Gods Will Be Watching : Musings, Meanings, Morality

(spoilers)

I am in a desert on a planet with two suns. The sergeant of the small troops of soldiers has relinquished authority to me because I outrank him, but I can not remember why, or what my name is. We have only a couple of hours to find our base before the desert or the enemy kill us. The sergeant has lost his leg and slows us down so I order one of his soldiers to shoot him.

In another time, I have only hours left to create an antidote before my crew dies. I order the doctors to create an experimental antidote formula in the fastest way possible and when they are done, I tell them to inject it into my best friend, hoping we got the formula right and it doesn’t kill him. I would have injected the dog, but the dog has already died from a previous failed attempt.

Gods Will Be Watching is full of moments like these.

It is an extremely hard game. It is repetitive. It is inaccessible. And it is very, very clever.

You play as Abraham Burden, an expert in impossible situations. Gameplay boils down to making choices that affect values in different ways, and these choices will often have consequences for other members of your party. The game is turn based which means you have a certain number of actions to use before the next turn resolves and you see their outcome.  It becomes clear very early that most of the decisions you make are morally questionable.

To make it harder, the game also includes  randomness, which means bad things can happen even if you have played the scenario perfectly well to that point. This makes the player always unsure of what the next turn will bring and makes the game that much harder, despite the numerous visual cues it provides.  You will die, and you will start over, and over, and over.

The story follows Burden, who is a double agent for the Interstellar Confederation. He has infiltrated a terrorist organization who is planning on doing a really bad thing and has to stop them. However, Burden has come to emphasize with the goal of the terrorist organization, the Xenolifers, even though he is very much against their methods Burden is rather taken with Liam, the leader of Xenolifer, and believes that Liam has the ability to change the world for good. The narrative of the game is almost only expressed through dialogue, and it becomes clear that both sides of this conflict are neither good nor bad, and the moral landscape of the game sits comfortably in a gray area, much like the choices you have to make.

As you progress through the game, an inconsistency appears. Dead team members are brought back to life, getting a slight acknowledgement from Burden and glitching out at the beginning of the scenario. Maybe our hero is not all there, and  he might be hallucinating events and team members. In contrast to his team, Burden does not seem to be able to die. He does not need water in the desert. He can not be effected by the Medusea virus. This is often referenced in the game, but no one, including Burden, knows why.

In the last two scenarios of the game, we learn that Burden has assumed the identity of someone else and he does not really know who he is. We also learn that he has lived multiple lives, perhaps thousands, and the scenarios we have played through he, as a character, has lived over and over and over again. If you fail and restart these scenarios, Burden announces that this time he will not fail. In the final battle against Liam, he says that he has fought Liam a million times and has never won. Liam, Shaman, and the other characters around him, respond to these statements with confusion. Burden is caught in a time loop, reliving these scenarios over and over again, but this time loop does not affect the other characters of the game.

When Burden finally defeats Liam, a task which he says has never happened before, he feels free from this time loop, from what the Universe has imposed on him. You get to make your final choice of what to do with the Medusea virus (supporting either the Interstellar Confederation or the Xenolifers) and then Burden hurls himself off the shipwreck to float into space as credits start rolling. At the end of the credits, he is swallowed up by a wormhole and presumably sent back to the beginning to replay the events yet again.

 

 

Burden’s experiences directly mirror that of the players. The game gets repetitive as you play through the same scenario over and over just like Burden’s lives are played over and over. By the end of the game, Burden is fed up and when he finally defeats Liam he tries to set himself free just to end up at the beginning again. He is not crazy, his dead team members really were there after they had died because he has been put into a different lifetime, where the optimal solution had been reached. He is a videogame character that hates that he is a videogame character. Even when trying to set himself free, he is teleported back via wormhole, as if someone else had clicked on New Game in the menu. By playing the scenarios over and over, the player slowly learns how to beat them,  much like Burden remarks in the last scene that he knows Liam’s moves and that he will defeat him this time.

No deities are ever referenced to in Gods Will Be Watching, but if we look at the final choice of the game we can hypothesize who they might be. The final choice is what Burden does with the antidote for the Medusea virus. He can save the planet and humanity, or he can give it to Liam to exterminate humans. Liam and the Xenolifers are rebelling against the Interstellar Confederation because they use aliens as slaves and enslave entire planets. Burden himself is a slave, set against impossible tasks over and over again by the gods, the ones who watch and evaluate him, the players of the game. At the end of each scenario, we can see how our Burden rated compared to the Burden in other players’ games. We are the gods watching and evaluating him over and over.  From this screen we can see the different actions taken by other players, and since they all reached the end of the given mission, did any of these actions even have any meaning?

There is an additional layer to the story. The game sets itself up as a game about difficult choices, but the weight of these gets removed as the player focuses on the values and management thereof. Games are about mechanics, values, numbers, and so forth. By adding a layer of meaning over them, we get narrative and choice, but these things are just window dressing. The difficulty of Gods Will Be Watching makes us see through the dressing as we repeat the scenarios and try to beat them.  At the end of the game, it does not matter what Burden chose, he still gets sucked into the wormhole and brought back to the beginning. Choices in games do not matter, only the mechanics do. We might appreciate the design, the writing, and the false agency of player choice but all that is irrelevant. We are still brought back to the beginning when we hit New Game, and none of our choices had any lasting effect. Much like violence in Hotline Miami, Gods Will Be Watching makes a mockery of moral choice.

There has been, for a long while, a push to make games meaningful, thoughtful, and come into regard as an artistic medium much like movies and TV have. Gods Will Be Watching tells us that it is impossible, or at least that giving the player clear moral choices is not the right way to do it, because these moral choices have no impact on the systems of the game. Much like Burden reliving his life over and over, and much like the players replaying the same repetitive scenarios, many game developers have repeatedly tried to give meaning to their games using the same morality system of black and white.

Eventually, my Burden escaped the loop and tried to free himself. Maybe eventually we will break the loop of clear good and bad morality mechanics and give them meaning and weight by tying them into the game’s system. A few games have been able to do this, but most games and studios are like Burden, caught in a loop, doing the same things over and over again.

 

 

 

If you are interested in this game, I urge you to try the Ludum Dare version first, available on the DeconstructTeam website.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thanks for the spoiler warning! I read the first few paragraphs, and you caught my interest, so I’ll hold off on reading the rest until I get a chance to try the game. I’ll have to watch for it on sale. I picked up Hotline Miami during the Steam winter sale, by the way, thanks to your review! Now I just need to find time to get through this massive backlog…

    • Peterz Gerhard says:

      the spoiler warning is there just because of you 🙂 good call, glad you liked it. Let me know what you think of Hotline Miami

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