Perhaps you had heard of Beyond Eyes before E3, perhaps you hadn’t. It doesn’t matter. What does, though, is how beautiful this small exploration game about a young blind girl called Rae is.
It’s the work of mostly one person, Sherida Halatoe, who started off working on it as her graduate project back in 2011. Now, four years later, as its launch date closes in, she’s seeing the game reaching a lot more people, especially after being able to present it herself on stage during Microsoft’s E3 press conference.
Siliconera caught up with Halatoe to find out about that four year journey, including how she came up with the game idea, the source of its visual beauty, and how it compares to similar games such as The Unfinished Swan.
Beyond Eyes started off as a graduate project. What was the initial idea you had for it back in 2011 and how did the prototype play?
I originally started the project with my friend Rian Franssen and we wanted to create a story driven game focussed on exploration. The concept was of a young blind girl trying to find her way home by herself for the first time. I wanted to focus on game design, development, and writing and she was going to be the artist and writer on the project. Rian was always painting with watercolour paint and we looked into finding a way to recreate those visuals in our game.
After a few weeks we decided to each go our separate way with the concept: Rian created a text adventure “Eyes Beyond’ about a girl named Claire and her dog who got out at the wrong bus stop, and I made a 3D prototype about a girl named Ray who was on her way to an unknown location. The player could explore the area freely and upon reaching her destination, it turned out to be a hospital where she would receive sight restoring surgery. The player could than walk back to the bus stop seeing the world for what it was, dull and gray, which was less colourful and exciting than her imagination made it seem. The demo ended at the bus stop where she makes eye contact with an unknown man and colour starts to flow out from her heart and makes her part of the world pretty again. In terms of gameplay it was very similar to what Beyond Eyes is now, the only difference is that there used to be a ‘focus’ button to enhance her senses and reveal more subtle things. You say that after graduating you started your own studio and worked on multiple projects. If you could surmise it, what are you interested in exploring as a creator, and what types of projects do you enjoy working on?
I’m all about storytelling and creating interesting visuals. What I enjoy most about games above any other medium is the possibility to let you walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and hopefully reflect on your own life afterwards. Before deciding on studying games I was really into theatre design and photography for a while but there is always this clear distinction between the work and the audience and a lot of room for miscommunication as well. When creating a game I enjoy keeping it small and pretty, bringing a human element to the mechanics we often see forgotten in games.
For example, the unfinished project I worked on after graduation, Almost Home, was about a young girl ( yes, there is a trend here :P) who is trying to escape a bombed war zone after being in hiding for several months. I wanted to show those FPS war zone levels through the eyes of a child and show the effects of your actions on her. One of the things you’ll find in a lot of games is looting, finding resources or keys on deceased NPCs, which is basically a one button click for you but for her, it’s an extremely traumatizing experience that will affect her for the rest of her life.
I sort of carried that idea of empathy, of being responsible for the mental well being of a character, over to Beyond Eyes and my future games as well.
Recently, you were able to present Beyond Eyes on stage at E3. How did that opportunity come about? And what was the experience like for you?
That was an amazing surreal experience! Something I never thought I would be able to achieve, let alone with my first title. The hardest part was keeping it a secret from everyone, I just wanted to yell at everyone “My game will be on stage at E3!!!!” But I couldn’t.
My label, Team17, went to Microsoft to show their whole publishing portfolio and Microsoft really liked it. After a while we heard that the game was on their long list for E3, together with 70 other games, including the AAA stuff. The original idea was to have the trailer included in the E3 reel and have the game on the show floor with them which was amazing!
Then a few weeks before E3 I got a call asking me if I would be cool with announcing the game on stage myself! Couldn’t stop grinning for the rest of the week. To be honest, I’m still grinning when I think about it. The weirdest thing is not being hidden anymore, I always kind of expected Beyond Eyes to be this cute obscure game and while it’s still cute and a little strange, it’s also in plain sight now. Which is really cool :)
As you’re depicting a young, anxious girl who lost her eyesight do you feel you have to be sensitive with how you handle any parts of the game at all?
Hmm, interesting question. I always try to handle my protagonists with care, so with Rae it’s not much different so although I have no experience being blind, I do know what it’s like to be a young girl who experiences an immense loss and has to find her own way through it. And ultimately that is what Beyond Eyes is all about.
What’s immediately compelling about Beyond Eyes is how it looks. What’s the visual style you are going for here and what are the primary ways you achieve this?
Like I said before, my friend’s watercolour art was a huge inspiration for the game and was also the most challenging thing to create. I’ve tried so many different ways to create that soft, painterly look.
You can’t have hard, visible edges or lighting so everything needs to be painted by hand. When she walks around, the colour is flowing out softly, like watercolour would on a piece of paper. Rae wasn’t born blind so she envisions the world based on her picture books and her early memories.
It seems to be your goal to have players care about Rae as they play the game. While that may come naturally given she’s a young girl, what various ways have you brought her to life to further ensure that players can form a bond with her?
Rae is very responsive to her environment so when she encounters something she likes or dislikes she will communicate it to the player through colour, sound, and body language. As a result players seem to be more willing to keep her safe instead of trying to the limits of the system. For example, there is a part where Rae comes across a huge black wall of coiling smoke that really terrifies her and I’m always super happy when people who play tell me that under normal circumstances they would immediately try to run their avatar in there to see what happens but with Rae they just want to protect her. I really like that.
It’s possible to compare Beyond Eyes to The Unfinished Swan. In that game the initial wonder of exploration was gradually added to with puzzles and new environmental interactions to keep it interesting. Have you felt this to be necessary with Beyond Eyes too? And if so, how have you added that variation?
Making a game like Beyond Eyes is really difficult and I understand why Giant Sparrow made the decision to add new elements to the game. Personally, I really enjoyed that first part of the game but lost interest after they stepped away from the paint splattering.
I think a large problem for The Unfinished Swan was that the world was quite static which made exploring only interesting for a shorter amount of time. With Beyond Eyes I tried to make the world as interesting as possible with the resources we had so there are always new things to uncover as you wander around and add some challenge to the exploration. At some point in the game, Rae finds herself around a harbour when the rain starts pouring really hard, washing away everything you have uncovered so far, only revealing the spot in which she’s currently standing. You have to listen to the distorted sounds to navigate.
Why did you decide that the Xbox One would be the first console you brought Beyond Eyes to? Is there a plan to bring it to other consoles?
Microsoft has been very supportive of Beyond Eyes since they first saw it and reached out. I also like the opportunity to reach a new audience since games like Beyond Eyes weren’t traditionally associated with Xbox. For now, the focus lies on releasing on Xbox One and PC, Mac & Linux first.