The following will contain spoilers for Before Your Eyes and discussions of death. Reader discretion is advised.
I didn’t watch a ton of Breaking Bad. But I had the show on my mind when I first played GoodbyeWorld Games’ Before Your Eyes. There was one episode that I remembered most vividly, and that was the tenth episode of the third season titled “Fly,” which is apparently a divisive episode. In it, teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White talks to his cooking partner Jesse Pinkman about what would have been the “perfect” moment for him to die. By this point, he’s in remission with the cancer that pushed him into making and selling meth. But his life is fundamentally different now, and not all for the better. He thinks back to a time where his daughter Holly was born, he’d raised enough money to leave behind for his family, and before they knew what he was doing to make it. He remembers a night where he heard his wife Skylar singing a lullaby to their daughter over the baby monitor while he watched TV. He thinks about how, had he lived just to that moment, his death would have been perfect.
Before Your Eyes is a game about reflecting on one’s life at the end. At the beginning, it’s a peaceful reflection. But unbeknownst to the player, underneath the surface it’s actually uncomfortable, shifting in ways you have to confront after the fact. And it speaks to how we often romanticize our lives, and in cases like Walter White, our deaths, as well. Before Your Eyes is a game built upon the notion that our lives are stories we are writing, and being terrified it will become one we’re ashamed to tell.
Before Your Eyes recounts the life and times of Benjamin Brynn, a young boy living a mostly uneventful life with his father, a professor, and his mother, a composer-turned-accountant. But the game doesn’t play out in real-time. Instead, Benny is telling his life story to a ferryman fishing souls out of the sea. As their bird-covered boat floats toward a large building in the distance, he says he’s going to tell this story to an entity called the Gatekeeper, who, if she deems him worthy, will allow his soul to stay in her grand city.
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Benny’s life seems pretty normal at first. He likes playing video games with his friend Chloe, he has a strict mother who wants him to succeed in music in the way she feels she couldn’t, and he secretly likes to draw. After a botched music school audition, Benny spent a year homebound and sick, where he finally started to hone his craft in illustration. We watch him grow up from a baby, smearing handprints with paint, to a world-renowned artist, who used his platform to help elevate his mother’s music after her untimely passing. You see all this through Benny’s eyes, and each image flashes by as you blink and the game tracks your eyes. As he concludes his story, the ferryman is so excited he’s found a famous artist who might not have lived out his mother’s dream of having him become a famous musician, but in his own way, helped her achieve her dream posthumously.
It’s all so perfect, isn’t it? Not only did he fulfill his own goals, but he was also able to bring recognition to his mother without compromising what he wanted in life. His story ends with him talking to Chloe years later, in a gallery of his paintings paying tribute to his mother. They talk about how much has changed and are getting dinner afterward. The ferryman isn’t even interested in hearing how Benny died. The story of his life is more important. As he starts to practice what he’ll say to Gatekeeper, the birds sitting on the bow of the boat begin to cause a ruckus. The ferryman then tells Benny that these birds are the souls of people who have lied to the Gatekeeper. Thus, they’re sensitive to lies, and Benny’s been dishing them out as he told this ideal story about his life.
So we have to go back. We once again blink through the vignettes of Benny’s days on Earth. Until we see the parts he wanted to hide. There are a few of these scenes, but the most important is one where he overheard his parents talking after a doctor’s appointment. It turns out, the time he spent ill and at home wasn’t a time of artistic development. Benny was sick, and he wasn’t getting better. Before Your Eyes isn’t the story of a famous artist who carved a space for himself and his mother into their respective fields. It’s the story of a young boy who never got to grow old.
For a moment, Before Your Eyes no longer feels like a peaceful stroll down memory lane. It’s one seemingly painted in resentment, shame, and a yearning for a life that felt half as worthy of a story as the one Benny told the first time. Benny got to imagine his “perfect” life and “perfect” death. The tale he told the ferryman was a wonderful arc surely befitting of the Gatekeeper’s city. But it was a lie curated, removing all the ugly bits in between the rising actions.
As I get older, I think a lot about how people would describe me and my life to people who only know me in passing. If my mother was asked by a friend she hadn’t seen recently about how her son was doing, what would she tell them? What are the cliff notes of my life my friends would think are important to tell when they talk about me? This thought extrapolates long enough, and I start to ponder what people would talk about after I’m gone. And it’s even extended into thoughts like Walter White’s. Have there been times in my life where, if I were gone the next day, I’d be satisfied with what people thought my life was? It’s morbid to consider ways you could have died and it felt, for lack of a better expression, thematically appropriate to the story we’re imagining in our head. But is it really that far off from how most of us portray our own lives today? We all have carefully managed social media personas that show all the highlights of our lives. That’s how we tell our stories to the world, and we want it to be in a way that’s glamorous, and for some reason, narratively fulfilling. The conclusion is part of that. But it’s not like most people get to write their own obituary or the social media posts that will inform the world that we’re gone.
Before Your Eyes sits with the vanity long enough to acknowledge the pain of one’s passing isn’t just in the things we haven’t gotten to do. It’s often in how out of our control it all feels. We spend all this time on Earth crafting a story worth telling, but then something, whether that be an illness or an accident, rips the pen from our hands. Then we’re left to consider the ending we wanted, and the one that you’d be proud to tell a ferryman that fished you out of a sea of souls. After the game acknowledges the ugliness that comes with all its revelations, it takes Benny to the Gatekeeper, who’s ready to hear his story. This final scene uses the game’s blinking mechanic to take the player back between Benny’s final moments on Earth and his final moments with the ferryman with each closing of their eyes. Benny’s mother and the ferryman tell the story of his life, and instead of telling it in the cynical way he might, their vision is maybe a little bit more clear. It wasn’t the life he wanted, but it mattered. On the way to the Gatekeeper, the ferryman starts to wonder if the grand stories he’s tried to make of everyone who’s passed through on his boat may be overrated. Throughout the game, he’s been reading a thesaurus, trying to find the most extravagant way to describe the lives of those long gone. Then he promptly throws it overboard.
Even though it’s undoubtedly my favorite game I played in 2021, I don’t know if I find a lot of comfort in Before Your Eyes’ message just yet. I’m only 29-years-old and still feel anxious and angry at a lot of the stagnation I’ve felt still living in a small town and settling affairs here before I move to a big city and live the life I’ve always wanted. Given the circumstances, I’m proud of how far I’ve come in my 20s. The story of these past ten years has been full of all the lessons and character development befitting of the tale I imagine in my head as I continue to romanticize every goddamn day of my life as a story worth telling someone someday. But it’s not “perfect” yet. Before Your Eyes is a reminder that there’s a chance it never will be. But as I blink through the ferryman and Benny’s mother recounting a story that might not be as grand as he wanted it to be, the way they talk about it is more kind to Benny than he ever was to himself. Perhaps, if I’m not content with my life as it is at this moment, I can at least be kinder to myself as I move forward. Because ultimately, the story I’m writing isn’t for everyone else. It’s for me. And I think when I reach my conclusion, I will be more regretful that I was so hard on myself in the pages between the covers than anything else.