gods will be watching

The Gods Are Frowning

by Jim Bevan

Despite invoking the gods in its title, there’s hardly any intelligent design in Gods Will Be Watching. From the start the game doesn’t do much to impress. The story is an overdone space opera where a galaxy-spanning government force (the Constellar Federation) is embroiled in conflict with a rebel group (Xenolifer), a struggle that can only be overcome by one man, Sergeant Abraham Burden. Even a clichéd plot can work if the writers subvert the formula or create enough intrigue to draw you into their world, but this game does neither. Characters frequently discuss the evils they’re dedicated to fighting against (or in some cases for): the Constellar Federation’s policy of treating non-human species as slaves; Xenolifer’s acts that could be labeled terrorism or freedom fighting; the barely touched-upon Hollistic Empire that is described as a brutal, despotic regime. Yet none of this is ever shown. Even for a game intended to showcase minimalism, the rule of “show, don’t tell” should still apply.

Developer Deconstructeam promotes Gods Will Be Watching as a title centered on “despair, commitment, and sacrifice” yet fails to realize any of these concepts. Throughout the game’s seven missions, Sergeant Burden is faced with incredibly difficult decisions that affect those around him (usually his crew members or hostages). Scenarios typically involve managing rations, keeping team morale high, or intimidating enemies to make them give up important information. There are several moments, most notably in situations when resources are low, when the player is presented with the possibility that allowing some to die for the sake of others is the best option. Should a few suffer and perish for the greater good? Is killing one so that many might live cruel or pragmatic?

These questions represent a great moral dilemma that video games rarely address. However, the potential ethical quandaries are rendered moot by one massive mistake. If any member of Burden’s team dies in one chapter, they will be present in the next chapter simply because the plot requires them to have a role. This design does no justice to the concepts of sacrifice and the needs of many versus the needs of few, removing any possible drama or suspense when it looks like an ally may die. Since none of your allies can be killed for good, you only need to focus on keeping Burden alive to complete a chapter. It’s impossible to convey themes of commitment and sacrifice when the central priority is looking out for yourself.

As a final narrative failure, all of the characters are bland. Only two are given vague attempts at personality and backstory, both very poorly executed. Sergeant Burden, the protagonist, is nothing more than what fan fiction writers would call a “Marty Stu,” practically flawless and insufferably dull. He inspires awe from allies and enemies, makes all the heroic decisions, and has a dark, mysterious backstory that makes absolutely no sense and is never explained. Liam, the leader of Xenolifer, could have been interesting if the developers took the time to explore his motivations, that is, what pushed him from civil disobedience to planning mass murder. Burden even expresses sympathy for Liam’s cause, hoping to sway him from violence, but their interactions boil down to little more than trite pseudo-philosophical banter on the nature of humanity and what lines must be crossed for the good of all. Every side character is completely forgettable, existing solely to spout exposition or heavy-handed social and political ideologies. Making the dialogue more insufferable are the numerous spelling and grammar errors in the English translation, from stilted sentences and incorrect tense use to absurd lines like “We’ll have to dosify smartly our efforts.”

Gameplay is an odd hybrid of point-and-click adventure and turn-based strategy. In each chapter you have to make several decisions, observe their outcomes after execution, then tailor the next set of choices based on the results. Time management, job delegation, rationing supplies, and behavioral modification play a role in the outcomes obtained. It’s a clever concept ruined by the developers allowing for random negative outcomes. Several actions show the probability of success based on preparation, but even if there’s a 90 percent chance that a bluff will deceive an interrogator or prevent a computer’s security system from being hacked, you could still fail and suffer a setback.

Making things worse are the setbacks that come as complete surprises. In the first chapter you need to watch over a group of hostages, intimidating them so they don’t revolt while keeping them calm enough to avoid making a suicidal run for freedom. Ideally their body language and statements should make it easy to see how far on either end of the spectrum they are and whether more cruelty or compassion is required to keep them in line, but sometimes hostages will attempt to run without warning, even if they seemed relatively relaxed. Chapter 4 presents the threat of wild animals that can raid your camp and kill everyone if there isn’t enough ammunition to drive them off, but there’s no warning about what nights they’ll strike and no chance to prepare. I could understand if this scenario were intended to be a metaphor about how even the best plans can go awry due to events you cannot control. But in a game that emphasizes the importance of planning and strategy, it gives the impression that you’re wasting your time, that no matter how well you’re doing you can die whenever the game wants you to.

The most annoying part of failing a mission is starting the entire chapter from the beginning. There’s no chance to manually save, no guarantee that a strategy that almost carried you to the end the first time will work again. During the second chapter when Burden is interrogated under threat of torture, his captor repeats questions that have already been asked and answered because the section needs to continue until its predetermined end point. The final section, the battle between Burden and Liam, is drawn out to the point of frustration. Liam has several attacks that can kill you in one hit, but they are never telegraphed and always follow the same pattern. Defeating him requires you to die several times to memorize the order of his attacks and know how to counter them. This battle’s poor design is another example of how luck and endurance are more important to victory than skill. There are also several bugs that can lead to mission failure and force a replay of a chapter. The worst instance was when I had to play a Mastermind-inspired game to find a cure for the Medusea virus, figuring out the right compounds and the order they need to go in. I got three of them in the right locations but was told that the final compound, while correct, was out of sequence, even though it was in the only remaining open spot.

Visuals are very unappealing. I’m not a snob who’s opposed to pixel art and games with a retro aesthetic, but some effort must be put into the art. Character models have nothing resembling faces, the levels are either dull wilderness or generic spacecraft that have dozens of monitors lining their walls, and the limited animations make it difficult to read body language. Sound design is just as unimpressive, nothing but a collection of electronic clicks, beeps, and other assorted effects from the Atari 5200 era.

The entirety of Gods Will Be Watching can best be summarized by its second chapter, the torture scene. It’s a long, painful, repetitive experience that expects you to ride it out to the end no matter how bad things get. Gods Will Be Watching’s sadism is not worth your money or the hours it will steal from you with its tedium.