Video games are an art form with a lot of potential for unique storytelling. They are a complex system of rules for audiences to interact with, which in context can overtly or subtly teach us things we would not otherwise have really understood or thought about. An fantastic example of this would be the emergent narrative that is told in 2013’s Papers, Please; in which players are tasked with carrying out demanding, high pressure admin work in the context of border control in a politically unstable region. Although a very different game both in thematic and tone, Beyond Eyes serves as another excellent example of the storytelling strengths videogames have to offer us.
Beyond Eyes is a game I would highly encourage people to play without reading too much into why they should play it. Naturally I will write this critique as spoiler-free as possible but if you trust me at all, I’d urge you to quickly buy and play it now then come back to read the rest of my piece later.
In a modern, big budget videogame landscape where the majority of games are primarily concerned with allowing players to indulge in power fantasies, Beyond Eyes is a game about taking power away. It’s a game that puts players in control of a 10-year-old called Rae, who has been living an understandably sheltered life following a traumatic fireworks accident that left her blind. After her only friend – a cat that visits her garden – suddenly stops showing up, Rae decides to brave the loud, frightening, unknown world beyond her garden in search of her missing friend.
Effectively playing around with the visual challenges and naivety of the character, the game world grows and sprawls out around Rae; springing forth out of the blank whiteness that surrounds her. It is a slow-paced, gentle explorative experience. The game also has wonderful kinaesthetic – the way it plays feels perfect for the character. Because of her experiences, Rae walks with slow, careful, certain steps; each one providing vivid audio feedback through the microphone in the controller and crafting a 3D soundscape that springs to life in beautiful watercolour on the screen.
But not everything is as it first seems. Because of Rae’s inexperience with the world outside of her own backyard, she has certain expectations about what certain sounds mean and makes sense of them using her previous experiences. So as Rae ventures farther from her home in search of her lost cat, fountains and chickens transform into drains and crows before your very eyes. These unfamiliar changes also have bearing on gameplay, as strange barking dogs or squawking seagulls block Rae off from certain paths. Watching Rae curl up in visible fear at these scary, unfamiliar sounds genuinely caused me to feel a pang in my heart. It sounds as though it could be a little heavy handed and exploitative, but it’s not used overbearingly and not everything that is revealed turns out to be joyless and awful – which is a level of restraint I genuinely appreciated.
In a lot of ways, the way Beyond Eyes plays out actually reminds me a lot of the PlayStation exclusive game Journey. Both games present you with a beautiful, sprawling world that unfolds before you as you progress along a linear path at a slow, deliberate pace. They are both games without fail states that endeavour to finished in just a few hours by people across a broad range of skill levels. They both make sacrifices of fun for the sake of telling an emotionally effective story. They both probably could have used with a slightly shorter play time, but once you’re finished you tend to forget that it slightly outstays it’s welcome. But what frustrates me is that while Journey was hailed as ‘Game of the Year’ and remains critically celebrated as a masterpiece, Beyond Eyes is landed with a mixture of very mediocre reviews. This is disappointing for me because I firmly believe that while both games share the same flaws and strengths, I firmly believe that Beyond Eyes is a far more important game. Whilst Journey opts for a more open-ended, universally applicable narrative, Beyond Eyes sets out with a much clearer, inclusive narrative grounded in representing real-world experiences. And while I certainly enjoyed Journey, I think Beyond Eyes it is a much better game.
Beyond Eyes is more than just a game about ‘feeling sorry for the blind girl.’ Throughout the game, I got a sense of Rae’s frustrations, her fears, her loneliness and alienation, but also her determination and courage. It is a game about overcoming your limitations to brave uncertainty and experience new things. This is by no means a simulation of blindness, but rather an experiential representation of how a child manages to negotiate a world that doesn’t always accommodate for her. On paper this game would have looked like nothing much more than one big, slowly navigated maze. But in execution it is a touching and genuinely thought provoking experience.