Before Your Eyes: A Tragic but Fulfilling Tale of Benjamin Brynn

By JJ Abu-Halimah

“So when he knew he was going to go, he was okay, because he’d already lived a great life a full life.”

Before Your Eyes is a marvelous game about Benjamin Brynn, a 12-year-old child who died young due to terminal illness. We first experience the grand life that Benny wishes that he had before reliving the dark reality that he actually faced before dying. At the game’s core is its eye-tracking system which allows players to traverse and control the narrative at their own rate to create a greatly immersive experience.

Immersive Storytelling

First Person Point-of-View and Choice

“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”

We never actually see what Benny looks like in the story. We instead see Benny’s life through Benny’s eyes. This strategic form of storytelling already makes us feel as if we are Benny reliving Benny’s life, immersing us in recalling his life story. We feel more emotion and better feel how Benny’s feelings by playing this way.

One of the saddest moments that stuck with me was reading Benny’s typewriter as we see him call himself a loser and self-loathe. I instantly felt dread inside my body as I watched Benny feel and write as if he was worth nothing. Such emotion was created by living as Benny, and I do not think it could have effectively been conveyed if we didn’t play in Benny’s perspective. A great example to support this is that we didn’t know all the hardships that Chloe was feeling until we were told that her mother died. By living through a character, we better understand them, and the emotional impact of the story gets much, much more real.

To further our experience, the developers utilized another form of immersion: choice. Throughout the game, we are presented with many choices. Although they do not affect the ending, we can create our own artwork, decide to answer phone calls, choose to crumple up and throw contracts/ sheet music, and more. We even get to see the effects of some of our actions such as viewing the paintings that we created in the art gallery near the end of Benny’s idealized life. Such choice further immerses us into reliving Benny’s life, bridging choice to the narrative, making it as if WE are Benny shaping Benny’s story.

The Eye-Tracking System

The game starts us off by immediately introducing us to the eye-tracking system.

Blinking while hovering over the eye symbol on the screen will allow you to interact with objects/ take pictures, shutting your eyes while prompted to (via the shut your eyes symbol) lets you progress through and hear more parts of the story, and keeping your eyes open while the hourglass symbol appears allows you to progress while blinking inhibits you.

Forcing you to keep your eyes open such as when we had to view Benny’s dead kittens and hearing his grandfather died, allows us to better feel the horror and intense emotions that Benny experienced when he lived through those dark times. We usually had to close our eyes to listen to Benny’s parents discuss their depressing, emotional thoughts on Benny that he wasn’t supposed to hear. This made us feel more of the loss of Benny’s innocence as he was exposed to life’s cruelties.

The most prevalent eye-tracking mechanic, however, is that blinking when there is a metronome on the screen moves us to the next memory in Benny’s life, making us miss out on the rest of the game narrative from the previous memory.

One may think: but I want to see everything! Yet, the eye-tracking system hinders you from doing so – of course not so much if you hold the Guinness World Record for the longest time with your eyes kept open. However, this is a great thing narratively.  

The Ferryman tells us early on that while we may want to stay back and see all of Benny’s memories, we cannot. We watch Benny’s lives unfold before us, and the memories they hold quite literally go away in the blink of an eye. The same can be said about our lives. While we may want to stay in the present, we simply cannot and have to pursue the future. Like Benny, we cannot dwell on the great and horrible parts of our past: we must move forward.

What limiting how much we can see and hear does is make for a more real experience in that we better feel the sense of urgency that life presents to both Benny and ourselves. We get a better feel of just how fast the past goes flies away, and this immerses us in Benny’s reminiscence of his life.

Some players opt to use the mouse rather than the webcam, but this greatly reduces the immersion of the game–I know this because I had to rapidly speed through a segment of the game that I already played after the game crashed. Playing the game this way makes it feel less emotional without the feeling of life going by fast, and you miss out more on one of the most defining aspects of the game: using your eyes as a controller to see Benny’s life through Benny’s eyes.

But let’s say that you really wanted to hear everything and feel that you’d get more out of the story by using the mouse. You will reach a point where you have seen and heard everything that the game lets you, and you’ll be stuck there watching nothing new happen. This is quite boring and again reduces the immersion of quickly seeing Benny’s life flash before your eyes.

So if you ever play/replay this game; please play it using the eye-tracking system.

Efficacy of the Blink-Tracking System

While a great tool to create a more immersive experience, the eye-tracking system has both its downfalls and its strengths.

Brendan Keogh describes an “embodied literacy” in videogames where players have to adapt to the controllers/ game’s controls to better enjoy and be immersed in a videogame. While we may adapt to the eye-tracking system, it doesn’t always work smoothly. Such glitches make the game feel clunky and are distracting from the flow of the narrative by challenging our adaptation to the controls.

There are times when you may be keeping your eyes open only for the game to register it as a blink, leaving you to traverse the story much faster than you anticipated, reducing your ability to control the speed of the story. Other times, it makes it increasingly hard to get past parts where you HAVE to keep your eyes open to progress. This reduces the immersion that using your eyes as a controller aimed to initiate in the first place.

Sandy Baldwin details how eyes are “wired and directed, turned left and right” and how images and media in general “solicits my eye before I even look at it”. She says that we must “deaden” our eyes to read screens, inducing the lack of importance of our eyes and their robotic nature to just input and relay sensory information about the media we are consuming rather than playing a part in our experience, viewing the media.

However, in Before Your Eyes, we utilize our eyes as the controllers, using them to dictate the pace of the story, thus removing a barrier between our eyes and the narrative. Our eyes now become more than just machines to accept and relay sensory information to our brain as they also dictate how the media we are consuming, the game, appears to us. By doing this, the eye-tracking system greatly adds to our aesthetic and immersive gaming experience.

The Great Life of Benjamin Brynn: The End

I can’t sign off without writing about my favorite part of the game: the end.

At the end of the game, we hear Benny’s mother give him her own story of his life. Telling a depressed and dying Benny:

“So when he knew he was going to go, he was okay, because he’d already lived a great life. A full life.”

Through the Ferryman realizing that stories, especially Benny’s life, didn’t have to be grand and his mother’s story, we realize that Benny’s life, while short, was fulfilling in that he brought others hope and was thus a great life.

We are then told to close our eyes at the end of the game, overhearing Benny’s father asking, “Why is he smiling like that?”

To which his mother responds, “He must be somewhere he likes.”

Benny died at peace with himself, smiling.

This ending is beautiful. Benny reaches the afterlife, comes to terms with his life, and by closing our eyes, we are put in a position to experience Benny’s death.

This game teaches us a lot. It tells us that we don’t have to change the world or do anything else that’s grand to lead an amazing life and legacy. We can easily live a normal life and die happily even if we didn’t get to experience all the joys that life had to offer. The eye-tracking system teaches us to cherish the moments we have in the present before they go away in the blink of an eye. This ending gave me the ultimate closure I need to finish the game and apply what I learned from Benny’s life to better lead and accept my own.

References

Baldwin, S. (2016). Section 1. In The internet unconscious on the subject of electronic literature. essay, Bloomsbury Academic.

GoodbyeWorld Games. (2021). Before Your Eyes

Keogh, B. (2018). Chapter 3: With Thumbs in Mind. In A play of bodies: How we perceive videogames. essay, MIT Press.

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