lot is music, which is important to the characters and for creating the atmosphere in the game. Could you tell me about the role of music in the game and how you went about composing for it?
OL: Yeah, music outside of the score is a big part of the story and the character’s lives. The Mom character is a composer herself, so I identify with her, but she’s also a character who has a lot of flaws. We saw the music that she writes as an opportunity to show her innocence and her best qualities. First, we spent a lot of time finding the melodies for her music and that informed the rest of the score. Then we blended it all together, so sometimes you’re listening to her music or you’re actually playing her music, and then it evolves into the score in the background.
BM: Also, scenes ending abruptly and skipping ahead to a completely new scene in a new setting is jarring but the music really glues it together. For the first ten scenes, there’s a building score where one track is introduced every scene and that helps this world both thematically and gameplay-wise; it signals to the player that skipping ahead is what’s supposed to happen.
GP: We also knew early on we were going to need almost wall to wall music, and we were in a lucky position because our game director and producer was also our composer. So starting off knowing that Ollie was on board and knowing how talented he is, I really wanted to bake that into the story. That was the reason that the Mom is a composer because I just thought, let’s make this about music because then Ollie can’t get out of working all the time [laughs].
OL: I did find a way out because we brought on another core member of our team, Dillon Terry, who is our audio lead and he assists Bela with the programming. He wound up helping a lot and so some of the music, especially towards the end of the game, is his and he did an amazing job.
AR: You also got to tell the story with the help of some brilliant performances from Sarah Burns and Eric Edelstein as Benny’s Mum and Dad and Steven Friedrich as the Ferryman. What difference did it make getting to incorporate these performances into the game?
GP: Sarah and Eric had starred in a short film that I had made and we loved them. They have such wholesome, lovable voices and they’re just really lovely people and great actors. When they came in, they understood what we wanted and they have great chemistry. Also, with this game we needed to write the scenes longer. Normally the rule of screenwriting is to be as brief as possible and cut your scenes down to their barest essentials. That’s true here in some ways, but you also don’t know how long the scene is going to last because somebody might keep their eyes open five seconds, fifteen seconds, or a minute. So we needed the characters to be able to live and keep talking. Having those two actors who were comfortable improvising was so helpful.
Stephen Friedrich plays the Ferryman, and he also plays almost every other male character. He’s very dynamic. We actually had a cancellation on a motion capture actor and we called him last minute. We were just doing the motion capture but he found this Ferryman voice and ended up becoming the voice of this thing.
Lastly, I want to mention another actor, Heidi Kang, who is actually Ollie’s girlfriend. She was just roped in to do a temporary recording for the character of Chloe, who’s Benny’s best friend in the game. We always planned that we were going to recast her, but her performance was just so good. It had so much energy and fun to it that we just said, “Why would we recast this?”
AR: All the voice actors did an amazing job! So last question, do you know what’s in store for you next?
BM: Not firmly. I think as a team we’re all really interested in pushing the boundaries of how you can interact. This game really showed us that we could do that, even though it was a tall order. Ollie and Graham had never shipped a game, I had shipped one game but it wasn’t using this kind of technology. This was a big proving ground for us.
GP: We’re having some exciting conversations. The focus has been on just getting this out the door, but looking ahead we’re interested in that convergence of storytelling and trying something that is new and different and adding things to the language of video games.
Before Your Eyes releases on April 8th, 2021, and you can find out more about the title on its Steam page.