So what’s really directing my thoughts about games recently is Gods Will Be Watching.
Now here is a game about choice. A game that gives you all your options right up front, throws you into the deep end and then places a hand firmly on your head and asks you not to drown. It’s unforgiving and brutal. Not just brutally difficult but brutal thematically.
And if you’ve never played it, I recommend playing the free browser version, because while I do like the full game a lot, the power of the design here is more immediately apparent from the original browser version. (That browser version has been tweaked and turns up as chapter 4 of the full game.) This is survival horror with an emphasis on survival. Every choice you make takes time, and time is not on your side, as you balance tasks against the mental well-being of those around you. And there’s just something immediately unsettling about seeing the “Kill” option under every character’s menu.
The game empowers you, putting you in control of the lives of those around you. But very quickly the reality of your situation takes over and you realize how powerless you really are, forced into a position where you can only react to what’s happening.
You are provided with choices, and you can choose wrong. The game will provide you with enough rope to hang yourself, but it does so without immediately judging you. There’s a cold detachment that comes with shooting a hostage in the leg so they don’t run away, or killing one of the people you’re supposed to protect and then eating the meat you harvested from their corpse. All you have is that portentous title “Gods Will Be Watching”, and yourself.
Thematically the original level is similar to Missile Command, but everyone has a face, and there’s no action to distract you from the reality of your choices. Also, you can win, which actually changes a lot. At its core this is a puzzle game. That’s what makes Gods Will Be Watching not only a game with choice, but a game about choice. You do have the power to save everyone. But can you?
Missile Command was about our helplessness in the face of nuclear annihilation. Gods Will Be Watching is more in your face with the dark violence of the situation, but also contains a ray of hope that Missile Command had no interest in.
Let’s talk about choice in some more games.
Early on in episode two of season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead you’re presented with the problem of feeding the group. This comes right after you get scolded for taking in some other survivors, even though the game never let you make a choice about doing that. You have four pieces of food to distribute among ten people. The game wants you to question Lee’s altruism. Are you in any position to take in others when you can’t even feed yourselves? But practically the choice is actually just about affecting some flavor about how characters react to you. There is no stat associated with hunger in the game for the player to worry about. The game design does not enforce the context of the puzzle, or its nuances. Also, the game is about Lee and Clementine, so you’re either giving the food to the kids or you’re taking an adversarial position to the story and flipping the game off. It’s not actually a puzzle, it’s another binary choice that’s a little cloaked. The set up is so much more compelling than the execution. The actual impact is mostly rooted in Clementine’s reaction, and if Kenny is going to yell at you, or yell at you but mention that one thing you did that he thought was cool.
But that set up, man. There’s power there. It takes you aback, and gets you to rethink your choices. It hits you with the stark reality of a desperate situation. Four pieces of food, ten people. It’s a puzzle that has no good solution, but it’s one the game basically runs away from.
Despite this, Telltale has not abandoned this idea thematically. The direction the story has taken, especially in season 2, is towards the idea that you can’t save everyone. If you’re going to survive it has to be on your own. If you rely on others, or try to save them, death is all that awaits. It’s an idea that’s still directing the story but not puzzle design. There’s a design struggle there and it’s at the core of the weakest episode of The Walking Dead, episode four of season two.
When The Walking Dead allows itself to just be about characters and tell a story naturally, it is at its best. But when it tries to stretch its brain muscles with bigger themes, like survival, the shallow gameplay fails to enforce those themes. And while season one really worked as a story about Lee and Clementine, season two has flailed about with the writers’ unwillingness to commit to a second character. And there have been good characters in season two, and good moments, but not enough relationship building.
It’s strange to me that a series that thrives on character interaction is so intent on pushing this idea of distancing yourself from people. Either the goal is to flip it by the end, to teach me something I already know, or they want me to accept this dark reality, built around adolescent nihilism. A world I don’t care about because the thing that made it interesting has been stamped out.
The Walking Dead wants me to be thinking about survival, but it’s only about characters. Mostly characters who die, but that’s what makes the time we have with them matter all the more. And while plenty of zombie movies are full of small groups that tear themselves apart with petty bickering and shortsightedness, you can’t maintain a long-form story that way.
The Walking Dead TV show is wildly inconsistent and often terrible, but one of its best moments came at the end of season 4. The characters have spent a half a season separated and on the run, after the abandoned prison they were living in was overrun with zombies. Now they find themselves reunited, but trapped in a shipping container by a group of cannibals. And in that hopeless situation we get a perfect line from our main character, Rick. “They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out…they’re screwing with the wrong people.”
And what makes that line so great to me, is that in a show that’s really struggled with what it wants to be, with a carousel of show-runners, it’s a moment of absolute clarity. For that one moment the character’s understanding of the situation is in line with the viewers. If you watch The Walking Dead, you’re not following these characters because they’re particularly likeable, or interesting, or have any other positive traits. You follow this group because they’re the survivors. You know they’re going to get out of this. If only because that’s how TV works. This could have been just another stop on the misery train that is this show, but instead it’s an empowering moment. A moment of hopelessness becomes a moment of excitement and anticipation. The show eliminates mystery in favor of pure titillation, and it is hard-earned. Not just for the characters, with the horrors they have lived through and been changed by, but also for the viewers, who’ve sat through a lot of shmaltz and schlock to get here. For at least this one moment, the show understood its audience, and spoke to them directly. “Of course they’re gonna get out of it, and it’s gonna be fucking awesome.”
