Before Your Eyes made me cry inside a VR headset.
Originally released on PC in 2021 and on mobile last year, Before Your Eyes asks you to relive the memories of a child named Benny as he grows up, learns more about his family, and explores his gift for art. But now available for the first time in VR on PlayStation VR2, the experience feels like it’s found a perfect home. It’s an outstanding example of how to tell a powerful story with virtual reality, and it helped me cope with a recent tragedy in my own life.
You play Before Your Eyes primarily by blinking your — the player’s — real eyes. As you move through Benny’s memories, you’ll frequently see icons floating near you that you can blink to interact with. Depending on the context, blinking can do a lot; with just your eyes, you’ll turn pages in books, play the piano, and even paint.
Sometimes, blinking also works against you by design. At some point in each memory, a little metronome icon will appear. When it does, it means that you’ll advance to the next scene the next time you blink, and you don’t know how far forward you’ll go. Occasionally, the metronome appears while conversations are still happening, meaning you might accidentally blink and cut off the memory midway through. It can be annoying to make these “mistakes” and miss parts of scenes, but it adds to the dreamlike quality of the game; as with real memories, sometimes you just don’t have parts of them.
Before Your Eyes was designed for a PC webcam, but it works incredibly well with the PSVR 2’s eye-tracking capabilities. And playing Before Your Eyes in a VR headset made the memories feel viscerally more real. When I turned my head, Benny’s head would turn, too. In one scene, where I was a baby on the floor, Benny’s mom walked past me, and she was a giant. In another scene, I opened a gift from Benny’s dad to reveal a stray cat, and it felt like the cat was right there on the table in front of me.
Inside and outside VR, many of Benny’s memories resonate with my own life. Some of them are happy: getting the cat filled me with delight, and I felt a legitimate sense of pride when my in-game mom praised my early piano skills.
Others unearthed more complex emotions. During a piano recital, I turned Benny’s head to the right to see his mom and a teacher watching me. When I turned back to the piano, I relived my own memories of music recitals and had actual apprehension about performing well. In-game, I bombed the recital, and on the car ride back, I sat behind my mom and looked out the window with shame. Even as she tried to prop me up, I was recalling long-buried mistakes from real-life performances with knots in my stomach.
The game also delves into some much more difficult topics — and ones that hit unexpectedly close to home for me. To talk about them, I will be talking about some of the concluding moments of the game, so read on with caution.
Death and illness are central themes of Before Your Eyes, and for me, they coincided with the passing of my own grandma, which happened just before I played the game. In one memory, Benny faces his mom’s casket after she dies following an abrupt sickness. In the next, Benny is behind the podium, trying to find something to say. I’d had both experiences at my grandma’s funeral just days before. Seeing the memories through Benny’s eyes helped me reflect on how my grandma’s funeral helped with my own grieving, even if it was difficult to be reminded of that pain so soon after it happened.
In the last section of Before Your Eyes, you learn that these memories weren’t entirely accurate: Benny, in fact, is the one who’s sick. His sickness isn’t spelled out, but we see his pain embodied as a giant, red, tentacled object that appears in front of his eyes, emits a cacophony of sound, and grows and shrinks in size and volume. It’s frequently overwhelming, especially when the object overtakes almost everything you can see in the headset. But even when the pain monster is at its worst, you can still hear Benny’s loved ones talking nearby, and often, those voices abate the pain for a few fleeting moments of respite.
At this point, you might have guessed how Before Your Eyes ends: with you closing Benny’s eyes for the last time. The parts preceding it are beautiful. When you actually have to shut your eyes to move on, it’s harrowing. The action forces you to really contemplate what that moment means — and the fact that one day, it will happen to all of us. But Before Your Eyes’ real message is one of compassion. Hopefully, like Benny, we have the opportunity to reflect upon the moments with our loved ones so that we can pass on with some amount of peace.
Before Your Eyes helped me process my grandma’s death in a way I didn’t expect but desperately needed. Her health had been declining for years, and I saw her in hospice a few weeks ago, sedated and largely immobile shortly before she died. Before Your Eyes gave me a way to connect with what I saw when I visited her, even if there’s no way I’ll ever know exactly how she felt. It made me reflect on what I hope my own loved ones say about me when my time is up and what life I live to get there.
In 2023, I’ve really been getting into VR experiences for the first time; I’ve explored planets in No Man’s Sky, completed thrilling races in Gran Turismo 7, and even waved my baseball bat arms in What the Bat? But Before Your Eyes’ personal and immersive story is easily my favorite thing I’ve done in VR, even if I broke down in tears as it ended.
Before Your Eyes is now available on PlayStation VR2, PC, Mac, and, with a Netflix subscription, iOS and Android.