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This oddball game about a psychic infant is already winning awards

A baby levitates a bunch of scientists in Goodnight Universe.
Skybound Games

There are some video games that just feel impossible to follow up. That was the case with 2021’s Before Your Eyes, an incredibly unique indie that players controlled by blinking thanks to eye-tracking technology. It’s a thematically ingenious game that turns “blink and you’ll miss it” into a gameplay mechanic. It’s a perfect idea — almost too perfect. How can you possibly match something so tightly crafted?

The developers at Nice Dream knew more than anyone what a challenge that would be. Rather than telling the same story twice, the studio knew it would have to both be more creative and perhaps a bit less high concept. The end result of that thinking is something both familiar, but also entirely out of left field: Goodnight Universe. While it evolves Nice Dream’s face-tracking tech, the story leans more into screwball comedy as it puts players in control of a psychic infant at the center of a sci-fi mystery. That change seems to be working out; the project already won its first award at this year’s Tribeca Fest, beating out anticipated indies like Skate Story and Neva.

I can already see why. I got a hands-on (or head-on, more accurately) look at Goodnight Universe at Tribeca Fest, showing off how much its face-tracking control scheme has evolved. Though it may not be the perfect visual metaphor that Before Your Eyes is, Nice Dream draws some surprising links between parenthood and game design here that could make for another emotional hit.

Spiritual sequels

Before Your Eyes was a long project for Nice Dream. Despite being a movie-length game, it took the studio seven years to make. While that success motivated the team heading into its follow-up, it was also a bit of a burden. Trying to fit a very specific control scheme custom built for one game into another would present a creative challenge. As creative director and writer Graham Parkes told me at Tribeca Fest, the team would have to stop talking about Before Your Eyes at some point:

“Don’t talk about your ex-girlfriend when you’re trying to date someone new,” Parkes tells Digital Trends.

Before Your Eyes is such a perfect, concise idea,” he says. “I think we were all really served by Will [Wellwarth]’s initial concept being so strong. That’s why I came onto the project all those years back as a writer. I think we had to go, OK we’re not going to have something like that again that’s a perfect mechanical metaphor of trying to hold onto a moment and you blink and it moves on. But as we were developing it, we were like, there could be a cool action game with blinking. It can be really cool in a tactile way. And because of the metaphor of Before Your Eyes, we weren’t able to explore some of the other instances of face-tracking that were more the simple tactile joys of how it makes you feel like you have psychic powers.”

Every parent is a game designer.

The team began work on two separate pitches, both of which reached the prototyping stage. However, the psychic baby idea wouldn’t click into place until lead game designer Bela Messex became a father himself. As Messex raised his daughter, he began to feel a surprising link between game design and parenthood that would plant the seeds for a follow-up.

“Every parent is a game designer,” Messex tells Digital Trends. “Every parent has to protect their kids from falling off the level, from falling down the stairs. If you try to tell your kids to put on their pants, they won’t put on their pants. But if you say, ‘Do you want to put on the pink pants or the blue pants?’ then you give them a choice and it feels like they’re having a say in it. And that works really well with kids, and it works really well with players too. Game design and parenthood informed each other a lot.”

A baby levitates a bottle in Goodnight Universe.
Skybound Games

While the team would initially kick around a premise about a kid with psychic abilities, Parkes felt the idea was too overdone. But the more Bela’s daughter visited the studio, the more that idea evolved. The idea of an all-powerful infant felt more original and would give the studio plenty of opportunities to play with its face-tracking control scheme outside of blinking. The team may not have set out to make a direct evolution of Before Your Eyes, but that’s where fate led them.

“Try not to make a sequel, and you’ll end up making a spiritual sequel,” Parkes says.

Boss baby

The 20-minute demo I played at Tribeca Fest would give me a taste of how Nice Dream has evolved Before Your Eyes’ formula. There are some immediate similarities. I’m always watching a scene from the perspective of the baby in first person. I’m interacting with a vignette rather than freely moving around. Blinking is part of the control scheme, but the projects start to drift apart from there, both in terms of tone and control.

A girl thinks about her baby brother in Goodnight Universe.
Skybound Games

For one, Goodnight Universe has a bigger comedic streak. That’s partially because the infant hero gets a gruff voice over (“I’ve never even seen Boss Baby,” Parkes says, unprompted). Beyond that, though, the adventure leans into playful slapstick comedy that’s enhanced by the tech. When I first discover my powers, I’m able to blink to change channels on a TV. Later, I discover that I can hold my eyes shut to levitate objects. The webcam can even detect my smiles and frowns, which I can use to answer questions. Nice Dream squeezes a lot more out of face detection this time around with creative results.

“As game players we use our hands almost exclusively to play games,” Messex says. “When you take another part of the body that people aren’t used to using, it refreshes that feeling of being part of the game. What we spend so much time doing is trying to make that not a gimmick and trying to make it fair for the player. We want it to be something where we won’t mess with you; we want to be respectful of your body.”

Have you ever heard the expression ‘they grow up so fast’? They literally do.

Part of being respectful is making sure that the tech isn’t uncomfortable for players. In the current build, players can move objects (including a very confused beagle) by swiping their mouse. The team originally experimented with having players control that with a head nod, but found that it was too hard on necks. That idea could come back, though. Parkes points out that the team is being very flexible this time around as it’s not entirely sure what platforms the game will eventually land on (Before Your Eyes would get mobile and VR ports well after its PC release). Despite being deep enough in development to win awards, the project is still in pre-alpha with no playable end-to-end build ready. Nice Dream isn’t done experimenting just yet.

Part of the charm here is how the studio is able to translate infant behaviors into gameplay. Even with its sci-fi premise, parents are likely to find a relatable story here about how infants always seem to find a way to get themselves in trouble. One key set piece in my demo has me accidentally setting a basement on fire after a play session with a train track goes wrong (it turns out levitating a stack of computers with one’s mind isn’t safe). The team leaned on Messex’s expertise to help build scenarios like that, but found that his parenting was fast outpacing the game’s development cycle.

“It’s funny watching fatherhood from a distance with Bela,” Parkes says. “Bela was our resident dad with research questions. I’d be like ‘What’s it like feeding a 6-month-old?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t remember! I’m raising a 2-year old now! She was 6 months for one month!”

“Have you ever heard the expression ‘they grow up so fast’? They literally do,” Messex says.

A baby moves toys with its mind in Goodnight Universe.
Skybound Games

My demo ends with a tantalizing tease of a wilder sci-fi story. After my train incident, I wake up in a crib only to find myself being fed milk by a robot arm. My crib starts moving, only to reveal that I’ve been placed in some sort of research facility. Parkes and Messex stay tight-lipped about where the story goes, even noting that revealing its thematic intent would be a bit of a spoiler, but fans of Before Your Eyes should be excited. The team confirms that the story still has a humanistic heart along with its out-there story. That approach shows that Nice Dream isn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater in Goodnight Universe; it’s staying true to what made its last game such a surprise hit while giving birth to something entirely new.

“When you see a baby, you think kids [game],” Parkes says. “We’re doing Terrence Malick’s baby game.”

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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