There's a new indie point-and-click game called Gods Will Be Watching out now. The Steam reviews are pretty down on it and the critics' reviews aren't so hot either. But I love it for the same reasons others hate it: it's a cruel game that dares to make you fail through no fault of your own.
NOTE: Some very specific spoilers for chapter 2 of Gods will Be Watching are below.
The game is more of a time management/survival sim than an adventure game; You're put in a bad situation with some other people, and you have to accomplish something before time runs out or survive for a certain amount of time, and so forth. It's really difficult, and all about moral compromises.
There are six of these scenarios, but the one that I think trips people up the most is the second one. In this situation, you have two men, Burden and Jack, tied to chairs back to back so a couple other dudes can torture you for days on end. And in the middle of this, you'll have to play Russian Roulette.
Let's walk through this scenario for a minute.
It starts out pretty tamely and escalates over time. Each day there's a new method of torture that's increasingly severe. At first they just beat on you with fists, and that's pretty easy to deal with and gives you a minute to figure out how the scenario mechanics work. You can have one of the men taunt his respective torturer, which leads to him being beaten while the other gets a respite. You can "think," which gets you both beaten but helps you come up with a convincing lie when questioned. You can beg, which might keep you both from being beaten for a second. And you can lie, which has a percentage chance of success, or confess something true. But you can't confess too many things, else you lose.
There are visual cues to how close to death each man is, and when granted a respite (this is turn-based, not real time) they will each heal a little bit. The goal is simple: Burden has to survive through however long this takes, and you don't know how long that will be. Jack can be killed, but the scenario becomes much harder if Burden is on his own. It's an unforgiving game of pain management.
So the torture is different every day, as I said, going from beatdowns with your fists to beatdowns with a hammer, to getting your teeth jerked out with the back end of the hammer, to being jabbed with molten hot metal. Things get more difficult as you progress. Obviously, getting your teeth pulled out is worse than being hammered in the knee. But the rules stay pretty steady as the difficulty ascends.
And then the rules change. The torturers will strap one of the guys onto the torture wall, feet up. This time, if you say something they don't like, one of the baddies will pull a lever that stretches the man on the wall. Two pulls of the lever and he'll be ripped in half. Basically, whoever is still in a chair has to solicit a beating throughout this entire day, which can be a tough proposition.
But if you manage to get through all that — which is a tall task — you'll then face the barrel of a revolver. Burden's torturer will load it with one bullet, spin the cylinder, and will squeeze the trigger whenever something he doesn't like is said. You can't taunt your way out of this one. That trigger will be pulled, and it's entirely up to fate whether you're going to make it through.
And if you're unlucky enough to eat a bullet here, you have to start the entire scenario over.
It's entirely up to fate whether you're going to make it through.
That sucks! But it feels like real stakes, and it hurts. It makes people mad, which is absolutely the desired result. It's a stressful situation, and one you're not fully in control of. It's such an alien mechanic for a game, to roll a dice that will just end the experience for you if it lands on a certain number. Games might use a dice roll that could set you back, but it's not as if Dragon Age: Inquisition is going to have a major story quest end on a game of rock, paper, scissors that makes you start over from the beginning if you lose, or that Bioware would ever even consider doing that, probably.
To be clear, though, a Gods Will Be Watching scenario is usually around 20-ish minutes long, long enough to be painful, but not so long as to ensure you'll want to never come back. Though some people take that bullet and do shut off the game forever. And that's wonderful! That's a beautiful reaction.
The point is Gods Will Be Watching is a game about failing, and in which failing is a tremendously powerful experience. This is true desperation, of a unique sort. FTL evokes similar feelings, but it's more of a slow descent where things go bad over a few minutes and you still have the chance to recover if you're quick enough, or careful enough.
But this, this is just complete helplessness. It's a powerful emotion that's been generally untapped in my gaming experiences. No amount of trying hard is going to keep me from being unlucky. There's no opportunity to "make your own luck."
It's just up to the gods and the odds. And there is nothing more thrilling or horrifying than that.
Middle image from the 1976 film The Deer Hunter