Here’s a premise for a plot that’s sure to bring out the tears: A blind girl can’t find her best friend, a neighboring cat. If “Beyond Eyes” were a movie, it would come with a giant red warning light: Here be sadness.
Thankfully, it’s a video game.
That’s not to say “Beyond Eyes” doesn’t tug on the heartstrings — it absolutely does — but the uniqueness of the interactive medium allows for a potentially sad experience to turn into a journey of discovery.
That’s because the relationship between player and controller can temper the heightened emotions of losing a pet. The act of moving a joystick, even in a nondemanding game such as “Beyond Eyes,” immediately gives the player a task that must be completed.
The cat must be found. We have an objective, and we can actively contribute. We also gain an insight into the character that no other format can match. We step and fail with the little girl. We bristle when we walk her into trees. We tense up when we back her away from growling stray dogs. We begrudgingly trudge along when she’s caught in a downpour.
More than that, we can’t see much of anything in “Beyond Eyes.”
FULL COVERAGE: The Player: Video game reviews and ruminations
“Beyond Eyes” is an Xbox One and PC game that can be viewed as a narrative experiment, and it’s one that conveys a feeling of sightlessness. All the panic, the frustrations and even the magic of stepping into the unknown are present. For “Beyond Eyes” sets the player loose in a world that’s glaringly bright — a white canvas that’s empty until one starts moving a tentative young girl into the vast unknown.
In this story, noises rather than images conjure all sorts of horrors. The rush of a freeway, the whir of a lawn mower, the footsteps of a stranger — these are all noises that are familiar to us but unknown to Rae, the game’s lonely, rain-boot-sporting protagonist. What the game shows us is what Rae envisions, not the world around her.
Rae once could see. An accident rendered her blind, and therefore she has a sense of her surroundings, but it’s an obscured one.
Thus, “Beyond Eyes” is able to toy with our own perception as well. We, for instance, hear a splash of water and the game draws us a fountain, an image that’s recognizable to Rae. Take a few steps closer, however, and the water fountain turns out to be a sewer. This happens throughout the two- to three-hour experience that is “Beyond Eyes,” and it’s never not affecting.
A click-click-click can be a woodpecker in a tree. Or it could be the sound of a pedestrian signal alerting Rae when it’s safe to cross a street. The game unfolds like a digital coloring book springing to life. Strands of paint circle around Rae and watercolor-like paintings unfurl before her. They glimmer in and out of view depending on where the wind is blowing and what Rae is hearing. Hopefully, it’s meow.
Developed over a span of about four years by Sherida Halatoe, who created the game while a student at HKU University of the Arts in the Netherlands, “Beyond Eyes” recalls Giant Sparrow’s “The Unfinished Swan,” another game in which sight is at a premium. Both have a childish, melancholic tone — fairy tales that double as life lessons.
As “Beyond Eyes” patiently reaches its conclusion, the final moments lack a grand emotional payoff and there were a few too many times I wandered in circles, but I’m not so sure I could have enjoyed it in any format other than a game. Whether it’s “Wendy and Lucy” or “Harry & Tonto,” cinema has trained me to avoid sad pet movies, and a book would simply allow me to get too inside my own head (days and nights forcing my cat to sit still and cuddle would ensue).
“Beyond Eyes,” however, felt engaging.
That we are seeing the world as Rae sees it in her head turns out to be a rather clever twist. She thinks, for instance, she’s stumbling over a tree branch, and in reality it’s a rather handy umbrella.
In turn, a lost cat inspires a lonely girl to venture outside of her comfort zone, and though dogs and birds may scare her along the way, she returns home with a sense of wonder and a newfound curiosity for the world.
Game players and game makers like to play up the notion that their medium lacks the passivity of others. In films or books, something is watched or read, but in a game a player is doing. There’s truth in that, but it’s often overblown, or wasted on games that mimic Hollywood blockbusters.
Then a game like “Beyond Eyes” comes along and shows us what it’s like to see the world when we can’t see at all and gives us motivation to work through it. I hope to never find out if “Beyond Eyes” is accurate, but it doesn’t need to be a simulation to have vision.
Developer: Tiger & Squid
Publisher: Team17 Digital
Platforms: Xbox One, PC