It's more fun to unpack than to play, and easier to admire than love. It looks like a classic point-and-click adventure, with pixel-thin characters standing on stilt legs as they spew sci-fi exposition in chunky text, but Gods Will Be Watching is no cousin to the classic LucasArts line. And unlike those games, it enjoys killing you.
The best way to understand Gods Will be Watching is to examine the opening level. Playing a bearded man named Burden (subtle), you must prevent a teetering hostage situation from plunging into a bloodbath. Four people shiver on the cold, metallic floor of a space station, corralled by you and violent activists looking to plunder the computers for valuable data. While the virtual gates are torn down by a pair of hackers, an armored team of guards march up the corridor outside, closer and closer to your last stand.
As is the case with every level in Gods Will be Watching, things can go wrong - ALL the things, really. If the guards reach the door, they'll toss in a flashbang and blow you away. Mission failed. If you don't support your hacking team, they'll trigger alarms and get locked out of the computer. Mission failed. If the hostages get too relaxed, they'll start chatting and try to overpower you. If they get too anxious, perhaps because you're firing a gun at the futuristic SWAT team to push them back, they panic and run. You can shoot one of your fleeing assets, of course, but that's like eating a bargaining chip and choking to death on it.
Every scenario in Gods Will Be Watching is a boa constrictor made of razor wire – scratching, crushing, and extremely difficult to survive without some deep cuts. With the exception of a few "free" moves, which usually grant you exposition or information about the scene, every decision you make advances time one step and comes at the cost of something else. If you beef up your hacking team to complete their task faster, the guards take a step closer. If you push the guards back, the hacking attack weakens and the hostages start to squirm. Maybe you ease the stress by ordering a hostage into the break room – where you could forget about them until they've chilled out and gotten gutsy enough to tackle you. Perhaps you'll just shoot one of them in the leg to ground him and scare the rest. But if that poor soul bleeds to death, the guards speed up their march and you'll lose anyway. Doing this without hurting anyone is extremely difficult.
Gods Will Be Watching is not morally ambiguous so much as morally abstract – it encourages you to think of decisions as transactions against time, and people as weights around your neck. Your one power is to have a wide view of the situation, of how much everything costs, and what statistics may lead to success or certainly to failure. Does that perspective make you one of the gods?
This concept is even more explicit in the game's second scenario, in which you've been captured by the organization you attempted to ransack. Tied to a chair with a comrade squirming behind you, you must endure twenty days of torture before you're rescued. This is a test of endurance and the measured use of a daily resource: your physical health.
Now, you wonder, should I take a few blows to the knee without spitting out the secrets my captors need? Do I stay quiet, choosing to "think" and raise the chance of my lies flying? That silence might mean a hot poker to the face. What if I have my colleague provoke the torturer and have him absorb some blows for me, just to buy time until the end of the day? If he dies then it's all on me.
As your wounds accumulate you grow desensitized, and you undress the torment as abstract deductions against your vitality. Getting punched in the gut, you determine, is "cheaper" than having teeth wrenched from your mouth. Now that you understand the rules, you should also know that Gods Will Be Watching is evil enough to break them.
Your torturer pinches a single bullet in his fingers, and drops it into a revolver. He flips it shut, spins the otherwise empty chamber and points the barrel at your head. If you spit out an unprepared lie, or remain silent, he pulls the trigger. Gods Will Be Watching has changed the game with one last gotcha: now, the cost to your health will either be zero, or completely fatal. What now?
The subsequent tests of survival in Gods Will Be Watching are of a similar nature, or as one of your dispensable comrades puts it, matters of choosing "between a certain death or a possible one." Even the player is dehumanized in this gauntlet of unavoidable mistakes, and soon enough it seems like there will be more food and water for everyone if you just let a few die. (In fact, there are several instances where it's too easy to shoot someone by accident.)
I respect how uncompromising this vision stays throughout Gods Will Be Watching, but I think it's sullied as a result. The game is punishing beyond its tormenting tests, not even allowing for saving beyond the beginning and end of stages that can last well over an hour, maybe two. As shocking and powerful as your failed gambles can be, they represent a different breed of emotion. The extrinsic frustration of getting gotcha'd and having to re-invest a lot of your time, going through motions and dialogue that you've already suffered through and understood several times before, becomes the real burden. A late-game trek through the desert was fascinating once, challenging twice, almost beaten a third time, and unbearably tedious on the fourth round.
That's when your view slowly drifts away from the screen, through the back of your head and far enough for you to see yourself hunched, considerate and slowly turning into a monster. If you make yourself play one more time, what's the statistical likelihood that you'll advance to the next scene? Is it worth the cost? The anger? Is it worth the possibility of flailing around for yet another hour? Is the plot delivered well enough to keep you going? (Nope.)
It's to the game's impressive credit that it inspires such obsessive thoughts and the eventual adoption of a heartless economy. Gods Will Be Watching bleeds into your thoughts, even if the toll feels steep and caustic. The cost can feel too high, the enjoyment too strange and poisoned at times. But ... it's brilliant and different, you know? I just hate it, that's all.
This review is based on a Steam review copy of the PC version of Gods Will Be Watching, provided by Devolver Digital.
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