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Choice in Video Games: Why playing “The Gods Will be Watching” is like playing Monopoly

This is about as much fun as it looks like it is.

Monopoly with Russian Roulette, that is.

Monopoly is a mostly luck game with some strategy. You roll your dice, you take your chances with where you land, and the old gods and the new help you if someone else has bought all the orange properties and the dark blue properties. There are times where you’ll be negotiating with your friends about trading properties, but usually you’re just reacting to how well your dice rolls are going.

This is great for a board game with friends, because you can pretend that you had nothing to do with losing. This can be horrible for one player video games, because it can look like there’s nothing you could have done to win, and look I’ve wasted a hour of my life trying to beat a random number generator.

This brings me to “Gods Will Be Watching”…

When I read about “Gods Will Be Watching”, I thought, this is the game that I would be all about – meaningful choices, big consequences if you make the wrong decision, people react to your decisions, but after a few play-throughs of the flash game, and watching numerous YouTube videos, I’ve noticed many lessons I can take from this game. UPDATE: Recently, Gamasutra also did a blog on this game, with some of the same lessons.

1. The game gives very little feedback on exactly what your choices do. I’ll give two examples, explain why needed to be clearer, and what could have been done to make them clearer.

  • In the first level, you need to keep your hostage’s state of mind between “Going so crazy they will get themselves shot” and “So calm you’ll have to shoot them as they’ll try to kill you”.

Can you tell the difference between the two above?  Which one looks like they are about to kill you?

From the image above, that is all the information you are given about your hostages. First time players probably will be repeating this section many times, as they try and find out what these individual image cues mean, along with find out that actions on the lead hostage (guess who that is?)  affect the whole team of hostages. Granted, the hostages do talk just before they are going to act, but by then it’s too late. What’s interesting is the way to fix this is something that’s done on the 4th level, in that level, you can ask a character how everyone’s moral is. I’m surprised that something like that isn’t done on the first level of the same game.

  • In the second level, another character is suspended on a rack. After two pulls on the rack, the character will be pulled apart. At no point does the game, or the character about to die themselves, tell you this will happen. (Need pictures here)

Watch this video. (Warning: It’s pretty gross, and totally NSFW, so don’t watch if you are squeamish) At no point does the player know that he’s about to get that character killed. To fix this, the character could have said something like “I can’t take much more of this!!!” That’s a pretty clear indicator that bad things will happen if nothing is fixed by the next round.

2. Luck in choice and having it ending your game. Russian Roulette as a game mechanic.

In the second level, after around 20-30 minutes of playing the game, you have to play Russian Roulette. Keeping watching that video link from before to see it.  At no point in the game are you told about this. So you have to lie to your captors several times, hoping they believe the lie. If you press you luck too far and provoke your captors, you have a 1 in 7 chance there’s a bullet in the chamber, and you’re wasted 30 minutes of your life. That’s great for providing a tense atmosphere, but horrible for a game. It means you’ll basically have to play again and remember that on the 6th day, you better have a good few lies stacked up. I don’t really know any good way to fix this part of the game. Do you warn the player to stock up on information? Do you make it so that the first shot will never be a bullet? I’m not sure this is a very useful game mechanic in a single player game. Russian roulette is bad enough as a multi-player game, but a single player Russian roulette game is suicidal.

And don’t even get me started on the amount of food that Marvin the dog brings back. I hate that dog. So much.

3. No warning for upcoming failure, or events to prepare for

In the fourth level, and the original flash game,  there are ways to put your game into an un-winnable state without knowing it. In the 4th level, you can be attacked by wild animals, and you need a certain (randomly-generated) number of bullets to defend yourself. This happens on the 8th and 16th days. This means you’ll either get really lucky and make it through the 1st time or be really unlucky and have to do this level at least 3 times to pass it. They do warn you about attacks, so you are likely to expect the first attack, but by the time of the 2nd attack you’ll be using bullets/lasers to try and get food. Maybe a warning from Jack would have been enough to get the player to reduce their bullet use? There’s a few other example of this happening, but I think this essay is enough for now.

So those were the main points that I picked up from playing “Gods Will Be Watching”. It’s a very interesting experiment in game play, and I really like what it’s trying to do. But it’s incredibly harsh to it’s players. Some intense music around important choices, more feedback from certain choices, and some ability to course correct after bad choices would have turned this good game into a great game. The biggest shame of all is that they did release a patch that sounds like it did fix a lot of many reviewers concerns, but by rushing to push the game out, people are ignoring it. That’s a real shame.

If this game sounds like your thing, try it out. It’s probably something that I’ll be picking up on a steam sale, when I see it discounted.

2 Comments

  1. David

    August 21, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    That reminds me of an old platformer called Alex the Kid where you would spend ages skilfully navigating the level only to end up playing rock-paper-scissors with the boss. On some levels the boss would play the same moves each time so you could learn how to win, but on other levels it was purely random. It was extremely aggravating and I rage quit many times, but I always came back. I think it was because 1) I knew I could do the level so I just had to beat the boss, and 2) kids had more perseverance back then ;-). But I think some of these modern “8-bit” games try to recreate that stress very intentionally.
    If you’ve played FTL you’ll know that an element of randomness can be very addictive even in single player because you can say “If it wasn’t for X then I totally would have won”. But it has to be carefully balanced so that you feel like you’ll win next time

    • Ahhhhhh man, I forgot Alex Kidd, but yeah, that’s totally the same! It’s funny how things change when you go from being a kid to being an adult. I don’t think I could handle the rock paper scissors boss battles now! Even as a kid I’ll still play the game, but man, I’d probably have tantrums.

      FTL is a game I totally love, maybe because there is more of a way to get out of jams you get into, or because everything is totally random, both positive and negative. You could get an amazing gun, right after losing a crew member to a hungry mantis.

      In “Gods Will Be Watching”, at least on the flash game, more often than not, your dog will bring back no meat for the day, and everyone starves. His “positive” return is bringing back food for 5 out of 6 people, and his “great” return is bringing back food for 6 out of 6 people. If there was a small chance of I dunno, food for 9 people, then the crushing despair wouldn’t be so bad all the time. The game is really going for a nihilist vibe, but it doesn’t need to get in the way of a good time, I guess.

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