America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 11th Apr 2023 | 2,176 views
Reviewer's Note: While I'll try to be as vague as possible, I'll put a LIGHT SPOILER warning up here to be safe. Read on at your own discretion.
What happens after you die? It's the question plaguing humanity for as long as we've had conscious minds. In GoodbyeWorld Games' narrative journey, you're an ethereal figure without arms, legs, or a mouth, waiting to be plucked by a curious wolf ferryman (superbly acted by Stephen Friedrich). He and his cohort of annoying seagulls are interested in spinning your life's story for a mysterious figure known only as "The Gatekeeper." How can it be examined without speaking or other common means of expression? This is where both the concept and PSVR2's technology perfectly marry each other: a control scheme where every interaction is controlled through your eye-blinks. Fortunately, it goes well beyond that unique elevator pitch.
You're transported into the eyes of Benjamin Brynn, a precocious and artistically gifted boy. It begins simple enough in learning about your character and what your 'eye controls' do. Your limited view of the beach can be broadened by looking towards a white-stencil eye icon and blinking to reveal another spot of land, peeling away the atramentous curtain of these dormant memories. You're able to freely examine the world for a short time, but when a metronome icon appears you’ll immediately jump ahead once you blink. How far ahead is never known – could be minutes, weeks, or even years, making you try to savor each moment.
Not only is blinking to skip time a poignant concept already, there's also an interesting dynamic with its design. For anyone hankering to disinter every bit of information, here's a game that's deliberately ensuring you don’t experience all it has to offer. It's making one of your body’s natural functions an enemy in a way, almost like being drawn into a conversation and someone rudely interrupting mid-sentence; further, in a counter-intuitive sense, that's the best way to experience Ben’s story. Sure, there are standard subtitle and non-blinking gameplay options, but those diminish the greater emotional impact, that sense of losing what your potential first love was about to say or what advice your mom almost finished giving. The hourglass sands are inevitably slipping through your fingers and it’s from your reflexive actions.
This distinctive control scheme also reconsiders what we often consider gaming skills. Now instead of bunny-hopping or juggling enemies, it's about winning a staring contest or spelling out words etched in the night sky and not blinking when you shouldn't. But then there are the repercussions to consider from that; after all, you may also blink through half of the next vignette because your eyes are getting tired. It puts the term "skill issue" in a funny new light.
Even when it’s not being overly demanding, GoodbyeWorld pushes the potential variety of this core conceit quite far. Taking away the metronome time-skipping, there are little times Ben can throw tantrums, small time-specific outbursts of blinking at an object to knock it over for instance. Sometimes casually blinking to reveal more of the environment will extend to hazy objects as well. A photo album revealing some of your parents' vacation spots will lead to a choice of where you’d want to travel. Other times, you'll blink at part of the environment – be it notes or images – and transplant that to your journal or canvas. When you add all of these and other unmentioned mechanics, it feels like the accumulation of "blink-driven" mini-concepts done elsewhere despite being the first of its kind.
For such an esoteric, mechanically-limited narrative adventure it's only natural to anticipate a sentimental story examining our ephemeral time and what makes a life well-lived. From a simple country song like "Don’t Blink" to something like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, that bewildering sense of time flowing by has been explored across all expressive mediums. The tightrope writer/co-director Graham Parkes has to walk here is balance; with such heightened emotions already, it's easy to tumble into Hollywood schmaltz. Though it occasionally tips towards being too maudlin, the touches of humor prevent it from drowning.
The presentation is consistently on-point as well. Although it's important to stress Before is a limited indie game (by current metrics) that's emphasizing its concept first and foremost, it's still more than adequate in its artistic & technical flourishes. Besides the loquacious ferryman previously mentioned, Sarah Burns and Eric Edelstein perfectly capture their respective mother/father roles. And while it's a Unity game uninterested in flexing mind-blowing physics or ray-tracing effects, the soft-texture aesthetic complements this world. Little touches like the UI and parts of the world being obscured by black paint add to its surreal setting, like you're trying to parse out what you can from a distinct memory. While not incredibly expansive, the soundtrack and incorporation of piano music into the gameplay works incredibly well here too.
Even if some presentational quibbles, such as the rare glitch, get in the way, there's nary a glaring problem within its storytelling. It's the type of execution you hope for on a limited budget. There's a great early tempo in the way vignettes segue between Ben's life and the ferryman interpreting those events, sprinkled with a few suspenseful moments where the metronome quickly butts in, implying something darker within said memory. While its brevity will be a sticking point, extending chapters could run the risk of damaging its succinctness and overarching point.
That hang-up on runtime does extend to its value consideration. As I've stated before, I try to emphasize quality over quantity; that said, I readily acknowledge a PSVR2 price of $15 is a tough pill for a 90-minute campaign. Even with further exploration of choices and trophy-hunting potentially doubling that time, the price looks less appealing than the $10 PC version. Obviously the amount of work put into a specialized VR format informed the decision, but the listed Steam price still feels like the sweet spot. Point being: this is one of those binds where I recognize that consternation is warranted, but dislike how that takes away from its greater qualities. It fits that category of "buy when it's on sale, so long as you eventually experience it."
GoodbyeWorld Games carries the distinct honor of producing something I've never truly played before. Not simply a nuanced idea building upon the previous genre giants, but literally an elevator pitch that was seemingly plucked from the ether. The way it builds around said conceit, be it story structure, visuals, or game design, to make something that feels whole is truly extraordinary. I can understand its terse runtime and inflated price being an Achilles Heel compared to other VR options, but I'd appeal to the power of its sincerity. Whereas scores of other titles look towards filling potential holes with content, Before Your Eyes has a more special goal in mind: making you appreciate each and every second.