Like everyone else who ever watched The Walking Dead or read Y: The Last Man, I too used to daydream about my apocalypse plan. Plague, post-nuclear war, alien invasion, zombies, power crisis, Costner-style water world; my friends and I visited all the classic scenarios and laid out our coping strategies in exhausting detail. We’d pour a drink and explain exactly how we’d travel from some major city to our distant families, and then how we’d make our way to a chosen location for optimal survival.
The apocalypse plan is a strong fantasy. Real life is overflowing with decisions, the vast majority of them are totally inconsequential but consuming all the same. “What do I have for dinner?” occupies the same space as “What do I do with my life?” Apocalyptic fantasy isn’t about the end of the world. It’s a fantasy about clarity. When the only choice is to live or die, survive those ravenous zombies or cure this impossible plague, the nauseating paralysis of indecision disappears. Gods Will Be Watching lays bare the fallacy of the fantasy in its six chapters of do-or-die personal apocalypses. Just because everything’s ending doesn’t mean that making decisions is any easier or more pleasurable.
Deconstructeam’s science-fiction parable is not subtle. The man placed in all these horrible scenarios—which range from playing crowd control in a hostage situation to guiding an entire platoon of soldiers through an endless desert—is named Sergeant Burden. Laying it on even thicker, whenever a player fails to survive to the end of a chapter, the scene shifts to an image of the grizzled, pixelated Burden as he trudges alone through a wasteland with the results of his choices listed in bold text in the night sky. Two hostages were shot. The dog died. The radio that would have saved your life was only 27 percent repaired. A literal metric measuring the weight on your shoulders wouldn’t necessarily be surprising.
With a deft sense of real human stress and a remarkable knack for evocative pixel art, Gods Will Be Watching is never dragged down by its heavy handedness. Far from it. The game’s hazy characters and spare story—about an interplanetary empire, the terrorist organization trying to bring it down, and the soldier stuck between the two—quell the bombastic moralizing that could overwhelm a lesser game.
Part of that success comes from letting you make all those decisions swiftly. Take the game’s second chapter, when Burden and his partner Jack are trying to survive a month of torture at the hands of imperial interrogators, all while trying to maintain their cover as members of the terroristic Xenolifer resistance. Little time is wasted on dramatic posturing or extraneous dialogue. Day after day, your captor briefly taunts Burden before the player must go about trying to keep both he and Jack alive. Choose to have Jack provoke your tormentors and he’ll get slammed, but Burden will be spared having a tooth forcibly pulled out. Have Burden give up his real name and you’ll both be spared pain. Give up too much information and there’s no reason to keep you alive.
If Gods carried on too long between these choices, the game would become unbearable. Relentlessly grim, the result of some of your choices can be gruesome and upsetting in their blunt suddenness despite the game’s cartoonish appearance. Burden can survive captivity and the chapter will go on, but Jack can die all too quickly, and it’s invariably your fault that he did. For all its lack of subtlety in other areas, Gods presents its violence, cruelty, and bleakness in effectively hushed ways. The impact of its traumas isn’t dulled by a lack of variety either. This survival conundrum is wholly different than Chapter 4, the original scenario that was a prototype for this expanded game. In that chapter, you’re trying to keep a group five humans, a robot, and a dog fed and alive on a wintry planet wracked by a virus central to the plot. None of the choices carry between the two, and both tap into wholly different human experiences, as do the remaining chapters. Like a good apocalypse planning session, Gods covers a wide variety of situations, and it can be exhausting.
While Gods’ variety keeps it strong throughout, its repetition is still a problem. As it says up front when choosing between original and easy difficulties, the game is viciously challenging, with just a few choices resulting in Burden and company’s deaths on starting a chapter. Deconstructeam says outright that the game is meant to be difficult, making its limited options all the more provocative. Even on the easy setting, Gods Will Be Watching is taxing. Problem is, the game offers you no way to save your progress mid-chapter.
In theory, this makes a chain of decisions even more affecting as the stakes rise. You can’t place a personal checkpoint to revert to in case things go south before you hit the next chapter break and opportunity to save. In practice, it dulls some of the games tensest passages since you have to repeat them multiple times just to get back to crucial moments. Chapter 3 takes more than an hour to complete, as you try to escape a confined space while also trying to solve a scientific mystery—all on a time limit. The game is precise enough so that you can figure out the ideal way to escape with time to spare, but the scientific testing portion is randomized. Bad luck—or even just accidentally clicking the wrong choice on a character since they’re arranged so close together—can cost you hours of progress and force you to start all over again.
There’s no saving your game in a life or death situation, though. Austere guidelines can make the game tedious, as can its bald philosophy, but not enough to drain the pressurized force of its survival decisions. Abstracted through pixels, text, and the lens of science fiction, God Will Be Watching is a fantasy that captures a very real, disturbing hint of apocalyptic reality.
Gods Will Be Watching
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: Mac, PC
Played on: PC