Ah, 2014. After a month into the new year—a millennium in internet time—the terrors of the “Worst Year for Gaming Ever” are but a faint memory in the collective consciousness of the gaming community. From such hindrances as broken games, corrupt journalists, and raging cyber-hate mobs, it was quite the year for the exponentially growing industry. It’s time we say “Good riddance!” to 2014 and all it brought us, right?
Well, let’s hang on a minute before we throw out the baby with the bathwater. Those long, burning months of the past summer that ended up spilling into the most vitriolic conflict our industry has ever seen didn’t exclusively bring horrible things. There was one release in late-July that I feel was criminally underlooked and overshadowed.
Gods Will Be Watching, described by its publisher Devolver Digital as “a point’n’click series of dramatic puzzles about survival and moral dilemmas,” is an adventure game in which the player takes on the role of Sergeant Burden, a high-ranking member of Everdusk, a benevolent organization that operates “without any political or religious background to justify their actions; just common sense.” Burden’s mission is to calm the conflict between the galaxy’s all-controlling Constellar Federation and the violent rebel force Xenolifer.
To point out the obvious, the art direction and soundtrack in Gods Will Be Watching are top notch. You could know this just from watching the trailer. What surprised me was how excellent the cinematography is. The game knows exactly when to cut or fade to a new scene, and even though it’s presented entirely through 2D pixel art viewed from a single perspective, those little editing touches—combined with some of the best writing I’ve ever seen in a game (with the occasional typo after its translation from Spanish)—make it feel like you’re watching a “Star Wars” movie. A good “Star Wars” movie.
In each chapter, the game will throw you into a situation you have to manage. Some of these situations include surviving twenty days of torture, or hacking a computer while space-police are banging on your door. While the interface presents these as character-driven adventure game scenarios, at their core they’re about managing resources and playing the odds to your favor. How you resolve the situation is up to you—few decisions carry over from chapter-to-chapter. This combination of genres was interesting to me, and while it sounds like the lack of long-term consequences might make your choices feel a bit meaningless, it has quite the opposite effect.
Unlike in games like Mass Effect or The Walking Dead where radical choices that seem like they’d have a huge impact only color the story a little bit, Deconstructeam was able to give the player’s choices meaning because they’re relegated to each chapter. The chapters are crafted so that you can have a ton of different experiences with each one depending on how you play it—this also adds an interesting sliding difficulty level to the game.
To give an example of the game’s difficulty, there’s one chapter where the player must keep their entire team alive for three weeks on a deserted planet. This mission is relentless—I have no idea how you’d go about keeping all five members alive. On the other hand, killing off the three scientists so that you and your best friend can escape on your own makes things pretty easy.
The game isn’t going to judge you for doing it the easy way, either—it’s called “Gods Will Be Watching,” not “Gods Will Be Superficially Changing Their Dialogue Based on Some Arbitrary Moral Choices You Made.” That being said, the player can earn concept art and alternate soundtrack options for completing each chapter under certain conditions that encourage them to take the challenge to be a little more idealistic in potential future playthroughs. This drives a nice sense of replayability where, if the player feels too bad about how they solved the problem the first time, they have a reason to go back and do it over again.
The entire story uses this difficulty to theme itself around the most morally sound option being the hardest to execute—and, given the events of the past six-months in the gaming community, I think there’s quite a bit that some of the more radical voices (on both “sides”) could learn from this story. Almost prophetically, the game even opens with a debate between your team members about which of the galaxy’s ideological groups is in the right, with one character even going so far as to say, “I respect their cause, but I definitely disagree with their methods. Nothing good can be achieved through terrorism.”
Though groups have been discrediting each other’s motives through demonization since early humans first formed their prehistoric tribes, I couldn’t help but relate Gods Will Be Watching to the ongoing GamerGate conflict. GamerGate came about in August of 2014 due to a group of gamers questioning whether the close friendships between video game press and game developers are healthy for the industry. The problem arose when a subsection of “GamerGaters” took it upon themselves to post the personal information of several developers and people who cover games—mostly women. Seeing this, the “anti-GamerGaters” discredited any criticisms that GamerGate had of the industry and began to accuse the movement of being a veiled harassment campaign against female developers and anyone who covers non-traditional games like Gone Home and Depression Quest.
With horrible things said and done by people on either side of the conflict, I don’t believe anyone involved is completely in the right. It goes without saying that GamerGaters calling SWAT teams to developers’ homes is horrible—but does that invalidate everything they believe? And while I’m just as sick of reading five different articles from the same site about women in Assassin’s Creed: Unity in one weekend as anyone else, the representation of marginalized groups in games is something worth talking about if we want games to be all that they can be.
In the second chapter of Gods Will Be Watching, the main character assures his commanding officer that, if he can just have a bit more time, he’ll be able to bring a peaceful conclusion to the ongoing conflict between the two opposing factions—because both sides have valid points, and condemning either one will bring nothing but long-lasting war.
For all the people I’ve seen who say that Gods Will be Watching is too hard, implying that they’re taking the more-difficult diplomatic route to solve the in-game conflicts, I wish that they could take the more-difficult diplomatic route in solving our real-life conflicts. All it takes is a little bit of willingness to calm down, stop pointing fingers, and talk things out. A lot of advocates have a problem with “tone-policing,” but I believe a cooperative approach will pave the path to understanding. I can’t imagine that journalists wouldn’t want their work to be more respected, and anyone who loves video games should want them to have more mature storytelling. The GamerGate debate hasn’t come about because of some fundamental disagreement between the two groups; the problem is neither group knows how to properly convey why their goal is something worth working towards. Throwing around terms like “neckbeard gamers” and “social justice warriors” isn’t helping anyone.
In addition to blending difficulty and cinematography to create a unique narrative experience that was almost as much of a gameplay-as-storytelling revelation to me as Papers, Please was, Deconstructeam was able to use excellent writing, brilliant theming, and interesting gameplay to craft one of the most down-to-earth, meaningful, unintentionally topical games centered on choice that I’ve ever played, and I think it’s a shame that more people haven’t been talking about it.
Yes, it’s hard, but it’s not that hard—unless, of course, you want to use your smarts to resolve each situation in the most peaceful, morally-sound manner possible. If you’re skilled enough, you might even be able to compromise with the villains, relate to them as fellow human beings, and acknowledge that, in their own minds, they’re acting morally and only want what they believe is right.
Condemning people on Twitter is easy. Achieving peace is difficult. Instead of yelling at each other for another year, in 2015, let’s try to do it the hard way.
Gods will be watching.