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Before Your Eyes and crying through the endgame
Blink and you'll miss it
An admission at the top: I have cried at car commercials. Well-done car commercials, I would assert. Nonetheless, I am not the most stoic individual, nor do I proclaim to be. The ending of Coco has made me weep1 no fewer than five times. I am a funeral and wedding crier, both. And don’t get me started on my relationship to Sufjan Stevens’ work. Which is why it’s surprising to me that I can count on one hand the number of games that have managed to make me cry.
Add Before Your Eyes to the list, a game you play by blinking. (Yes, you read that right.) It got me right at the last second. I guess the second admission nearish to the top is: despite the whole “i m crye” thing, I’m pretty snobby when it comes to sniffing out sentimentality, and initially, Before Your Eyes reeked of forced sentiment. Tropes on tropes on tropes, I remember thinking. I’m glad, then, that I told myself not to be such a pedant and keep playing, because what the game ends up being about is a far cry2 from what it seems initially.
Before Your Eyes, which you can play for “free” with a Netflix subscription, opens in a pseudo Charon situation, a trope that is becoming oddly prevalent in videogames, or at least indie games. It’s as good a frame for a frame story as any. As a writer, I get it: you get an interlocutor and an excuse for retrospection all in one. Efficient! (I told you I was a snob.) In this particular case, you’re being led down a river into the afterlife by a wolf-like dude with an obsession with storytelling but a nagging sense of inferiority as he regularly references a thesaurus that sits to his right. Believing you to be some kind of special soul, which he’s very jazzed about, he implores you to tell your story, which you do by blinking through a series of playable vignettes. And I do mean blinking. As in, you, the player: blink, progress; blink, progress.
This presents an interesting challenge if you are like me and apparently blink a whole hell of a lot. I did not think I had dry eyes until I played this game. There were several scenes I missed chunks of simply because I could not hold my eyes open any longer. I found this frustrating initially, but it is by design. The first half of Before Your Eyes is about skipping through a life of an artistic genius whose mother was too hard on him when he was a child. Some moments—like being told to endlessly practice Bach, which, if you were a piano kid like me, will trigger the portion of your brain that is for some reason still holding on to the trauma associated with a certain yellow book—are easily and happily skipped with a blink. But others—spending the night on the beach with your best friend and first love, staring up at the stars, which you connect into a constellation that says “Stay Here”—implore you to fight against your instinct to close your eyes. It’s all very clever, but the story it tells is cut-and-paste artistic genius nonsense. Mom too hard. No like piano. Do other art, which Mom not like. Mom die (as Mom do). And on. In addition to blinking, I found myself rolling my eyes at the story, right up until I was back with my Charon-ish friend who gruffly implored me not to lie to him anymore, insisting that I wasn’t telling the real story.
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Turns out, everything I thought was trite was, in fact, trite, but it was trite because you are not a world renowned artist. You are, instead, a dying kid who is trying to tell a story of his own imagined greatness as doctors fail to diagnose what ails him. Everything that felt silly and thin about the story is revealed to be the imaginings of a boy who doesn’t want to die before he can become “great.” You travel through the story a second time, rapidly blinking through the things you didn’t lie about to get to the bits that you omitted. Your mother’s overwrought expectations are redefined as her traumas with parental disapproval and death. Your father’s vague encouragement of you is rewritten as a willful detachment from the realities of his dying son. You try to blink away your own illness, an ominous red cloud composed of jagged scribbles that sits at the foot of your bed, as you lose the ability to keep down food, until eventually it is time to pass away while your mother tells you her version of your story—a version where, just by living, just by loving and being loved, you are, and will always will be, great.
This is, of course, where I began to weep.
Playing Before Your Eyes, I learned that you blink a lot when you’re ugly crying, a fact I believe the developers know well. The mechanical gimmick of the game comes full circle at the story’s triumphant conclusion, which, if you’re like me (re: Coco cries), will absolutely break your heart. Before Your Eyes forced me to grapple with the succinctness of life and my own judgments about art and its relation to worthiness. I can’t say that about very many games, and I don’t suspect I’ll say it again very soon. Give yourself about two hours and some tissues. Before Your Eyes is well worth the tears.
“Weep” is not hyperbole. This is the accurate word for the sounds I produce during the third recurrence of “Remember Me,” which, even just typing it, makes me get a little misty to think about.
Pun fully and unapologetically intended.