Beyond Eyes - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Having done nothing but play around in the different modes on 2016’s Titanfall 2 for slightly too long, I’m in need of a change of pace. Shotgun to pilot, rocket to titan, titan to earth — collision, collision, collision. In a world full of that sort of thing anyway, maybe it’s time to seek out a connection, instead. This desire for something quieter and more personal was the impetus for me to finally play Beyond Eyes, Tiger & Squid/Team17’s gentle walking simulator from 2015.
Ten Minutes In
Our main character, Rae, is introduced through a beautifully realised children’s picture book, with simple on-screen sentences accompanying soft watercolour images. Unfortunately for Rae, a joyous summer takes a turn for the worse when she is blinded (whether full or partially, it isn’t made clear) by an exploding firework. The instant upheaval of her life after this event is told with a matter-of-fact breeziness which can only be appropriate in a children’s book, and I found this easy-going acceptance of fate weirdly refreshing. Without the expected hand-wringing or gnashing of teeth, the story skips forward, with the gameplay opening on Rae taking a slow walk around her family garden.
At your starting point, only Rae’s house is rendered, and all that stretches before you is a vast expanse of negative space. Timid steps into the unknown helps Rae piece together an image from her experiences and memories to bring the world into view for the player. It’s beautiful to witness elements of the world materialise around Rae, rising up to greet her, as through recognisable sounds and smells (such as the chirping of a bird or the scent of a flower bush) she can build up a mental map of her surroundings. The presentation is gorgeous, and the interpretation of Rae’s blindness is unique and interesting. There are clear similarities with The Unfinished Swan in this regard, but the mechanic is a lot more intimate than using black paint to reveal the shapes around you.
Thirty Minutes In
We’ve left Rae’s garden, on the hunt for Nani. Nani is a friendly stray cat who normally comes to visit Rae. However, Nani hasn’t come to visit for some time! Oh no! Where could Nani be? I’m starting to twig that maybe the storybook style of the introduction is being tapped for not just an aesthetic, but the whole experience.
Having slipped out from the security of her garden, the unknowns of the outside world threaten to overwhelm Rae at times. Her senses are no longer as reliable, as conflicting and overlapping sounds and smells muddy the lines between mental image and reality. In one such instance, what is initially believed to be clean bed sheets drying on a clothesline is revealed as a haggard scarecrow, ragged cloth flapping in the breeze. These moments are very effective, and provide a unique way of visualising a world when you cannot rely on your eyes. Fear rules a lot of your journey, as the presence of barking dogs or squawking crows form impassable barriers, such is Rae’s fear of an animal attacking her.
My main concern so far is that it is very slow. Super slow. Without her sight or any sort of assistance, I sympathise that Rae’s every step into the unknown is a leap of faith until she can start to build up a picture of her surroundings — still, the biggest challenge so far is to remain invested in the game when the movement is so leaden and clunky. Laboriously feeling your way along a hedgerow in search of a passageway is a good reminder of the things that a fully sighted person may take for granted, but the exploration feels punishingly time-consuming. The designers have clearly put a lot of thought into their nuanced representation of blindness in a videogame context, but the movement speed here feels like it could have been nudged a tad towards gaming convention.
One Hour In
Nani is still out here somewhere, that darn cat, and the hazy pop surrealism of the countryside has given way to a small village. The environmental difference is a useful change to display Rae’s progress from the rural beginnings of her journey, but after the first couple of quaint cobbled streets and shopfronts, the reusing of all of these assets (along with an unintuitive circular level design) gets a bit frustrating. I get that Rae’s world is still being built up of her own remembered experiences, and may not have a great number of imagined bakeries to pluck from, but I think the developers could’ve been a bit more charitable. It’s petty, and I’m mostly just annoyed because I spent too long on this section wandering around searching for a certain path — and when I finally found the way to go, it was where previously there had definitely not been a way through. You seem expected to return to every place you had already scouted out in Rae’s world, just to check if anything had changed since the last time you passed through. Backtracking is no stranger in games, but without a clear indication why, and with the movement speed as painful as this, it’s a real stinker of an ask.
One and a Half Hours In
The setting has moved on to a seaside pier, which is closer to capturing some of the magic that the opening stages held for me. Buffeted by the wind and rain, Rae is unable to keep her bearings, causing the landmarks and routes you’ve plodded through to only remain visible briefly. The world around Rae fading back into white emptiness has a double function — firstly, to task the player with the gaming challenge of keeping track of where you’ve been, but secondly to remind of the isolation, the uncertainty, of being lost in an unknowable land. It’s nicely bleak.
I finished Beyond Eyes at around two hours, but it felt like double that. Rae’s slow, claustrophobic trudge had me feeling restless and uncomfortable by the end, which is a shame, because there are moments and ideas where this third-person walking simulator sparkles. Slow movement speeds don’t normally have this effect on me (the rewarding Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture had the most laid-back movement speed in recent memory), and the deliberation of each footfall absolutely makes sense with the uncertainty of Rae’s journey — but when you combine timid movement with the level of unnecessary exploration required to fill in the empty world, it drew the experience out beyond my tolerance.
Beyond Eyes is a game of perseverance, both for Rae and the player, but I’m not convinced either the journey or the destination is entirely worth the slog. The inability to increase the walking speed by even a few percent could be all that prevents you from sticking with the game to its conclusion, and with the overall experience having little to captivate after the first few chapters, you’d be forgiven for quitting out as soon as your mind starts to wander.
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