Gods Will Be Watching Review: Joyous Misery

Gods Will Be Watching is not fun, or enjoyable. or a good way to unwind at the end of a long day, or whatever other descriptors gamers like to use for games they like. Instead, it’s stressful, painful, annoying and frustrating. It’s also the most exhilarating game I’ve played in 2014. Gods Will Be Watching is the kind of game that defines a year, but you have to let it work its magic.

That often proves to be a troublesome prospect for games that are not like other games, and I think Gods Will Be Watching is not an exception. It’s very difficult, for one thing (when PR sent copies of the game to press they included this note: “This game is hard and is meant to be hard – swallow your pride before you start”), but it’s not just that. GWBW is difficult in nontraditional ways, and there’s also a significant element of luck involved. Whether or not you succeed is sometimes not in your hands at all.

The premise of GWBW, which is presented as a point-and-click adventure, is that you are a sergeant in a sort of future space war, and you keep finding yourself in intense survival situations that require some smart management skills. The game opens with a hostage situation — you and your team are the ones taking hostages as you attempt an info robbery. You’ve gotta keep the law from getting in, keep the hostages from getting too antsy and do what you can to assist in the hacking attempt. It’s nerve-wracking and tough, and the game doesn’t explain really how to do all that. That’s not to say it gives you poor instructions; it just doesn’t care about you. It’s your job to figure out something that works.

Because you aren’t given guidelines, it’s not unlikely that you’ll find yourself in a compromised position, compelled to do something horrible like murdering a hostage. That’s just how this goes, but of course there are many ways to handle the situation. Figuring them out is up to you.

Later in the game, you and a partner find yourselves tied to chairs back to back, being tortured for days on end, and this game becomes one of endurance. You have to survive by whatever means are necessary, with one caveat: giving up too much information would be bad news. You’re tortured in many ways but the best is the day you find yourself with a revolver pointed out your face, with one round in the cylinder. You can do things to improve your odds, but that trigger is going to be pulled at some point and it’s never going to be up to you whether it sends a bullet through your face.

And that’s just one of many scenes that’ll wind you up so hard you’ll need a cigarette break after. Gods Will Be Watching is an emotional struggle from start to finish, and just like your real emotional struggles you’re not always the one in charge. Random, blind luck of the ultimate sort is as much a part of life as eating, but it’s rarely found a place in the power fantasy medium of video games. Deconstructeam dares to go there, and while it’s absolutely frustrating, for me it’s even more thrilling.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in each scenario, even after playing them all, and knowing that all the hard work and careful planning I put into them can be undone at the whim of the game’s programming is better than cake or sex. The best part? Failing a scenario means you have to try again from the beginning, even if you spent a half hour toiling away at it already. Good luck finding an action game that gets the adrenaline flowing and makes you panic more than the peaks moments in Gods Will Be Watching do.

Not that it’s perfect, or consistent with how it plays its scenarios out — in one situation you can have each member of the group perform one action during a block of time, and in another you get five actions total across members during a time period, for example. But that’s forgivable to a degree because the broaches new moral and ethical quandaries, such as “maybe we’d have an easier time surviving out here in this wilderness if we didn’t have to feed so many people, some of whom aren’t contributing all that much.”

Born from a Ludum Dare scenario (an updated version of which has been included in the middle of the game) and spread into a full-length game, Gods Will Be Watching is far and away the most interesting game from 2014 thus far, and it wouldn’t really be a stretch to call its design “pioneering.” But the true joy, above its other admirable traits, comes from the emotional trauma and frustration it inflicts on the player. Accept no substitutes.

Final Verdict

10/10

Gods Will Be Watching was developed by Deconstructeam and published by Devolver Digital. It was released on July 24, 2014, at the MSRP of $9.99. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.