I’m normally a good judge of a game. When I see a trailer or a preview, I may not be able to gauge whether it’ll be critically successful, but I’m normally savvy enough to know if I, personally, am going to like it or not. Several months ago, I played an early version of Gods Will Be Watching after watching someone else play it. I found the concept intriguing and looked forward to playing it upon full release. What I saw and played back then was good. What I’ve been playing for the past few days, however, is another story.
I’m not sure how best to go about this, so I’m just going to quote the game’s own website verbatim to begin with.
“Gods Will Be Watching is a minimalistic “point and click thriller” centered on despair, commitment, and sacrifice as players face narrative puzzles and moral dilemmas that will affect both the lives of your team and the people you’re are sworn to protect. Set against the backdrop of an interstellar struggle, Gods Will Be Watching follows Sgt. Burden and his crew in six tense chapters from hostage situations and wilderness survival to biological weapon prevention and agonizing torture scenarios. Each decision is crucial and players will need to choose between the lives of their team and the saving the world from genocide. There’s no good or evil, just decisions, with only you and the gods as a judge to your actions.”
I’ve purposely left in the spelling and grammatical mistakes, because that’s one of the first things that struck me about this game. Within the first few seconds of actual gameplay, I was put off by what I can only attribute to bad translation. This, coupled with one of my many pet peeves for the last few years (namely pixel-art) was enough to put a sour taste in my mouth. But the game still looked good as a whole, didn’t it? Aside from the art and some of the text, I was still excited to play it. It’s gameplay and story that matter to me the most.
Unfortunately, what awaited me wasn’t what I had expected. With hindsight, I’m not sure that my judgement of this game was anywhere near as accurate as it should have been.
Gods Will Be Watching started its life as a Ludum Dare entry, developed in under 72 hours. The theme the teams were working towards was “minimalism”, which is fine for small experiences, but rarely makes for enthralling play in a full game. Instead of innovating and expanding beyond the original “demo”, the developers have simply changed the backdrop. The whole game is like a play; there are many actors and lots of scenery and props, but you never really forget that you’re watching people move around on a stage. The sense of minimalism that served the game so well in its original incarnation now only diminishes it.
This sense of repetition is only magnified by the gameplay, which I quickly grew tired of. Put bluntly, there are no “moral dilemmas” or “narrative puzzles” to contest with here: Gods Will Be Watching is basically spinning plates. Everything needs tending to, but not too much or too little, or the plate will fall off the stick and make a mess on the floor. Too many plates fall and you lose. Alternatively, you could appear to keep all the plates spinning quite nicely, only to find out that you STILL lose because you spun them the wrong way.
There’s so little to indicate that you’re actually doing anything correctly. Often, the only sign that you’ve done something wrong – or even that something was going wrong in the first place – is after the irreversible event has taken place. In the first level, you have to interpret the body language of hostages. Did you know that having one leg flat on the ground but one bent at the knee means you’re calm, but not too calm? And don’t even get me started on those constantly nodding fucking heads. I know I’m exaggerating when I say this, but it seems like every character nods back and forth every god-damn second. Having to decipher whether or not a nod is just a nod or might be a sign of nervousness (or relaxation?) is not my idea of fun.
But the one part that really pissed me off was the second “level”, which is basically an interrogation scene. My options as I clicked my characters were to Provoke, Beg, Think, Lie (10%) or Confess. Now what the hell kind of selection is that? Does that 10% mean my chance of successfully convincing my captor? If so, why doesn’t it increase as I “Confess” to him? Why doesn’t my companion say anything as I spill the truth? Why does the interrogator repeat EVERY DAMN THING he discovers EVERY TIME I answer a question?
Also, why am I even there? Without spoiling what amounts for the plot, it makes no narrative sense for me to be stuck with two thugs in a basement after coming from a server room complete with a neural fucking interface, invisible keyboards and giant flat screen displays.
Gods Will Be Watching irks me in so many ways, but most infuriating of all has to be the “difficulty”. I put it in quotes, because it’s difficult in the same way as playing one of those buzz wire games blindfolded is difficult. The game has a set way that it wants you to play, despite its pretence at offering you decisions. If you don’t keep all of those plates spinning just right, you’re going to have to go back and do it all again. No save states here. But the devs seem genuinely proud of this. It’s the way the game was designed to be played, they assure you at the difficulty select screen. If you love them, you’ll play it that way.
I’m sorry, but I don’t love them. I don’t even like them that much. Every promise that the game offers should be followed by an asterisk, which leads to a bunch of small print. This is a game that was good when it was small, but has grown into something bigger than it should be. The plot feels so tacked on and badly written that it ruins what little enjoyment I derived from progressing through the story. The music is perhaps the only individual element of this game that I didn’t have a fault with… but that’s not the sort of thing you write home about. Unless you’re a composer, that is.
I can’t recommend this game, unless you’re a fan of punishing difficulty in the form of often impenetrable obscurity and relentless trial and error. While getting it right can feel rewarding, it’s a false sense of accomplishment, brought on only by the elation at not having to try it again. The game’s original incarnation, with its focused design and limited action set; its clear goal and defined roles; its unique take on group dynamics and resource management… that is the game I wanted. It’s not the game I got.