I feel like Telltale has lost sight not only of what it wants The Walking Dead to be, but also what players want out of it. As much as I like the stats at the end of every chapter showing what other people did, (Gods Will Be Watching does this as well), I can’t help but feel like Telltale is using them as a crutch. Not just because it’s part of what’s got them stuck with 5 big decisions per chapter, but because I feel like they’re deciding how the story should go based on how players are reacting to it. I say that mostly because I can’t think of another reason why episode 4 has a such a wasteful character death. I can’t get the idea out of my head that Telltale pulled the trigger there because so many players took an immediate dislike to the character. And when I say wasteful, I also mean in the sense that the game wasted players time building moments around that character because of how meaningless the death was.
If you’re telling a story about a character’s death, it should be about putting that character through the ringer, and getting to the heart of who they are. Putting that piece of fruit in a juicer and squeezing it dry of its story potential. Zombie stories aren’t about changing the nature of life, they’re about condensing and intensifying it, and then tossing away the empty husk. But when Telltale tells us not to care, both through the words of their characters and through their design, they’re not squeezing that fruit. They’re throwing away characters in a way that feels procedural. They are wasting our time.
What I’m getting at with the procedural nature of Death that’s taken hold in The Walking Dead, is that once I’m presented with a situation where a character could die, I instantly know that character’s time left alive is numbered. If I save someone I’m now clinically thinking about the cold realities of video game development and realize that any scene with this character is a cost for development that a certain number of players won’t ever get to see. Getting rid of them later is just practical. Now that’s a bleak and depressing way to experience a story. Probably a shitty situation to be in while making one too.
The death of a character is interesting insofar as it affects other characters and the story. When Lee died I was interested in following the story because I cared about Clementine, I wanted to see how she could overcome this and carry on, having been taught and raised by Lee. Without that, the death of Lee is just the end of a character I cared about. It’s sad, but it’s also final. And when you don’t establish a real connection, then the death doesn’t add meaning to the story.
The seams are showing on The Walking Dead. I can see the man behind the curtain, and so I do feel distant, and I don’t care so much when characters die. I’m just annoyed at the waste.
One of my absolute favorite series is Fire Emblem. The real key to those games is the double threat of every unit in your army being an actual character with back story, dialogue, and the ability to form relationships with other characters, and that if (almost) any of them fall in battle, they’re really dead for the rest of the game. There are plenty of games that pull off one of those elements, but very few that do both. And it’s that combination that makes me completely invested in every decision I make. I’m not Ulysses marching my men toward victory and death. I’m trying to solve a puzzle of survival. Not just in this battle but moving forward.
Another effect a death can have on a story is to add to the threat of Death. Good games can exploit the illusion of choice. Good stories can exploit the illusion of Death. Death is around every corner in Fire Emblem. Position your army incorrectly and ‘Boom,’ you’re exposed, and your under-levelled hero is dead. But at that point you’re probably just going to reload the mission. I beat Fire Emblem: Awakening on Lunatic difficulty with no one in my army actually having died. There was no death for my characters in that version of the story. And yet there was so much death. It was something constantly on my mind, and it affected every move I made. It mattered that everyone could die, it affected not only my play, but how I felt about it. When I reloaded a mission it wasn’t just because I was mad over some enemy A.I. Bullshit (which there was plenty of, what with playing on Lunatic.) it was to save a character I liked. The game uses the threat of death to give the player the real choice to try harder to save characters. And that’s part of what makes Awakening the greatest Fire Emblem game in my mind. Awakening is about traveling through time to save your loved ones; story and gameplay working together thematically.
Onward and upward.
I don’t know if any AAA game leverages the threat of Death better than Mass Effect 2. First off the game opens with you getting your shit wrecked, and Shepard dead. (She got better.) This sequence basically serves the same purpose as the fight with Vile at the beginning of Mega Man X. It lets you know that even if you could challenge the big bad right away, you’re not ready. You need to put the work in and get better. It teaches patience, while tantalizing you with the promise that you will get your payback.
The Collectors hang over the whole game. And while the first Mass Effect had Saren, he was never that threatening. The question is if you can catch him in time, not if you can stop him once you do. And that game was more about uncovering the lore of the world, exploring and solving a mystery. This also resulted in a game that was kind of unfocused. There is choice in the game, but in limited quantities, and to no particular end within that game.
Kaiden and Ashley exist to balance the scales of romance options for Shepard, and so that one of them can die; forcing the player to confront the idea of character death. Their role in the story is formal and redundant. They’re objects of design first and characters second. That death moment is a gratuitous shock moment, and a simplistic binary choice. It’s not artful, but it gets the job done. I might have a stronger opinion about this is if I cared about either of these characters. I ended up killing Ashley myself in my Mass Effect 3 play-through. Tired of her shit.
