Developed by: Tiger & Squid and Team17
Published by: Team17
Available on: Mac, PC, Xbox One
Is there a space in the commercial video game marketplace for sketches — not just short games but experiments that lay the groundwork for future efforts? This question captivated me while I played through “Beyond Eyes.” Developed by the Norwegian game designer Sherida Halatoe with assistance from the U.K. game developer Team17, “Beyond Eyes” is a third-person perspective exploration game that follows Rae, a ten-year old who suffered an accident that left her blind. The game’s sparse storyline and limited gameplay suggests that it can be enjoyed primarily on an aesthetic or sentimental level; unless you find “Beyond” Eyes” beautiful or touching, there is little reason to take note of it except as another small sign of diversity in the medium.
The game opens with picture-book simplicity. After a brief intro recounts Rae’s accident and convalescence, we find her seated on a bench in a garden very much drawn into herself. The bright summer day that surrounds her makes her isolation all the more striking. Luckily, serendipity visits her in the form a cat who interrupts her doldrums. Rae forms an easy bond with her feline visitor, whom she names Nani. But as autumn edges into winter, Nani visits the garden less frequently until he stops showing up altogether. With the arrival of spring, the garden comes to life again, but Rae still feels Nani’s absence acutely. So she decides to leave her nest and go out into the world to find him.
Outside of her immediate vicinity, the environment around Rae is a white space that gains substance and hue as she gingerly passes through it or hears sounds that give her an idea of what’s nearby. The best part of “Beyond Eyes” is how it conveys the subjectivity of Rae’s inner vision by leaving her impressions in a state of flux. What might appear as a car from a distance could, upon closer inspection, turn out to be a man with a lawnmower. Such wavering perceptions are manifested in the game’s watercolor look, which lends objects a kinetic beauty.
Watching Rae fill in the world with her impressions calls to mind the basic pleasure of observing a blank canvas — or screen — relinquish its forbidding purity in the face of human creativity. The game’s woodwind-based soundtrack adds a sparkle of whimsy to this activity by judiciously accenting discrete moments rather than weighing everything down with a fixed point of view.
Rae’s story of everyday courage, grief, and hope has a homespun quality to it, which is not helped by “Beyond Eyes” limited interactivity. Apart from the game’s visual and auditory flourishes, there is little to hold the player’s attention other than a few elementary puzzles — like crossing the street. It’s a shame that we aren’t privy to more of Rae’s thoughts, which might have rendered her as something more than a blank canvas herself.
Naturally, I hope that “Beyond Eyes” encourages other intrepid game designers to explore less bombastic realities than are found in most games. And although I liked its ending more than I expected, with little else to stand on apart from its atypical video game protagonist and appealing audiovisual presentation, I found myself wishing this already short game were even shorter.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.