I was expecting a point-and-click adventure, but I tried not to hold my false expectations against it. What GWBW is, I guess, is a “turn-based balance maintenance” game. Each level (there are about 8, give or take) involves pushing one variable in that aforementioned balance without throwing off another. Tell this person to dig for the next half-hour, but keep an eye on his stamina. Stall for rescue during torture without confessing to everything, but give away enough that you don’t die before rescue comes. Sacrifice your crew’s morale by having somebody forego sleep to hunt for food at night, but don’t let it drop so low that crewmates freak out and run off into the woods to die.
I’m not crazy about it. It’s heavily RNG-based, which I’ve never been fond of. To me, good game design centers around the idea of incentivization, and in my experience having less control over an outcome causes players to fail to adapt meaningfully to challenges, to feel less responsible, to be more frustrated and to experience less satisfaction upon victory. A later update to the game added difficulties which remove elements of chance, although the exact nature of the changes is poorly explained. While this is an admirable thing to do, the game was still envisioned with those elements, and gameplay feels unsatisfying and simple at times… even though the game doesn’t necessarily become easier.
For example, instead of attempting something when the success rate reaches 60%, you would have to wait for the full 100% success rate to even try. In terms of difficulty alone, this is usually balanced out by the disappearance of random failures, but it also reduces the design complexity. When playing with RNG you can allow yourself to be caught in a lie during torture and still waste some time, but without RNG, you can’t even choose to lie until you’ve spent some time getting your teeth pulled while thinking out the particulars of the story you planned to spin. It becomes very simple trial-and-error, and the optional challenge goals are made unavailable (think FTL‘s achievement system, but without getting cool new ships). I found myself switching the difficulty a few times, doing some levels with it and others without.
FTL was random as well, and to some extent there is a place for randomization. You don’t want to know the correct antidote ingredients when you start, or there’s no point to working out how to synthesize it. And look at other games: in Minecraft you don’t want to have one seed where you know where all the diamonds are already. If the outcome of a dice roll is that you have to adjust to a new variable, like one of five equally-difficult but differently-handled problems springing up, that can be interesting, but if there’s a fifty percent chance of something great happening and a fifty percent chance of something that immediately ends your run, that’s pretty awful. If every good or bad bit of fortune is significant enough to matter to players but not significant enough to guarantee failure, and the challenges run long enough that the “law of large numbers” comes into play and the good and bad balance out, that can be passable, which could perhaps be said of something like dice rolls in Dungeons & Dragons. I still don’t think that’s a perfect system, but GWBW also has some longer-term challenges and in its case that essentially only leads to more opportunities for instant failure and frustration.
While the non-RNG mode feels too simple on some stages, even guaranteed lengthy trial-and-error can be better than highly randomized lengthy challenges. Doing the desert navigation level with the RNG off, winning was just a matter of making a handful of suicide runs in different directions to map the unchanging terrain, so I would know where to find shelter or an enemy stronghold when the time came to try for real. And yet I sort of enjoyed this busywork more than a lot of the rest of the game, because I could get a sense of my progress by looking down at my map as it became more and more detailed. I couldn’t imagine wanting to throw myself at this mission dozens of times with an ever-changing desert, but looking at some online guides for the level, “extreme frustration” appears to be a recurring sentiment.
I’m a sucker for pixels, I’m not crazy about the art here. It’s not bad exactly, but it has some issues, especially blown up to the large size it expects you to display it at–you either go full-screen–which, with a modern screen resolution, blows up the pixels too much to be ideal–or you try to resize the window by hand, and the relative pixel size ends up all over the place. Good pixel art means having all the blocks on the screen adhere to the same rules, but there are UI features and the like in GWBW that aren’t pixelated and which end up drawing attention. Not having fixed resolution settings also means not being able to draw pixels at perfectly scaling multiples as well, which ends up distorting text and other graphics.
For a game that’s all about survival via number balancing, the UI is also somewhat bad about showing you these numbers. Sometimes you have to go talking to an NPC and clicking through a couple screens of conversation choices to reveal stats like a character’s proximity to death by cold exposure, when these things really should have been shown at all times as bars above people’s heads, or else freely revealed at any time with the press of a single keyboard button.
The story is somewhat interesting, and I like its hook, but right from the first scene I saw its tendency to bloviate with the writer’s meditations on ethics and terrorism and whether ends can justify means. Having written things for years I definitely can see a bit of myself in there, having shared that same tendency. That’s probably why I feel qualified to call the writing juvenile in form; something in need of restraint. It pulls us away from the characters themselves.