Michael Leri

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Developer GoodbyeWorld Games was crunching away on a demo of its narrative adventure game, Before Your Eyes, for South by Southwest. It wasn’t just any demo because the indie team was going to show its unique title that reads the player’s blinks on the HTC Vive Pro Eye, a powerful virtual reality headset with, as the name implies, eye tracking. The synergy between the headset’s features and the core idea of the game could not have been stronger. It was like a baseball game finding its bat peripheral.

But Before Your Eyes didn’t make it to South by Southwest. Nothing did, though, since this was March 2020, and, thanks to COVID-19, not much went according to plan around that time.

Momentum for the port on the pricey peripheral for the game halted soon after. The studio had plans to make a VR version of the game one day, but those plans deflated once the convention was canceled. Writer and Creative Director Graham Parkes recalled this disappointing period and how the irony of making a demo for a headset that would be shared between strangers during the early stages of a pandemic wasn’t lost on them.

“I remember we were working on this VR version and laughing because COVID was in the conversation, and we were making a game that’s gonna be demoed at a festival where you’re gonna be putting on a headset and then sharing it with a bunch of strangers,” said Parkes. “Nobody’s gonna want to do this. But it hadn’t been canceled yet. So we were still full steam ahead on it. Anyway, that shut down, so that [version] kind of went away for a while. It has just been a thing with this VR version of the game.”

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While it seemed like a great match, the Vive Pro Eye was far from a perfect one. It wasn’t quite a gaming headset, as noted by the trailers on the HTC Vive’s YouTube channel that focus on experiences that revolve around public speaking and inspecting BMWs. It also launched at $999.99, making it a prohibitively expensive headset that doesn’t even include the powerful PC it requires. The barriers to buy one also put up barriers for developers since a small install base makes it hard to justify a port, as fitting as it might be.

“We just always knew that this was gonna be such a powerful version of the game, but we never had that real financial or business case to make it and really do the full adaptation into VR,” said Parkes.

Sony’s PlayStation VR2 is not a cheap VR headset — it costs more than the PlayStation 5 that it plugs into — but it is cheaper and can also track the player’s eyeballs. This more commercial headset that was also tied to a big first-party platform was huge, especially since Before Your Eyes‘ publisher, Skybound Games, already had a relationship with Sony. 

“To us, it felt like a no-brainer,” said Parkes. “And we were just totally thrilled that Sony felt the same way. It was actually just really easy, like, ‘Well, of course, you guys have a new headset where you wanna show off your cool eye tracking. We’ve been working on an eye-tracking game for the better part of a decade. Like let’s go.’ So it was definitely just like a match made in heaven.”

He continued and noted how the very idea of the game meant it was destined to be a great VR experience. The team just needed to be patient enough to wait for the right opportunity.

“From the very inception of this game, there was always an idea that this would make a great VR title, but it took literally until this headset to be able to do it,” said Parkes. “Because before, any VR headsets with eye tracking were the really top-of-the-line, highest-spec headsets. There just weren’t enough out there to justify creating a piece of software for them because the install base was so low for all of them. [Creator and Studio Director] Will Hellwarth, who has a brain that’s in the future, correctly predicted that this was coming, but I think that it took a little bit longer than any of us expected for eye tracking to reach commercial mass consumer VR headsets. So once we heard that about the new PS VR2, we knew we had to target that.”

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Game Director Oliver Lewin went one step further and called out the fortuitous timing of it all. Not only did Sony’s more advanced VR headset pop up at a good time, GoodbyeWorld had also just worked with developer BKOM on the mobile port of Before Your Eyes, which went smoothly enough to justify another collaboration. GoodbyeWorld was (and still is) hard at work on its next game, so it also didn’t have the time to do the VR port itself.

“Right after creating the mobile version, we solidified this opportunity for the VR version,” said Lewin. “We thought, ‘Well, that collaboration went really well. Let’s do round two.’ And BKOM came on to do the VR development and did a great job. It’s kind of been also the story of our continued collaboration with them, and the timing really worked out with them being able to do this.”

'A Match Made in Heaven': How Waiting for the Right VR Headset Paid Off for Before Your Eyes

The eye-tracking tech was just one reason why VR would make for a technically superior port, as the standardization of the experience gives it an edge over the other two versions. The camera functionality in the phone and PC versions works well enough, but it’s not flawless. Differences in lighting or some unforeseen tech-related error can turn a heartfelt experience into a frustrating one, and GoodbyeWorld can’t code for an uncountable amount of real-world troubles.

The technology is the same in every PS VR2 headset and that means players can just focus on the game. Parkes said that looking past the peripherals was key to titles like this and that meant players could hone in on what really matters: the story.

“With these innovative tech aspects of gaming, like when the Wiimotes came out, what works best is when you forget that it’s tech, and it’s just part of the magic of it all,” said Parkes. “And so when it disappears into the background and it’s seamless and the tech is working close to flawlessly, that’s when it really does exploit that editing technique feel of it, and it starts to have this cinematic flow. And I think the PS VR2 has proven to be a really winning platform for just hitting that flow and forgetting about the tech aspect of it and whether it’s working properly. You can just get completely lost in the story.”

'A Match Made in Heaven': How Waiting for the Right VR Headset Paid Off for Before Your Eyes

The story’s emotional resonance also hits harder in VR since players can’t look away. Parkes talked about how movies used to be an immersive medium we couldn’t escape from since going to the theater meant you were in the dark for a few hours, only absorbing what was being projected. But that’s not how it works now. Multiple screens have made it hard to exclusively focus on just one of them at a time. The other versions of the game made players look at them, but the VR version amps that up a notch, something Parkes said was an “antidote to these experiences where we could be on our phones and we’re half in, half out.”

“What I always loved about this concept as soon as Will brought it to me was this idea that this is going one step further with it by using the camera and saying that you literally cannot look away from this,” said Parkes. “The vulnerability that requires from the viewer and that deal that the art needs to make with the person consuming it saying, ‘We’re in this together, and you can’t experience me passively, and you have to be 100% with me,’ is so rare. Obviously, I’m proud of what we did with the game, but I do think a lot of that emotional reaction is because the game refuses to let you disengage from it. That has a lot to do with eye tracking. VR is just the next level of that.”

Before Your Eyes not only tested PS VR2’s water resistance — Lewin joked that the lawsuits from people breaking their headsets by crying too hard would have ruined the studio — but also its eye-tracking technology that was designed for games like this. It was a combination of patience, technology, and timing that resulted in the truest version of the experience. Before Your Eyes is all about seizing the moments as they come, so it’s fitting that the team did exactly that for this fortuitous VR version.

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Why Before Your Eyes Is a Match Made in Heaven for PS VR2