A remake of the homonymous game developed by Deconstructeam for Ludum Dare 26, Gods Will Be Watching is director Jordi Del Paco’s first attempt at a “full” release (his ludography with Deconstructeam previously consisted only of small freeware projects). The game was funded through a successful indeGoGo campaign, which grossed more than 20.000 euros, and found a distribution partner in Devolver Digital, carrier of most of the “high-profile” indie games released in the last couple of years.
Gods Will Be Watching is at its basic a sci-fi thriller that borrows heavily from the more “conceptual” kind of sci-fi of the sixties and seventies (Philip K. Dick is the first comparison that comes to mind). Just like that kind of literary science fiction the game is short, minimalistic and extremely to the point, not losing itself in too many “cinematic” deviations and building its mood and narrative prevalently through its interactive architecture.
While the interface and the pixelated aesthetics might build the expectation of a game akin to old point and click adventures, Gods Will be Watching has very little to share with that genre. The game instead heavily focuses on managing resources in “closed room” scenarios, giving the player different variables to balance (for instance in the first level we have to hack a computer while keeping hostages calm and pushing security away) by choosing among a set array of actions (shout, calm hostages, hack, negotiate et al) in a turn based environment.
Controlling undercover agent Sgt. Burden in his quest to take down the terrorist organization Xenolifer we’ll face situations focused on testing our morals and cold blood, like being interrogated (where the resource to manage is our own pain threshold) or having to develop a cure for a virus infecting our team. The interactive architecture that carries those scenarios is quite minimalistic, and manages to boil down their narrative tension in a game of turn based choices that could be played as well in an excel sheet. And that is where the brilliance of Gods Will Be Watching lies, it manages to deliver complex emotions and moral dilemmas using what could seem a very rigid and “cold” system, it succeed amazingly in using the videogame medium in its purest form, communicating meaning using the game’s rules as the main catalyst.
In fact the game touches its low points whenever the control is taken from the player. Most of the cutscenes between levels could have used a bit of cuts here and there and the tutorialization before every scenario is often prolix, feeling like it would have worked better if re-designed into a somewhat interactive form. These issues though tend to fade into the background toward the end, when the overarching narrative starts to be competently integrated into the scenarios. This culminates into a really effective final showdown reminiscent, in the best way possible, of some Metal Gear Solid boss fights.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is how it enforces morality in the player’s choices, or better how it doesn't enforce it. In complete opposition to current videogame trends (Mass Effect, Infamous et al) morality here isn't an explicit mechanic, there is no decision that is easily summed up as “good” or “evil” and no true reward for sticking to a particular approach. The player does not gain anything by keeping what he may consider the “light side” approach, and in fact the game is “unbalanced” (which should not be taken as a bad thing) in this regard, since some of the choices do make the game easier.
The lack of references in regard to what the player “should” be makes the morality aspect of the game integral to the interactive narrative rather than just a minor mechanical quirk, and the disparity in difficulty between taking or not taking a “morally ambiguous” shortcut helps creating a true feeling of uncertainty in the player, really making him feel that he is doing something ethically questionable for a good cause. This naturalistic approach to morality and its heavy impact on the gameplay helps making the moments in which circumstances force the player to do something morally questionable (or the ones where he endures a hard situation without giving up to shortcuts) really powerful on an emotional level.
Naturally all of this wouldn't really work without the underlying tension created by the threat of a failure state, which the game seems to handle very well, using game overs not to punish a “lack of skill” but to communicate urgency when needed. While the concept of this works very well, the execution could have used a bit more refinement. The narrative tension that the threat of a Game Over builds through a game ends up inevitably wasted in the moment in which the player actually loses said game. The failing and restart of a level becomes an emotional low point in the experience, and ends up hindering the player’s engagement repeatedly throughout it.
After a quite exaggerated players’ outcry on this issue (which personally I don’t feel ruins the game as a whole) Deconstructeam hastily put out a patch to give the players the option of lowering the difficulty. This solution, as expected, hasn't really solved much, as the “easier” modes lack that urgency intrinsic in the original design, and play overall a lot worse.
All thing considered Gods Will Be Watching is a quite promising debut on the “big indie” scene for Del Paco. Despite some rough edges in the design and a structure that sometimes feels too compartmentalized, it is definitely a work that shows tons of potential and that develops its ideas in pretty interesting directions. Add that to the great care for details that seems to have been gone into the whole production (small quirks, like the sound of things you’re hovering your mouse on being louder, are quite nice to notice) and you have a really solid game that manages to do the most important thing that a videogame should do: communicate emotions.
7 / 10