It would be tempting to describe Beyond Eyes as a hidden gem, but for the fact that I think everyone who saw the game at GDC last week has already felt compelled to tell other people about it. The first thing I felt when I saw the game was actually a pang of worry, because Beyond Eyes is precisely the sort of game that will inevitably have a certain type of comment thread blowhard querying whether it’s actually a game at all.
I’ll field that at the end, but first, here’s what you do in [spoiler warning] the game. You are Rae, a young girl traumatised by an accident which has left her blind. Your best friend is a stray cat who goes missing at the start, leaving Rae to venture into the world and look for it. “The game is more about overcoming fears and facing problems head on,” says Sherida Halatoe, who began prototyping Beyond Eyes while studying game design at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht in the Netherlands. “It’s kind of a coming of age story.”
The idea began with its art style, which as you can see is absolutely arresting. Rae is a forlorn smudge in an unfinished watercolour. As you guide her through the world, foliage sprouts, flowers bloom, and objects are painted in once they’re close enough to touch or be heard. Because of the layered way in which they’re drawn, by which I mean the timing of their appearance is staggered—not everything arrives at the same speed—it’s a bit like watching sped-up stop motion footage from a nature documentary.
Click the expand icon to watch Beyond Eyes in motion
The effect is something like a cross between Okami’s paint-the-world ability and the Genesis process from Star Trek. It’s addictive to look at, in the same way parallax scrolling was the first time I saw it. “I wanted to make the game so every screen could come from a story book,” explains Halatoe. “Because she’s been blind from a young age, instead of being born blind, her memories of the world are influenced by how children perceive the world.” Essentially: the world looks like a picture book, because that’s how Rae remembers it.
There are implications to the art style beyond pure prettiness. Rae’s remaining senses are potentially unreliable. When she hears the tinkle of water she initially assumes it to be a fountain, but as she gets closer the colours desaturate and it morphs into a sewer grate. Likewise, what at first seems to be a sheets drying on a clothesline turn out to be a more sinister scarecrow. These disappointments, and more immediate threats like a barking dog and a busy road to cross, have an instantly detrimental effect on Rae’s mood. Her head hangs and her shoulders hunch. Bright pastels are replaced with bleak smears.
Overcoming these obstacles is less about solving puzzles, though Rae can perform rudimentary interactions, than it is about overcoming her fear and pressing on with the exploring. Encouragement is offered by the occasional sounds that she intuits might be the cat, which appears for a few seconds, glimmering golden, before she loses it again.
Halatoe expects the game to last between two and four hours, depending on how thoroughly you plan to explore. “I’m very inspired by films and shorts,” she says. “I kind of like the idea of having short games with interesting stories to try to build a connection between the player and the avatar. So, instead of having just this empty vessel that you can throw off cliffs or do whatever you want with, I wanted to show the player that their actions influence the way that she feels.”
Having discovered Beyond Eyes via its Indiegogo campaign, Team 17 picked it up for publishing and now has 12 people based in Leeds, in addition to Halatoe, working on a release sometime later this year. Having already helped launch Penarium and Sheltered, the publisher, best known for the Worms series, is becoming an increasingly interesting indie incubator.
With its emphasis on overcoming fear, and Dear Esther-style artfulness, Beyond Eyes is a particularly intriguing project. “When she starts out, [Rae] kind of feels that being blind is all that she is,” says Halatoe, “and by progressing she kind of learns about herself. I wanted to make a story about someone who might initially be thought of as a victim, but actually learns to manage herself and grows in the process a little bit.”
And why is it a game? Because Beyond Eyes already seems worth playing.