Gods Will be Watching first came into being for Ludum Dare 26, at the end of April 2013. The demo is freely available, and was interesting, if bleak-- I never beat it. The demo places you in the role of a Sergeant Burden, stranded with his crew on a hostile planet. It's a game of multi-tasking; you need to keep you and the crew warm, fed, free of disease, keep morale up, repair the radio so you can send out a distress signal, and fend off the local wildlife.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. Like I said, I never beat the damn thing. I kept focusing so hard on staying on top of things and doing my best to save everyone. I inevitably spread myself too thin, so I would consistently end up saving no one at all. But the demo handled this well, very well, even. Nothing happens all at once-- instead things slowly start going to hell around you, and as you try and patch up one problem, another crops up. By the time you realize things have gotten out of hand, it's too late.
It's a fascinating approach to handling choice in the storytelling, because it's based so much on knowing how people are going to play the game. It's never posing binary options to you: it asks you to prioritize, and it will actively use perfectionist tendencies against you.
The full version of Gods Will be Watching steps up the game. Where the demo had no real urgency to it, the first gameplay sequence is a tense hostage situation. The atmosphere very much encourages you to rush, though the game is largly turn-based: time only advances when you make a choice.
If you rush, you will die. You'll die a lot in general, actually. The game is broken up into multiple discrete scenarios, and until you learn to manage the unique needs of each scenario, you will die repeatedly, even on easy mode. With this comes one of my few quibbles with the game-- there's no quicksave or way to save within a scenario. When you die, you have to start over from the beginning, no matter how far you've gotten. While this plays well into the game's ethos of outright forcing you to sacrifice something, after a few tries it gets really frustrating to have to go through ten or twenty minutes of gameplay over and over again. I would really appreciate being able to drop a save at a mid-scenario checkpoint.
The art style is that skinny-legged highly-pixelated look that Sword and Sworcery popularized. I'm not a fan of the style but it's skillfully done, and reducing faces to a pixely blur actually helps the mood of the game. It looks good, and the game covers subject matter where it needs to be careful to walk a line between showing too much detail and not enough.
This is because the game throws you into a torture sequence as its second scenario. It doesn't pull any punches. I was nervous going into this sequence, given you can beat, maim, or kill hostages in the first one. You don't ever really have to, but the option remains open and visible, and I kept wondering if I would have to. In a few failed attempts, I did. But I'm avoiding talking about the torture scenario. It's brutally portrayed-- the heavy pixelation of the graphics is both a relief for being so vague and a horror for leaving enough open to the imagination. It's explicitly not torture porn, because pornography is intended to be pleasurable.
Which, if anything is, the central flaw of the game. It's not pleasurable: it's a harrowing experience. It's compelling, it's fascinating, but it's not something that will ever make you feel good. I don't think it's important that a game be pleasurable experience, however. It's not something necessary to any other sort of fiction-- most books, movies, and TV will be fun, to be sure, but by no means do any of them need to be fun to be good. But it's definitely something worth noting; you're going to need to hug a pet or loved one after playing.
Going as far in the game as I have (as I said, it's very difficult; I'm still working on it), it's still in question to me if how you play each scenario affects anything at all about later ones. The game does track, say, if anyone at all dies, but dead characters seem to still appear in the following chapter. Something seems strange about it, though-- I'm not entirely certain if those returning characters are real or some sort of hallucination. I'm not entirely sure if it matters either way, for two distinct reasons.
First, the choices you make in the gameplay are the gameplay. It's never really telling you that it's doing it; it's never giving you prompts of "be good person y/n". But every action you take is at the expense of a different action, with its own risks. It's certainly possible to try and go for a 'perfect' run-through or a 'villain' game but without a guide in hand you'll have to take your chances, and only you the player-- the titular, metaphorical 'god'-- will be judging the actions. The game follows through on the notion that it's not assigning a meaning of right or wrong to your actions in a way that few do. The only goal you are given is to survive to the end of the scenario. Anything else along the way is optional, and you're not even informed of what all your options could have been until the end of the chapter. (At the end of each, you're given data on how your actions match up to how others have played the same scenario, something I'm glad to see in wider usage than just Telltale games. This is the closest the game comes to judging you: your overall approach will be characterized with a single word. My attempts to dribble out miniscule amounts of information in order to space out beatings were inevitably characterized as 'suicidal'. The assessment appears to have no impact on play.)
Second is that GWBW tells a reasonably compelling story. Enough so that I've been fairly circumspect about saying anything at all about it. There's an evil space empire and a rebel group you've infiltrated and an apparently-neutral third party that you work for. Biological weapons and the question of where the line between freedom-fighting and terrorism actually is, and how being personally affected will change where you see those lines. It's heavy stuff, and I don't see the game answering any of those questions for you. But there's a character story in here, too, or more specifically a story about relationships. Donald and Sarah are married, Jack loves the dog that comes along, Burden and Jack go through hell together... and then there's the relationship between Burden and Liam, head of the rebel group Xenolifer. It's strangely intimate, the way Burden speaks about him, hangs so much of his sympathy for the Xenolifer cause on Liam
himself. It stands out starkly amidst the stilted phrasing and outright gameness that forces you to keep the game at arm's length.
Gods Will be Watching is not an immersive game, but that's okay. It's a game that works best at a distance, when you're treating it as a game to be beaten, a puzzle to be solved, because that's where the failure cascades the game thrives upon come from. If you throw yourself into the place of Sergeant Burden, if you decide in advance what constitutes acceptable losses, you're not going to be feeling that rising dread, and it won't change to panic just before everything goes all to hell.
The game is by no means flawless; the text of the game is, even where it's grammatically correct, written in stilted, unnatural English. Given Deconstructeam is based out of Spain, I'm neither surprised nor hugely bothered by this lack of conversational mastery, and they know how to use it to create atmosphere. But a more thorough edit is a level of polish that I think would make for a better game.
GWBW manages tension well, knowing how to both build it both slowly and swiftly, in different situations. But gameplay moments to release that tension are few and far between, and the ones I've seen have been so welcome I think a little more of that release would have helped a lot. On the other hand, this draws the situation out long enough that it feels hard to take any more before giving that release-- it comes in at the last possible moment. It's skillful either way, but for my nerves I'd hope for a bit more room to breathe.
Since we're down to the final odds and ends: There only appears to be one significant female character, but while psychiatry seems like a 'soft' science relative to the fields the other characters are in, she's in a highly technical specialization. She's married to the engineer who accompanies you, but this doesn't really seem to be the crux of her character. She's as solid a character as any of the others, and I enjoy her depiction.
Sound design is as capable of the rest of the game; it's as much used to form tension as the rest. I don't know that I would listen to the music outside of the game, not liking to have my hair stand on end while just listening to music, but the soundtrack appears to be included with the game as flat Ogg Vorbis files, which is appreciated.
I can't unreservedly recommend Gods Will be Watching-- the subject matter goes places some people can't or won't want to go. It's oppressive and depressing and the need to constantly start over when you fail makes it repetitive as all get-out. But it's a game worth playing, and above all else it's a game worth thinking about.