All right, I encountered a game that frustrates me to no end. A game whose introduction and promised playing experience conflicted with the actual reality so much that I haven’t been able to even start it again, even though I want to. So much.
The game in question is Gods Will Be Watching, by Deconstructeam. I first encountered it from my Steam News, and was immediately intrigued. A) It had well-animated pixel art, B) It was about making hard choices and sacrifices, and C) It was cheap. It promised an emotional journey akin to The Walking Dead. Sold.
The first hairline fracture appeared when I checked the top reviews. The first comment was about it being hard as hell, “…even after the mercy update…”. When pixel art and difficulty collide, the result is usually me ejecting away, furious and frustrated. But I still had hope. I opened the game.
Title screen was minimal and very atmospheric. I chose new game. Then the game asks me to choose the difficulty and presents to me a staggering amount of options with descriptions. There’s the Original difficulty, “how the game was designed to be played”, a lighter version of the original difficulty, a puzzle version and a lighter puzzle version (?) and a narrative version. The descriptions felt a bit smug and condescending after reading the comment and suddenly I was a bit apprehensive. But since I believe in designer vision, I chose the original (plus there are achievements for playing on it).
I began the game, which was very light on detail and characterization, but I was forgiving since it would probably come during play. Then gameplay began, without almost any tutorials. I was tasked with keeping a bunch of hostages calm. I panicked. Is this real time? Turn-based? What are my options? Soon I figured that it was a point-and-click interface and turn-based: Time would progress after each of my actions. But I was a bit uncertain which actions would progress time. And then I lost to some effect. At this point I realized that it was a rapid retry game.
After several more explorational tries, I figured the game out and was disappointed as hell. It was a juggling game. I had to keep the security from making an entry, figure out the behavior of each hostage on the fly, progress a hack (which is the goal) and keep network security away. There were no difficult choices of sacrifice and morality. It was just optimization and cold calculation. It was brutal in addition of random chance arbitrarily negating my progress. In an instant I lost all interest in the characters, hostages and the story. I was just concentrating on how to get to the next chapter of the game.
Then I ejected from the game, furious and frustrated. I checked whether someone had made an online guide that would open the mechanics a bit more and found out that it was an expanded Ludum Dare project. After trying the original free version, I closed the browser and have not still returned.
But to be honest, I’m being unfair on the game and its creators. It is nothing but commendable that they included a lot of options for different kinds of people to enjoy the game. I also read too much to the difficulty descriptions, which are encouraging and nicely written. The mechanics and the game has nothing wrong in it, as far as I could tell. The vitriol that I managed to generate was because of the conflict of expectations, which poisoned the rest of my opinions.
Yet I still think that difficult choices should be differentiated from game progress. The hostage situation is a good example. I think the designers intended the sacrifice and hard choices to be whether you kill one of the hostages to dissuade the others from trying anything. (And in later in the game, to whether sacrifice one of the partymembers to save the others) But the weight of the choice is watered down by the fact that if you had just played better, you could have avoided the choice altogether. I might be talking out of my posterior since I haven’t still reopened the game, but there is an achievement for keeping everyone alive. That’s where I’m basing all of this.
The Walking Dead did difficult choices well. First of all, it set them up for a long time. It characterized and established both characters whose survival I would have to choose later on. Then it presents that situation quite suddenly and without warning. And it gives you a short timer to make the choice. In the frantic seconds in which I would have to choose between the character I liked or the character that was a better choice for the group I felt desperation set in. And after the choice it takes a long time before a situation where you can die happens in order to seal the deal. You can’t go back. You are stuck with what you’ve done. Sure, this is not organic, but it does not need to be.
And that is why I resent Gods Will Be Watching. It gave a wrong impression of itself to me. I don’t know whether this was a mistake of the game’s marketing or whether it was just because of my recent experiences with games with similar themes. But I resolved to play it, if not the way the designers intended. And I also resolved to like it.