Today, Gods Will Be Watching, a minimalistic point-and-click thriller presented by Devolver Digital, makes it debut on GOG.com. We join Deconstructeam’s Jordi de Paco, the games lead designer for a little talk.
GOG.com: Deconstructeam apparently has a point to make about minimalism, deconstruction, and stripping things down to bare essentials. That is perhaps why the concept of GWBW is so irresistible. Terrifying ethical choices presented as a pixelated point-and-click puzzler born out of a Ludum Dare game jam. Do you think that reductionism and limitations actually can boost how impactful a game can be emotionally?
Jordi de Paco: Yes, totally. I remember playing Metal Gear Solid, and how emotionally powerful the characters felt to me. I don’t mean that the more detailed designs from the sequels are bad, it’s just that the player’s imagination is always better! In Gods Will Be Watching we can cross some lines thanks to the pixelated representation of the game world, as cold-blooded executions or detailed torture would be horrible to see in a higher fidelity game… but at the same time it puts your imagination to work, and depending on the player, that can be way more terrifying.
GOG.com: The game is a daring exercise in translating simple decisions into mathematical variables, and then back into repercussions loaded with gore and misery. How do you approach feeding this thinking machine with scenarios and story points? And how did you decide that A leads to B?
Jordi: When designing the puzzles in Gods Will Be Watching we first brainstormed on hard situations. From that scary list of tough scenarios we chose the ones which could fit in an epic sci-fi space drama. The ones that survived this selection process were the ones good enough for both good gameplay and an interesting story. The rest, is a ton of hours in front of a spreadsheet and a notebook.
GOG.com: The most controversial theme no doubt will be the fact that the player has complete freedom and absolute power over the horrifying situation playing out on the screen. But only at this exact point in time. And then it’s on to the next step. There is certain inevitability and finality to everything you do. Is it a game about self-justification?
Jordi: Totally! In fact, that’s the name of the first chapter of the game, “Self-Justified Sacrifices”. We wanted to avoid popping moral dilemmas in front of the player at all cost. Like forcing you to choose between being good or evil, saving the girl or the man, etc. There’s no judging of your actions, tough decisions emerge from your lack of management skills, so it’s always your fault, and it’s your responsibility to asses the situation and decide what to sacrifice. However, if you’re skilled enough, the game can be completed without a single character dying.
GOG.com: You’ve mentioned that you’re a huge role playing fan and that actual role playing scenarios helped you in making in-game decisions and character reactions more emotional and real. What was the process of building the ecosystem of branching paths in the most severe situations the game puts players in.
Jordi: I didn’t really think about the design of Gods Will Be Watching as branches. As a habit while preparing my role playing sessions, I prefer not to design paths for the players, but interesting situations for them to deal with. I applied a lot of that experience in this game. Defined the situations, and then converted all the important values that represented these scenes into numbers, and designed a way through passive permutations and modifications through player’s input in which this “mathematical ecosystem” could get to a win condition.
GOG.com: In many respects GWBW is a body horror. The characters react mostly with their bodies - shuddering, freezing up, or writhing in pain. The faces remain hidden. Was it a conscious decision right from the go or, at a certain point, you guys just felt that this way it will be even more disturbing? Somehow your pixels seem to condense emotions…
Jordi: During the game jam prototype, it was an accident. We just went for it. But in the final Gods Will Be Watching, it’s been a thing we wanted to empower a lot. Instead of facing the remake through producing a more detailed pixel art, we wanted to work mostly on the animations. For keeping the mood of every stage, the objective was to reduce the UI at its minimum, so we couldn’t have HP indicators, moral status, or any number floating around. All that information had to be told through body expression and context of the stage. It sounds funny talking about pixel art, but we did a lot of acting to get this done… even torture!
Deconstructeam (our guest, Jordi, is the one with the axe).
GOG.com: The main topic of the game is, of course, quite extreme, but easy to relate to for an HR specialist, a manager, a department head, anyone that can exercise power over others in a certain field. I imagine that “the greater good”, short-term vs. long-term, risk vs. reward were concepts that were bouncing around your heads?
Jordi: The first thing I did when I started the game design of Gods Will Be Watching was writing these keywords on the first page of the notebook: Feelings. Drama. Dilemma. Epic. Survival. Wits. Pain. Suffering. Commitment. Duty. Burden. Adversity. Challenge. Against all odds. Prolonged.
That’s the foundation of the whole game.
But now you mention it, “the greater good”, short-term vs. long-term and risk vs. reward, would have been awesome keywords too! (laughs)
GOG.com: Now that you are done with GWBW what do you think was your motivation behind making this game? Because, obviously, not FUN for gamers, in the most common sense of the word :)
Jordi: In our website and our Twitter profile it says “Independent game development studio looking for new narrative experiences in games.” - That’s our main objective. I don’t think games have to be fun, strictly speaking, it’s all about creating an experience, like in movies, comics or books. You can enjoy drama or tragedy as much as nailing three headshots in a row. If you like what you feel, if you need the urge to interact more, to go deeper in any interactive experience… Then it is a good game.
Gods Will Be Watching is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux! You can get the bonus goodie-packed Special Edition for $19.99, or settle for the $9.99 standard edition.