Having recently played through the game Gods Will Be Watching, I thought I’d give it a review and some analysis. Major story spoilers ahead!
Gods Will Be Watching (hereafter GWBW) is a point-and-click adventure thriller, according to developer Devolver Digital. In a futuristic science fiction setting, you play as Sergeant Abraham Burden, originally of the Constellar Federation, and at other times a mercenary working for the Everdusk Corporation, and still other times a member of the terrorist group known as Xenolifer. The overall story concerns the fact that the human-led Constellar Federation enslaves aliens, while Xenolifer is out to abolish that slavery by any means necessary. Burden finds himself on different sides of this conflict throughout the game. GWBW is presented as a somewhat non-linear series of ethical puzzles: hostage situations; a race against time to cure a plague; leading a retreating army through a treacherous desert to safety; keeping your team alive on an inhospitable, icy planet. In each situation, Sgt. Burden must decide who lives and who dies, and what choices will best accomplish the objectives at hand.
The graphics are done in a pixelated style that’s popular among indie titles these days. The music is gloomy and atmospheric. The overall aesthetic is serious, grim, and more than a little retro.
The game can, at times, be quite difficult–finding the right combination of choices to make it through a particular crisis can be daunting, especially depending on which difficulty you choose. But in each situation, only Burden must survive. Everyone else is expendable.
On a technical level, the game is not complex. In each situation, you can click on yourself, other characters, and items, and choose what to do. With hostages, you can kick, threaten, execute, or set them free. When in survival situations, you must manage resources like food and ammunition. Really, every scenario involves some kind of resource management, and you are always under constraints that make it difficult to keep everyone alive or keep control of the situation. This is what gives GWBW its sense of tension.
After completing each scene, statistics are presented showing how you performed and how others fared–how you solved a crisis, who you sacrificed (or kept alive), and so on. It’s interesting to see how my own actions stack up against others.
Thematically, GWBW shows a level of complexity rarely seen in video games. It’s not an especially long campaign–you can finish it in a few hours–but each scene forces you to confront the ethical implications of your actions. Do you kill a wounded man so he doesn’t slow down the rest of your team? Will you threaten a child’s life to gain leverage over his parents? When billions of lives hang in the balance, will you calmly negotiate with your enemies, or mercilessly kill them to expedite matters? The choice is yours–and you live with the consequences.
But that’s where GWBW takes an interesting turn. Few choices really have consequences. In truth, Sgt. Burden is trapped in a time loop in which he wakes up in the desert, joins up with the Constellar Federation, then becomes a fugitive from it. He joins Everdusk, and later infiltrates Xenolifer, eventually becoming sympathetic to their cause, and especially their leader–a zealot named Liam. In the end, Burden wishes to turn Liam from the path of violence, to convince Xenolifer to appeal to the people, rather than commit atrocities against the human race in order to end alien slavery. Burden lives this loop over and over, leading to a final confrontation with Liam that plays out ad infinitum. The cruel irony is that, no matter what Burden does, Liam never changes. In fact, apart from the lives Burden directly takes or spares, his actions seem to have few consequences for the universe at large. Even whether four billion people live or die–again, Burden makes the choice here–has little impact on the ultimate fate of the Constellar Federation.
This sense of futility permeates the game and only becomes clearer as it proceeds. One could describe it nihilistic. Burden is doomed to repeat a cycle of events in which he’ll never get the outcome he so desperately wants. If Burden’s actions don’t matter to the rest of the universe, then do they matter at all? I would argue that they matter to the player. Either you identify with Burden’s struggle or you don’t. Either you feel the pain of losing a comrade or you don’t. Either you agree with Xenolifer’s tactics or you don’t. Burden is a cipher through which the player experiences moral anguish. If Burden’s actions really mattered–if they really made a difference–GWBW would be just another power fantasy, another bearded white guy saving the universe by the sheer power of his own awesomeness. Instead, you are left to contemplate the hollowness of your victories. The final scene of the game has Burden drifting aimlessly through space, no doubt facing dwindling oxygen and resigned to his ultimate fate. But he will fall into a mysterious nebula and begin the process all over again, waking up in that desert with no memory of his past.
I appreciate games that make me consider the purpose and validity of the experience. This is not a game where the good guys win–indeed, nobody seems to win here. Instead, every permutation of each situation tells you something new. You learn more about the people you encounter. You learn their thoughts, their fears, their ambitions. You learn of the turmoil within Burden himself–a man unstuck from time, acting out the same charade forever. Characters debate whether it’s right for Xenolifer to kill in the name of freedom. Is it right? Could it ever be right? And if so, how many people must they kill before it becomes wrong? The game subverts these questions by showing that rhetoric, even action, makes no difference. These are problems much bigger than any one person can solve. That, it seems, is the lesson Burden so desperately wants Liam to learn, even though he seems incapable of learning it himself.
I give Gods Will Be Watching strong marks for its story content and novel use of themes. The scenarios themselves aren’t especially inventive, but rather fairly logical in their construction. Pacing suffers a bit, at times–some chapters are too drawn out and could benefit from being tightened up. Still, these are minor complaints in an otherwise thought-provoking, interesting title. I would gladly play more games in this vein, games which challenge traditional video game narratives and tropes, deal in complex themes, and in the end leave the player wondering what the experience really meant. There’s no congratulatory ending card here, nothing to tell you you did a great job, that you saved the universe, ended slavery, became a hero. There is only the return to the beginning, because maybe you can do a little better next time.