This probably isn't the best way to start, but I'm not sure I'm ready to review Gods Will Be Watching. The trouble is, I don't think I'll ever be ready to review Gods Will Be Watching. It's a game that I find simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. I love the ideas, but kind of hate the execution. I don't think it achieves what it set out to do, but then I'm not entirely confident that I know what that was in the first place.
Some context: Gods Will Be Watching began life as a Ludum Dare game jam entry, on the theme of minimalism. Deconstructeam, the development group responsible, turned in a claustrophobic and nail-biting single location survival simulator in which you had to keep a group of people alive. In terms of mechanics, it was a resource management game. In practice, as the name suggests, it was more about the horrible rock and a hard place decisions you had to make along the way. Who was expendable? Who should suffer most and why? Whose well-being can be sacrificed for the greater good?
These are big questions to ask, and it's wonderful that games are increasingly finding new ways to ask them. Gods Will Be Watching belongs to a small but valuable strand of design that includes Papers, Please and Telltale's Walking Dead; games that are more interested in making the player wrestle with ethical dilemmas than having them 'beat' the underlying systems. In expanding its small but perfectly formed creation into a six chapter adventure game, however, Deconstructeam seems to have lost the vital balance needed.
The setting is the far future. Two establishment agents have infiltrated the idealistic resistance movement known as Xenolifer. In the opening chapter, a Xenolifer strike team is hacking a station on a planet controlled by the totalitarian Hollistic Empire. You take control of a siege already in progress. Four hostages are on the floor. Armed guards are lined up in the corridor outside. You have a hacker, who must keep the systems free of interference and can also boost the "hacking charge" piece by piece to get the job over more quickly.
There's also a lookout, who you can order to negotiate with the guards to make them hold their ground or to open fire on them, driving them back if they start to advance. And then there's the hostages themselves. It's essential you keep them on an even keel through a mixture of intimidation and reassurance. Scare them too much and they'll panic, rocking back and forth, and eventually try to flee, forcing you to let them go or shoot them in the back. Let them get too comfy, or fail to pay enough attention to them, and they'll get cocky and try to overpower you.
As a scenario, it's thrilling. As a game, it's less successful. Where the original Ludum Dare game was a morality sandbox disguised as a resource management game, it feels like that formula has flipped here. The systems are a little too naked, and yet also too opaque, for the deeper intellectual hooks to find their target. Maintaining control of the situation feels too much like spinning plates, and it takes multiple failed attempts to get a handle on where the boundaries are, how long each action will have the desired effect and what the impact of certain options will be on the different variables.
Ultimately, that's all you see the game as: variables being tweaked up or down, as you search for the choices that will offer the best chance of equilibrium. The result is a game that is supposedly about difficult moral choices in which I very quickly stopped caring about the characters, or even seeing them as characters at all.
When I finally passed that first scenario, I was relieved but also confused. I honestly couldn't tell you what I did drastically differently that made that attempt more successful than the others. Sometimes hostages behaved themselves the whole way through. Other times they'd make a break for it, one after another, with no apparent provocation. While some of the consequences of your actions are clear, others feel like they happen at random.
That's certainly true in the second scenario, where two characters are left behind after the first chapter and tortured for information. Once more, the parameters are quickly revealed: you must endure 20 days of torture, working out when to let one character or another take some punishment, building up to convincing lies and tactically telling the truth to buy more time. Another character has sneaked into the facility, and will deliver one item per day: painkillers to help you suffer more torture, medicine to heal wounds, or information to help you lie more convincingly. Again, it's hard for the rather delightful spindle-legged pixel art veneer to become an abstract coating on top of imagined gauges moving up and down.
And, again, there are elements that make you wonder if all your efforts are really worthwhile. The methods of torture used seem to be chosen at random, and one of them is Russian Roulette. Yes, it's entirely possible to have one or both characters die, failing the chapter, completely at random.
This can happen several times throughout the game, such as an equally enraging chapter where you must guide the characters through a randomly generated wasteland that sometimes seems to be literally impassable in the time allotted, and I'm genuinely torn as to how I feel about it. On one hand, it's kind of exhilarating. We're cushioned by decades of user-centric design into thinking that games will always play fair, that even the most inescapable fate can be avoided for the sake of progression. To have a game that so cruelly throws that back in your face is challenging and exciting.
But it is also unfair and infuriating, and with no checkpoints along the way, losing up to an hour of what felt like meaningful progress on the roll of a die does little to make you want to keep playing. It certainly doesn't do much to strengthen the game's already weak sense of character-driven morality. Why consider the consequences of your actions when it can all be taken away for no apparent reason? Maybe that cruel random nature is what the omnipotent viewpoint of the title refers to? If so, it's a valid artistic choice but one that crosses too far into aggressively alienating the player for my taste.
Crucially, it doesn't feel like each chapter escalates or evolves the core themes or mechanics in any way. You may have to juggle medical research, hole digging and robot repairs, and choose between injecting a human or a dog with potentially lethal concoctions. Whatever the case, you're always repeating the same idea - balancing variables until an arbitrary time limit expires - in different locations and situations, but with no cumulative effect. The reactions of other characters doesn't change depending on how you acted before and, in the game's most forehead-slapping feature, any key characters who die get inexplicably resurrected for the next chapter anyway.
That's right: this is a game about making impossible moral choices, where those moral choices have no lasting repercussions.
And yet I'm loathe to be too virulent in my criticisms because I can sense that underneath the teeth grinding design decisions, Deconstructeam is genuinely trying something unique and interesting here. More than that, I sense that those teeth-grinding decisions are not accidents and are part of what the developer is trying to do.
It's just an unpleasant game to play, and not in the way that Papers, Please is unpleasant. At least in that game, I know that when things take a turn for the dark, it's because I made a conscious choice to be cruel to somebody who was at my mercy. As dark as it was, I feel enriched for having played Papers, Please. The experience wasn't "enjoyable" but it was valuable, and it's hugely important that games are able to deliver experiences that aren't just fist-pumping crescendos of empowerment. Games can make you feel bad, and that's good.
In Gods Will Be Watching, I feel bad not because of what I've done in the game, but because I feel like I'm the one at somebody else's mercy, and I have no idea what that person wants. This may well be deliberate, and if so this failure to communicate its intentions either makes Gods Will Be Watching a work of unusually cruel genius, or a work of astonishing clumsiness. Maybe even both at the same time. Either way, it's impossible to recommend to anyone but the most masochistic players.