by Christopher Coke
reviewed on PC
Does a Game Need to Be Fun?
Gods Will Be Watching is not a fun game. This, by itself, is not a criticism that should dissuade on-the-fence players. After all, we are living through a renaissance in the world of indie gaming, one in which a whole generation of games have arisen which are not “fun” in the classic sense. In that way, Gods Will Be Watching is like many of its peers, filled with gray moral choices and a narrative which doubles as a commentary on modern life. Unlike its contemporaries, however, Gods Will Be Watching is unrelenting in its pessimistic attitude and drags itself down into a moray of bad choices and poorly executed game design.
The narrative arc in Gods Will Be Watching goes something like this. You begin the game as a team of rebels left to die on a desolate, dangerous planet. Multiple groups wrestle for control of the Medusa virus, a deadly biologic threat capable of killing billions. The Xenolifers are essentially terrorists, though they at least want to ensure freedom for each of the alien races. The Constellar Federation also wants to control the virus but enslaves each alien race it defeats. The Everdusk Company for the Universe Knowledge (ECUK), your faction, wants to stop Xenolifer and has the sterling quality of using “common sense.” What that even means in the context of interplanetary genocide aversion is beyond me but there you have it.
A Series of Bad Choices
From there, you play through a series of episodes that tell the story of how your team arrived on the planet, how they suffered and did terrible things, and how everyone will probably die regardless. Each episode is an exercise in spinning plates. In each, the player is responsible for managing a number of different elements, such as the health of party members, the terror level of hostages, keeping advancing guards at bay, or making sure everyone is tortured equally and no one actually dies as a result. Dropping any of these plates will usually result in the immediate failure of the episode. It proceeds almost like an adventure game, clicking on characters to reveal a series of options to interact with them or engage them in an action.
The choices are usually bad. When a hostage escapes, do you kill them or let them go free and be more likely to fail your mission? To keep them in check, you can calm them with conversation, shout at them, kick them, or shoot them in the leg. If you talk to them, make sure to kick them afterwards. Those hostages need to stay afraid, remember. In the next episode – which revolves entirely around an extended torture sequence, I might add – do you let the interrogator shatter your kneecap with a hammer or do you confess and betray your friends?
On the surface, these sound like interesting choices. Conceptually, they are intriguing. They are delivered so deadpan, however, so frank and bleak and cold, that I wound up feeling dirty and wrought for having played through them. There is nothing fun about playing Gods Will Be Watching. The entire experience, from its beginning to end, is a tide of unhappiness.
Some games can get away with delivering such an experience. Few would argue that The Walking Dead is happy to play through, for example. But where other games succeed and this one fails is how these messages are presented. There is requisite depth, complexity, and subtlety to delivering quality stories of sad observation. The best interlace moments of hope and beauty, understanding that light is a necessary counterbalance to draw the player through. Gods Will Be Watching offers nothing and only encouraged me to step away over and over again.
The game is also terribly heavy-handed. The opening prelude makes it clear: No one is happy. No one is going to be happy. The world is a dark and screwed up place and you are stuck in the worst possible scenarios. Even you, the main character, are capable of terrible things. It is clear that the developers were striving to make a meaningful commentary on world affairs but it failed to translate. Instead, we are left with a game that revels in its pessimism. The main character is even named Burden.
Poorly Explained and Too Random
This pessimistic messaging even extends to the game systems. Behind the scenes, dice are constantly being rolled. Everything can go perfectly, you do everything right and spin each plate for everything to come crashing down due to random chance. It is frustrating and once again drives home the message that everything you do might be for nothing. Your power is always gated by chance. Your autonomy is fleeting.
Gods Will Be Watching also has the dubious honor of being the most poorly explained game I have played this year. Episodes progress in turns, though nothing tells you that. Progressing missions involves clicking on characters and selecting an interaction option. Choosing a red option progresses the round one turn, a green one does not. Again, the game does not tell you this. The end result is a series of failures until the basics of gameplay can be deciphered from the wreckage.
Gods Will Be Watching expects you to fail. Even the difficulty options are labeled “if you love us” and “if you hate us” for normal and easy. It is cheeky. I appreciated that right up until I actually began playing. Those early failures result from a pure lack of regard for the player. That is not “difficulty.” That is poor design.
The crux of the issue is simply this: Gods Will Be Watching thinks it is smarter than it actually is. It tries to weave commentary into its story but only succeeds in imparting pessimism. That’s a shame because the premise behind that heavy-handedness isn’t terrible. Still, this is a game that revels in the bad choices it forces you to make. In the beginning, I was shocked but in playing it through I simply found myself dismayed time and again. Come to think of it, maybe Burden isn’t such a bad name after all.
Punishingly difficult, poorly explained mechanics, steeped in pessimism