My team is on the brink of madness; starving, stranded, and beset by a paralytic contagion. Our only hope of #survival is to repair a radio and signal for #rescue, but our engineer is overworked and underfed. He’ll surely give up hope and abandon camp tonight if he does not get a hot meal, but we’re out of food, out of ammunition to hunt, and the sun is setting fast. I could send the dog to hunt, but that’s a risky move: If he comes back empty-pawed, the lot of us have no chance at survival.
Or I could kill the soldier. We’re out of ammunition, so he’s useless to the team now. With one less mouth to feed, the meat from his bones would sustain us for at least another four days. Maybe long enough to repair the radio. Maybe long enough to survive.
This is what runs through your head in Gods Will Be Watching, a “point-and-click adventure-thriller” created by Jordi de Paco and Deconstructeam. Originally developed during the Ludum Dare 26 game jam, the game has been fleshed out into a full retail release, now available on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Moral dilemmas are not a new concept to games. Players are constantly faced with making decisions, and many games attempt to give those choices meaning by weighting them with heavy moral consequences. Is one man’s life worth the cost of saving hundreds? How about six? What about just your own?
But despite the heavy consequences designers hope their games convey, too often these dilemmas fail to really have any effect. Usually they end up as a 50-50 choice that’s ultimately inconsequential. I often have more difficulty choosing between two mutually exclusive power-ups than I do deciding whether or not to detonate the Megaton nuke in Fallout.
Gods Will Be Watching is not that kind of game. You have limited time, limited resources, and the odds are stacked heavily against you. The only way to win is by making terrible, impossible decisions, to do what must be done in order to survive.
Strangely enough, Gods Will Be Watching was never intended to be a torturous moral struggle. It was originally a point-and-click adventure game where you had to manage various things to keep people alive. That it ended up being a harrowing, bleak experience was mostly accident.
For the retail release of Gods Will Be Watching, de Paco and his team drew inspiration from the game itself, watching people play through the original game jam version to learn what their game was capable of doing—and making people do.
“One of the main handicaps we want is not just the challenge of the game itself—the mathematical challenge of solving the situation—but your own feelings,” de Paco says . “It’s about making the player handicap himself—the fact that having feelings makes the situation more difficult. That’s one of our main objectives.”
In this regard, Gods Will Be Watching definitely succeeds. It is punishingly difficult. I never once was able to complete the original version’s survival marathon, and the expanded game presents a series of scenarios that again have you juggling multiple criteria in the face of impossible odds.
The opening scene sees me hacking a computer terminal, keeping network security active, managing hostage sanity levels (too stressed and they’ll run, too calm and they’ll revolt), alternating security feeds to monitor multiple locations, and negotiating with (or firing at) enemy forces to prevent them advancing.
All these things have converse effects upon each other, naturally. Shooting at the enemy pushes them back a tad, but raises the hostages’ stress levels considerably, for example.
“I didn’t want to force the player to face moral dilemmas,” de Paco said. “I wanted the dilemmas to emerge as the player made decisions.” It’s possible to make it through the whole game without killing anyone, he says: “If you had to make any hard decisions, it was your fault.”
But the problem with Gods Will Be Watching is that it’s too difficult, or maybe too long. The game is designed so you fail often. In your failure, you learn what went wrong and identify a way to cut corners the next time through. Running out of food? Four mouths are easier to feed than five, why not just kill Jack as soon as the game begins? This worked in the original version, because it only took five or ten minutes, sometimes even less, to completely go from start to failure.
But in the full version, each level can take upwards of 30 or 45 minutes, sometimes with failure only happening if you run out of time. In other words, the reset-try again time loop is considerably longer, meaning that when I inevitably do fail, I’m sent back so far it discourages me from even wanting to try again.
The game Super Meat Boy is also punishingly difficult, but you respawn instantly just a few steps prior to where you ate it. Now imagine if it made you replay 30 minutes’ worth of progress every time you died.
But then, maybe a person is just not being ruthless enough. Maybe sacrifice soldiers for the greater good (that is, one’s own survival) right off the bat. Play Gods Will Be Watching with a shred of morality, care about the decisions made, but its difficulty makes a person more angry at the game itself than upset about the choices made.