What lengths are you prepared to go to to ensure your survival? Would you sacrifice a few for the good of many? Can the noblest ends justify even the most reprehensible of means? These heavy questions are at the forefront of sci-fi “point and click thriller” Gods Will Be Watching, a game that aspires to provoke deep thought with its grim moral conundrums, but which, through a combination of repetitious gameplay elements and a lack of long-term consequences, largely squanders its potential as a great, philosophical puzzle game.
Set in a typical dystopian science-fiction future, the game's rather scattershot plot follows bioterrorist rebel group Xenolifer as it attempts to overthrow a space government that has allowed alien slavery to flourish across the galaxy. Players control Sergeant Burden, a gruff, born-leader type with a name that's just a bit too on the nose, in a series of ever-more-harrowing life or death scenarios.
One typically bleak chapter sees Burden rationing water across a team lost in the desert as they try to navigate their way back to camp; another forces him to oversee the creation of an antidote to a deadly virus in less than two days, with human subjects the only means of testing each potentially lethal concoction; yet another asks Burden and a crewmate to endure 20 days of torture while their rescuers plan an escape.
Grim and gritty it certainly is, but for all its supposed focus on tough decisions in life or death situations, Gods Will Be Watching fails to generate much of the intense soul-searching dread of games that tread similar thematic ground, such as Telltale's acclaimed The Walking Dead series. The truth is, underneath its harsh façade, Gods Will Be Watching is not really a game about making moral calls. It's a resource management game – one where the resources just happen to be food, water, time, or the sanity, or lives, of Burden's crew members. Each chapter is a puzzle to be solved rather than a dilemma to be philosophically considered, and the fact that small things like character deaths are reset at the end of each chapter means that most big decisions are rendered effectively weightless.
Gameplay takes the form of long bouts of micromanagement, with players overseeing dozens, or even hundreds, of small decisions that ultimately decide whether a scenario is passed or failed. In the game's first chapter, for example, players are tasked with overseeing a hostage situation as Xenolifer attempts to hack a computer system to get the formula to the Medusea Virus (an interstellar MacGuffin that drives the game's semblance of plot). Players must decide how to divide their precious time (called clicks) between keeping the hostages in check (too scared and they'll make a run for it, too calm and they'll start plotting a revolt), boosting their teammate's hacking ability, countering the computer's security measures, negotiating with or firing on the ever-advancing squad of troopers that are outside the door, and even trading the hostages for a bit of extra time.
That's a lot to keep track of, especially with the in-game layout complicating things by separating options into multiple sub-menus, but there's also quite a lot going on that's not immediately transparent to players. It's very difficult to tell what state of mind the hostages are in, for example, which frequently lead to impossible-to-plan-for moments where one or more will freak out without warning and get themselves killed, scuppering what could have, up to that point, been a promising run. Consequently, Gods Will Be Watching tends to encourage trial and error-style play, which, coupled with the inability to save mid-level, means players face going through an excruciating amount of repetition with each failure.
And fail they will, because the Gods Will Be Watching is difficult enough on its normal setting that most players will almost certainly find themselves switching to easy just to give themselves a fighting chance at seeing what chapter two looks like. It could be said that this overly frustrating approach parallels the experience of sitting on a desolate winter planet, struggling to find food, fighting with depression and waiting for a rescue that may never come, but is it fun? Or even interesting? When players have sunk an hour into a scenario, only to lose by a small margin and be forced to start over, cycling though the same dialogue, the same choices again just to get back to where they were, you'd have to say no.
One thing that Gods Will Be Watching gets totally right, however, is ambiance. The pixel-art graphics, muted colour palette and atmospheric soundtrack hit all the right notes in bringing its shiny sci-fi world to life. The presentation is marred somewhat by a large number of typos and translation errors that plague the game's dialogue, but overall this is a game that looks and sounds great.
Wasted potential in a game with an interesting premise is almost a worse prospect than a game that is just flat-out terrible from start to finish, and Gods Will Be Watching, while a little rough around the edges, does seem like the seed of a fascinating and involving game. That its developers appear to have conflated user-unfriendliness and infuriating difficulty with commitment to its thematic conceits, is a problem that unfortunately drags its premise down to a point that it's just not much fun to play.