The decision on whether or not to kill the Rachni Queen doesn’t matter, but it was part of laying the groundwork for future installments. Groundwork that would come back to bite BioWare in the ass. Also you have to kill the Rachni again in Mass Effect 3 anyway. (I mean who’s saving Rachni over Krogans?) And then there’s Wrex, who I guess you can kill before the Kaiden-Ashley dilemma, but seriously who kills Wrex? Monsters. Heartless monsters.
The first Mass Effect toys with choice; it’s stepping into the kiddie pool. Sure there’s exploration, but that mostly amounts to a bunch of square miles of nothing. The Mako Tank and planet exploration sections don’t really add much, once you realize how shallow the content there is, but they should have been replaced with engaging spaceship combat, not coma inducing mineral scanning.
Mass Effect 2 brings clarity and focus. While that streamlining could have made it just seem small compared to the first game, Mass Effect 2 flips it, by digging deeper into characters. The series abandons the outward exploration that it struggled to pull off, and accepts its strength of character-based storytelling. It takes the social link system from the Persona games and constructs its plot out of that.
It matters that the loyalty missions are all optional. They’re about connecting with these characters, and the game enforces that by allowing you to spend time with the characters you prefer instead of forcing them all down your throat. It takes the effort to try and allow player desire to line up with the story. And it does so by squeezing its characters, pushing them into uncomfortable spaces and then asking the player what’s important here. What they’re willing to do to survive and defeat the Collectors.
It all builds to the Suicide Mission. You’ve gotten to the core of these characters, seen their true faces, and now you have to take them into a situation they might not walk away from. And this is an example where knowing that there’s going to be another game in the series is a strength. The player knows that if any of these characters die, they’ll be dead for another game and this adds weight to the mission for the player.
So you’ve done all the loyalty missions you feel like doing and you’re ready to challenge the Collectors? Well congratulations, your reward is a puzzle of death. You have to make critical tactical decisions, that if wrong can still result in character death. How many games have the balls to do that? To really work to get the player to care about its characters and then put their lives in his hands. BioWare was confident enough in their story to trust the player, while still giving him the room for multiple degrees of failure.
In the world of video games having a character die that the player could have saved is much more emotionally impactful than an immediate game over screen as soon as a character dies. Also much more positive, awarding the player with content instead of ripping away control and scolding him, even if the end result of trying the mission over is the same.
Mass Effect 2 is beautiful in its simplicity. It’s not like saving everyone is difficult, the puzzle at the end isn’t that complex, but it is interesting, and more importantly feels like a culmination of everything the game did before that. BioWare made it look so easy. I’m surprised that more games don’t do something similar. In fact, that was personally my big disappointment with Mass Effect 3‘s ending. They just had you press a button on the End-O-Tron 9000, even though the War Assets mechanic seemed to be building to a larger scale mission with that puzzle format. But ’twas not to be.
I feel really wary beating this dead horse, except that my issues with Mass Effect 3‘s ending are design focused, and I think underlie why people got mad at it, even though most of their actual bitching was over nitpicky bullshit. Mass Effect’s strength has always been its characters and their interactions. The choices I made mattered to me because of the context of the these characters. When the game asked me to make an esoteric choice in a sterile environment away from those characters I just didn’t care.
But I wasn’t angry, and the Mass Effect 3 ending works fine for certain playthroughs and role-playing approaches to the story, just not mine. I think BioWare could have leveraged their strengths better. The ending feels like it was conceived at an earlier stage in development. It doesn’t push forward at all, and even feels a little regressive thematically. But I don’t want to dig deep enough into that to explain what I mean here, so let’s move on.
Mass Effect 2‘s ending leverages the threat of Death to give the player real meaningful choices. It’s death as empowerment. An affirmation of Life as a rejection of Death. And with a much different execution Gods Will Be Watching pulls this off too; even in the face of cannibalism and dog murder. These are games that get me excited about games, because not only are they great, but they run on ideas that aren’t tapped out. Developers should be looking at them and saying, “I can do that, and I can take it farther.” Mass Effect 3 was a wasted opportunity, but I hope someone else gives it a shot.
Gods Will Be Watching is not perfect, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. I talked about how the choices in Fire Emblem and Mass Effect 2 mattered all the more because of how they carried forward, but that is not the case here. What happens in one puzzle does not truly carry over into the next one. This does lessen the impact, but only slightly since each puzzle is such an endurance test in and of itself, and the game acknowledges the discrepancy in a clever way. There is narrative and gameplay justification for the design choice. The game really comes alive in chapters three and four, when you are concerned with saving the game’s feature characters. But I can see players getting hung up on chapter two. That chapter is intense and unpleasant and the game hasn’t justified itself with its character hooks yet (unless you’re already played that first version and know what’s coming). The bigger ideas the narrative wrestles with aren’t honestly that interesting at face value, but taken as a meta-commentary on video games, it’s pretty great, and fits pretty well with a game that’s basically a tech demo for narrative puzzle design. But I won’t get any further into that now.
Gods Will Be Watching is uncompromisingly bleak and brutal, but it fills me with hope for the future of games. I want to see more, I want to see what’s next.
Squeeze that fruit.