The resurgence of roguelikes and the popularity of the Souls series over the past few years have resulted in difficulty becoming a fashionable selling point again that’s capable of building legacies like Ninja Gaiden and Battletoads once had. Particularly in an era where Let’s Plays can provide the additional layer of entertainment of watching someone else get frustrated, developers seem to be racing towards challenging the players in the most cruel but ultimately rewarding manner. Gods Will Be Watching joins that race, but it doesn’t bother either understanding the risk-reward balance that’s integral to such games, instead substituting that with a tedious exercise in brain-crushing repetition that would make even a seasoned gamer wonder what they have gotten into.
Originally made during a Ludum Dare challenge that was centered on the theme of minimalism, the initial prototype of Gods Will Be Watching was an interesting extrapolation of the theme that reduced the concept of survival management to bare actions, which acted as a proxy for making choices with increasingly rising stakes. The game was rightfully praised for its unique take on the “minimalism” theme and was loved by many because of that. After a successful crowd-funding campaign, the developers Deconstructeam were all set to expand on the original game’s concept. Yet nobody could have expected them to take such a promising starting point and interpret the feedback in such a horrendous fashion. Gods Will Be Watching filters out all the stakes of survival in an apocalyptic environment into a frustrating game where the task of choice-making is reduced to a tedious chore with your chances of success relying at best on poorly conveyed animations and, at worst, on pure Russian roulette.
Framed as a sci-fi narrative centered around the conflict of a rebellion faction called Xenolifer attempting to overthrow the Constellar Federation, the tale of Gods Will Be Watching also doubles as a parable that’s so hilariously unsubtle that it makes hitting a nail with a sledgehammer seem less blunt. For starters, the central character in this survival game is called Sergeant Burden. The factions in the story seem to be a commentary on the current world affairs, but it’s far too on-the-nose to be taken seriously. Taken as a pulpy sci-fi however, Gods Will Be Watching’s tale of tracing back a year-long journey of how a group of rebels and double-agents ended up marooned on an isolated planet is entertaining in a sense. Its presentation is stylish and the dialogue is brooding, but none of the characters are interesting enough to warrant any sort of emotional investment from the player, which makes the long, oft-unskippable banters seem annoying and meaningless. The words spoken are as empty as the characters themselves in Gods Will Be Watching, and any sort of stakes the game would have hoped to build crumble as a result.
The game is incredibly dark and gloriously violent, giving the art a layer of bleakness and cruelty that works in its favor, despite how overused the pixel art aesthetic is now. Even the minimal music seethes with barely suppressed menace, giving Gods Will Be Watching a razor-sharp element which, combined with its beautifully dark pixel art, could have worked as a great jumping-off point.
Unfortunately, the once-acclaimed management gameplay gloriously fumbles due to it boiling down to incredibly tight trial-and-error situations. Instead of how it once made every single choice you made count, the finished version of Gods Will Be Watching reduces itself to a mechanical trial-and-error process; the game also often violates its own shaky rules for some unfathomable reason.
The game is split into six chapters, each of which is a different variation of the same concept of having to micro-manage a number of elements at the same time while preventing anything from going wrong. The first misstep is the frequent undercutting of decisions players make in life-or-death situations by introducing a strong element of randomness into play. With the game’s existing issues in communicating with the player about how good or bad they are faring with a given scenario, luck only serves to work against the game. While many games tend to get away with randomized spikes in difficulty, they also have a significant risk-reward element to counterbalance that frustration, something which is sorely lacking in Gods Will Be Watching. The game’s rote trial-and-error element overshadows any significant tension it would have hoped to achieve with the complex survival scenarios it conjures up in each chapter.
None of the scenarios have autosaving, which means you will not just be partaking in the repetitive chore of making “tough” one-note decisions for as long as 20 minutes at stretch, but are also vulnerable to random whims of luck playing spoilsport, as well as the scenario violating its own rules and ending in failure. If there’s a message here about the odds of survival in an apocalyptic fiction, it is conveyed in the most hackneyed and unsatisfying manner possible. The game even displays a statistic screen a la The Walking Dead at the end of every chapter, comparing your performance with the rest of the characters, but that doesn’t feel like anything of consequence.
Since each scenario has a different spin, it’s not surprising that Gods Will Be Watching ends up being a very inconsistent game, with some scenarios mired in tedium and others ruined by poor feedback and randomized luck. Sandwiched in the middle of the six chapters is the original scenario of the prototype; unsurprisingly, this remains the highlight of the game, even if everything around it tints the experience with bitterness.
Expanding on a minimalist concept by burying it in tedious system of soulless decisions and luck robs this game of the very essence that once made it so appealing. Gods Will Be Watching may have a stylishly bleak and violent aesthetic, but it has nothing to anchor itself to as it spirals into a tedious abyss filled with rote, one-dimensional decision-making.
Ansh Patel is a game developer and an occasional pop culture critic who tweets philosophical ruminations and angry political rants @lightnarcissus. His words and games can be found at lightnarcissus.com.