Gods Will Be Watching
Gods Will Be Watching is tragic. As a pixel-art crisis management game that deals in the thematic murk of torture, human testing and terrorism, it was never exactly shooting for feel-good blockbuster, but that isn’t what we mean. Across its handful of story vignettes, GWBW mistakes darkness for maturity, suffering for meaning, and barring progress for challenge. Identification can mask many of its failings, but a litany of structural problems spurn your readings and roleplay, making it a poor mirror.
That’s doubly disappointing given the game’s promising roots. GWBW was conceived at Ludum Dare 26 as a study in minimalism. With a single screen and a tiny set of interactions, you – as returning protagonist Sgt Burden – were given a handful of actions per day to keep a small team alive, sane, fed and disease-free on the surface of a hostile planet. You also, crucially, had a time limit and a radio to fix. The impossibility of keeping all the plates spinning forced you to face hard choices over what to let drop, while the slight structure left room for interpretation and personal reflection.
GWBW’s fleshed-out remake betrays that as a fluke, detracting with almost every addition. In attempting to tell a continuing narrative, it squeezes out much of the The lab scenario offers no wiggle room over testing on someone; the only question is whom. But while the choice has the capacity to shock once, squeamishness is set aside when you realise no lasting harm is possible room for introspection, drowning its echo chamber in reams of poorly spelled exposition and clever-clever self-referential exchanges. The story’s structure also dictates that key characters can never truly die, but are simply set aside until the mission’s end. The game winks coyly at this jarring serial reincarnation as if to excuse it, reserving a thinly veiled plot twist for the end, but neither diminishes the ruinous effect on your capacity for empathy or the relevancy of your choices.
In the vanilla game (see: ‘Mercy mercy me’), those choices are many, and the systems behind them are by turns opaque, intriguing and irritatingly random – especially since failure means restarting these lengthy chapters wholesale, unskippable text and all. Progress soon devolves to base cryptography, with you discarding all engagement to figure out which set of actions will permit progress. That’s on Easy, too; Original, with its passive-aggressive menu plea for selection, will have you grinding your teeth to powder. Tight constraints force you towards morally unpalatable options, yes, but so little freedom or consequence erodes the message.
If the browser version of GWBW is something of an allegory generator – demonstrating why killing someone to make your life easier rarely does, say – its remake is a game of ‘Would you rather?’ It’s not afraid to ask the tough questions, but its framing of them is too clumsy to give you much reason to answer.