'Gods Will Be Watching' Both Loves and Fears Death

by Nick Dinicola

24 July 2015

Gods Will Be Watching is a perfect encapsulation of gaming’s paradoxical fear and love of death.

Gods Will Be Watching is a difficult game. So difficult in fact, that it was patched after release to add in several easier game modes. This was good news to me, so I bought the game and tried the first of the new modes, Puzzle Mode. I failed several times and gave up. Then came Puzzle Mode Lite. I failed several times at this mode and gave up. Then came Narrative Mode, the easiest mode by far, a mode specifically designed to remove most obstacles in the game so that a player can experience the story with little frustration. I was finally able to beat some levels, but not without some hardship. People still died. I still failed to be a good leader, and it irked me throughout. But after finishing the game, I realize now that that’s the entire point of Gods Will Be Watching.
When I restarted the game, I forgot about my previous failures. The game was reset, those attempts retconned into oblivion, and I and the game could safely ignore them. As far as we were concerned, they never happened. Or, so I thought.

Games often ignore our failures. Despite all the proclamations of “Game Over” and “You Died,” games rarely follow through on those implied threats. Mario must beat every level, Kratos must slay all his enemies, and every soldier that we’ve ever played must survive every firefight. In the timeline of the game’s narrative, there is only perfection.

It’s a lie of course. Even if the game thinks its hero is infallible, we the players know better as we see and live though the many failures that it takes to succeed. Some games acknowledge this lie, Bioshock Infinite and the Souls games come to mind immediately. Those stories revolve around us accepting death and failure as part of the core narrative experience. It makes for some fun and clever and meta storytelling, but when these games comment on our seeming immortality, they often ignore what’s so attractive about this lie and why we’re usually so willing to suspend our disbelief to accept it. The truth is that those failures, even if they don’t technically count in the story, still color our perception of the game and its characters, resulting in a weird but pleasing paradox.

Our struggle is the hero’s struggle. Our struggle informs our perception of the character because we are the character. In the strictest sense of the narrative, the hero is perfect, always winning, but in our perception of that narrative, how we actually experience it, we die over and over again before beating a boss or level, exposing our vulnerability. Yet, we also get to continue as if those failures never happened. We can focus on the story of a perfect hero while still having our struggles inform their conflict. It’s the perfect fantasy because it’s a fantasy in which we can learn from failure without actually acknowledging failure. We’re the perfect imperfect person.

Gods Will Be Watching understands this paradox, the pleasure of the lie of perfection. Throughout the game, you’ll struggle to keep people alive and yet many are likely to die. Even playing in Narrative Mode, I lost people. The first death shocked me. Jack, my undercover partner, died as a result of being tortured, stretched on a Rack until he was torn in half. It was gory and sudden, the stylized pixels making it even worse because of their abstract nature, and yet Jack never went away. He was there at the start of the next level, alive and well, continuing on as if nothing happened.

Like Bioshock Infinite, there is the conceit of time travel at work here. The hero, Sergeant Burden, is reliving the past seven years over and over again. But unlike Bioshock Infinite or the Souls games, which require us to try and try again until we’re perfect, Gods Will Be Watching lets us barely succeed and then continues as if we were perfect. It’s an unearned perfection. I didn’t learn anything from my trials that allowed me to succeed to such a degree. Instead, this major success was handed to me for free. The game encourages me to forget about those failures, even as they stick in my mind. Jack’s death helped me survive my torture, and it was an integral plot point in my story.

Most games want us to ignore our failures and embrace the fantasy of a perfect hero, some games want us to acknowledge those failures and their role in shaping the hero we become, but Gods Will Be Watching wants something different. It wants us to land somewhere in between those other two, both ignoring our failures and acknowledging them.

As such, the game is a perfect encapsulation of gaming’s paradoxical fear and love of death.

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