This essay was originally written for a class on Game Feel, which heavily referenced Steve Swink’s book of the same name.
One of the greatest things about games as a medium is their power to allow the audience to relate to the situations going on in the game by having the situation happen directly to the audience through gameplay. In a book, you can read about how characters feel and empathize with them; in a movie, you can see it. In a well-made game, though, that feeling of empathy comes from within you. In the heat of the moment, it’s almost like you’re actually there.
Most games will attempt to make their player feel a certain way to engross them in their world and cause them to feel certain emotions towards the characters in it. In Assassin’s Creed, you can climb anything—just like a real assassin! And when one of the members of your brotherhood dies, it’s devastating, because that death has real gameplay implications. Games can instill emotions in you through well-thought out rules.
Gods Will Be Watching subverts this by using its ability to instill feelings in its player not as a way of engagement, but as a way of disengagement—and it’s one of the best video game stories I’ve ever experienced.
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.
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. Do you ration out food for the whole group? Do you eat your dog? Do you eat your doctor? How you resolve the situation is up to you—almost no decisions carry over from chapter-to-chapter.
One of the three aspects of Swink’s definition of game feel is real-time control; without instantaneous feedback, it’s hard for the player to empathize with the characters in the game. This is exactly what Gods Will Be Watching is going for with its turn-based decision-making gameplay.
When you point a gun at an NPC in a Fallout game, there’s a certain weight to that action that comes from the first-person perspective, the fact that you’ll be using your own round of ammo to kill them, and the knowledge that you’ll never be able to accept a quest from that person again. Pull the trigger on your controller to pull the trigger on your gun. See the gore fly in your face. Live with the dead corpse lying on that spot of ground for the rest of your multi-hundred-hour playthrough. The player feels like they’re actually in the game, and that their actions will irrevocably change the world.
In Gods Will Be Watching, in order to kill your best friend, you click on him, click “Kill” in the list of options, Sergeant Burden casually shoots him in the face, and that’s the end of it. The first time you kill someone in Gods Will Be Watching, there’s still that weight to the idea of it that carries over from the player’s preconceived notions of murdering innocent people. After that first time, though, they realize it really isn’t so bad—and that having one less mouth to feed makes the scenario a whole lot easier. There’s no visceral sensation; just a cold calculation.
Making decisions in Gods Will Be Watching isn’t like making decisions in a game that we would typically consider to have good feel. As the player progresses further into the game and gets more experience with how the systems work, he realizes that there’s no penalty for making an “immoral” decision—the game is just a math problem. Your dog is a steak. A self-aware robot is a great source for scrap metal. The villain’s child—with his low tolerance for pain—is a bargaining chip.
The desire to stay one step ahead of a game by exploiting its rules is ingrained into the hardcore gamer mindset. When it comes to difficult games like Spelunky or Dark Souls, pushing the games’ systems as far as they’ll possibly go is almost the only way to get through them. This mentality is exactly what Gods Will Be Watching is capitalizing on.
Gods Will Be Watching goes out of its way to ensure that it doesn’t help the player feel any sort of emotion or empathy for the in-game characters; with no consequences, no rewards, and no judgment, the game seems to silently encourage taking the most cold-hearted approach possible. This is where the meta-game comes in—the meta-game of trying to win the game without losing your humanity.
Without an in-game incentive for doing things the hard way, it’s rare that a player will challenge himself to do so. Like getting 100 coins in Super Mario 64 and not getting a star or donating to a charity and not getting a reward, most people would prefer to skate by and do as little work—and as few good deeds—as possible. In real life, one has to go out of their way to do the right thing, and they can’t expect a reward; games, especially those with moral decisions, rarely let these benevolent decisions go unrewarded, which, in my opinion, completely invalidates their benevolence. By not rewarding the act of doing the right thing—of doing the hard thing—Gods Will Be Watching’s silence gives the player more genuine recognition than any sort of superficial award could.
Gods Will Be Watching uses aloof rules, nonchalant polish, and detached gameplay to make the player feel like nothing matters and that there’s no objective reason to take the most moral possible path through life. In doing this, the game became the most nihilistically spot-on representation of moral dilemmas in gaming that I’ve ever played—because a truly great player will fight the feel and ignore all of it.