Imagine a world where Build-A-Bear Workshop had a mobile delivery service. Now imagine if that service came to your bedside without you ever asking for it. I'm bad at constructing relevant metaphors, but Via’s (Don’t) Open Your Eyes is exactly like that.
(Don’t) Open Your Eyes is an atmospheric horror visual novel. It features a full, independent team. It was developed and written by Daniel “Via” Cuturrufo. Carolina Cuturrufo created the monster design and general art, while David Acosta voiced the story’s feature demon. It was published in early 2019, but received an update last December.
The game follows the main character whose home is invaded by a mysterious demon. It probes you, asking you to describe its appearance, and you slowly imagine the demon materializing in front of you. Every so often it’ll ask you to open your eyes. If you say yes, the experience ends and your character forgets anything ever happened. If you say no, you learn more and more about the demon in front of you, building your own horror as you answer its questions.
Lemme Whisper In Your Ear
I was immediately impressed with the amount of immersion that the game has, considering it’s formatted as a visual novel. Most of this comes from the well-timed sound design. Upon loading in, you’re greeted with the sound of crickets in the background. The text at the bottom scrawls away as you click through the dialogue. As you get ready to sleep, you hear the light switch flick off as darkness fills the room. After your character recounts the number of steps it takes to get to the bed from the door, only silence remains. Finally, you close your eyes, letting your imagination manifest a picture of the familiar bedroom. That’s when you hear footsteps approaching. They grow closer until you hear a scratchy whisper say, “Open… your eyes…”
Doki Doki, This Isn't The Literature Club
When I hear about horror visual novels, I am often skeptical. It's very easy to throw in jump scares and jolting noises to try to scare the player. This often happens with flying JPEG images and poorly timed sound cuts. However, Via seems to have taken extraordinary care in building player immersion for the sake of high quality tension.
Having enough tension is crucial to building an immersive horror game. David Acosta’s voiceover work and Carolina Cuturrufo’s art design is excellent at promoting that. Hearing the voice for the first time made me jump, and I was drawn in by David’s believable demon-like tones. Carolina’s character designs did well to portray the demon through imagination rather than realism. The lines are rough and imply an estimation of the image the narrator conjures in his mind by not being an overly detailed, picturesque portrait of the demon by the bed.
If you want a realistic depiction, however, that would mean opening your eyes.
But for all the compliments I have for the immersion the game builds, I found one issue that washed it all away. In the game, you answer the demon’s questions about himself, and he grows the features you give him. After you finish answering a question and listening to his dialogue, he asks if the answer you give are truly the features he possesses. You can only answer yes or no, but by answering no, you are given the opportunity to answer the same question again and pick a different feature you prefer. However, picking the same option again would only play back the same reply. It is possible to never progress and just endlessly loop repeating dialogue.
I felt this feature, while convenient for seeing all the different routes and pieces of dialogue, was detrimental to maintaining the game’s tension. I became keenly aware of the system behind the smoke and mirrors. The demon was no longer a demon, but a GUI that made noises. All my sense of mystery had disappeared. One way to fix this would be to remove the option to take back your answers and rebuild the demon. Then, add the option back after completing the first playthrough of the game.
The first playthrough of any game is key to its experience and how players will remember it. No amount of additional content will remove the dispositions gained after finishing the first one.
Take a Peek Through Your Fingers
With all that said, the writing is unique and the work done to build immersion is top notch. Most of the time, I was cowering at the game behind parted fingers. I would recommend any horror or visual novel fans with free time to take a peek at it.