Gods Will Be Watching Review
There are trends in gaming that ebb and flow through the current scene, prevalent one day, missing the next. Difficulty is one such idea that has begun a new found resurgence in recent years, led perhaps by the popularity of the punishing RPG Dark Souls or the batch of insane ultra-hard platformers such as Super Meat Boy. The point and click Adventure genre meanwhile has always had a reputation for being tricky, but often this relates to obscure illogical puzzles or ridiculous pixel hunts rather than hitting a ‘Game Over’ screen after every action. Gods Will Be Watching turns this idea on its head. The first words the player sees as they dive into this pixelated science-fiction dream are ‘It’s harsh, unforgiving and evil. You will fail a lot.’ This is not a lie. You will die constantly, and often unfairly. Gods Will Be Watching is a punishing experience that slams your head into the closest hard surface at every opportunity, yet as your brain is smashed to metaphoric pulp you begin to realise something: this is how it is meant to be. Every do-over you learn something and perhaps a million tries later you may eventually succeed.
Even calling Gods Will Be Watching a point and click Adventure game in the first place is a misnomer. It has all the characteristics of one from the outside: using the mouse to navigate, clicking on items and people to interact with them and even that pixelated style that has become so often ingrained in the genre since the late eighties, yet it lacks classic interactive puzzles or an inventory. It is perhaps better described as a series of logic problems, or balancing acts often encompassed within extremely harrowing life and death situations.
You take the starring role of Sgt. Burden whose background is shrouded in mystery. The galaxy is embroiled in bitter struggle over alien slavery, with extremist groups threatening to commit genocide on a massive scale to make a statement against this forced servitude. Burden finds himself dropped in the middle of this morally grey territory and tasked with resolving crisis situations such as resisting torture or surviving on inhospitable planets. Each situation is played out as an act, usually on a single screen, where the player must make a series of critical life or death choices in order to survive.
For example, in the opening scene Burden is tasked with undertaking a hostage negotiation, not as one might expect from the outside but as the terrorist on the inside. The player must then perform an insane balancing act of ensuring that the hostages remain calm and alive, but not too calm as to begin thinking about escaping, as well as holding off the security forces that are constantly pressing in. All the while Burden must watch over as the team download some precious data from the servers they are hijacking. Every choice made has a consequence, and failure is always one slip away.
Failure defines Gods Will Be Watching. That wrong choice sees a hostage escape your grasp, or worse the security forces breach your defences. It is Game Over. Again. The player is then unceremoniously dumped back to the start of that act and forced to begin anew. While it is clear that this is how the developers intended the game to be played, each failure teaching the player something new, the resulting gameplay becomes exceptionally frustrating. Some scenes can last up to an hour in length, and with no mid save point, the cost of that failure is actually a huge waste of time.
What makes matters potentially worse is that as the player begins to understand the fundamentals of each situation it becomes clear that blind luck actually plays a large part in each success or failure. Each choice usually has a certain percentage chance of succeeding, sometimes a known variable other times completely hidden, and failure can result just from being unlucky. A wise player can of course attempt to play the percentages but more often than not, due to the balance of the game, that Game Over screen will still collapse onto the screen, with tears dripping from the player’s eyes.
On the one hundredth failure and restart it is understandable that a player may begin to doubt whether the developers were correct in their design principles. With frustration levels rising many will simply give up. That would be a shame as beneath this extremely oppressive level of difficulty lies a rather wonderful and insightful narrative that skims the world of grey morality superbly. It becomes a treatise on the principles of Utilitarianism with significant choices to be made that can really trouble the player. Is it right to kill a crippled man in order to save the rest of the group? Is it wrong to torture people for information that may save the lives of millions?
Superbly these choices are then translated into statistics that are shown to the player upon completion, a worthy reward for hours of extreme toil. In a manner reminiscent of the recent Telltale Games series of The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, graphs show how your decisions compare to those across the world. How many people did you save or sacrifice compared to everyone else? It is an insightful look into just how dark the world might become in such extreme circumstances.
Yet those screens are almost a pipe dream for many players, with success seemingly beyond their unfortunate grasp on the standard difficulty level. Fortunately the developers were keen sighted enough to add an easy mode for those with less of a tolerance for failure. I heartily recommend this despite it apparently being against the creators’ wishes. In many ways this review may never have been finished without it. It makes the game playable, enjoyable, as the narrative progresses at a more comfortable rate. You will still fail, a lot, but the failure seems less pervasive, less unfortunate and far less frustrating.
When wrestled away from its uncompromising difficulty Gods Will Be Watching becomes a different and wholly original beast. It is rather unlike any game before it. Scant few dare to explore such dark and dubious moral grounds, and the way it hammers such choices home with such brutal and stylish pixelated visuals is quite shocking. It is a world away from many of its adventure cousins that have yet to overcome an ancient structural hangover that too often relies on single solutions or comedic narrative and as a result is recommended purely as a study in being different. It is certainly not a complete success however. Even on the easier difficulty setting players will still be sitting through repeated animations, and the loss of huge swathes of time after each failure can drive one mad. Meanwhile the reliance on chance, while admittedly in fitting with the reality of such situations, feels cumbersome and can really ramp up frustration. In the end it all depends on how much suffering you are willing to devote to a game.
In between playing the game, writing this review and publishing, developers Destructeam released a patch named ‘The Mercy Update’ that adds several new modes to the game. There is now a Narrative Mode that completely removes the challenge and allows the players to dwell on their choices instead. Also included for those that fear failure by random chance is Puzzle Mode, that removes any probability and relies on the player solving problems logically to succeed. While perhaps going against the overburdening feel and style of the game, both modes seem like an elegant solution to the game’s issues and a clear sign that the developers have been listening to the feedback they have received from players (and critics alike) lost in the agony of failure.