Review: Beholder06 Jun 2017 1
Released 17 May 2017
"Goodness me, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea".
If I had such a sweet disposition, or a mincing tongue, this is how I might have cursed Beholder. A greyscale surveillance game with a boilerplate theme and difficult storyline, it self-style as Orwell's 1984 meets Papers, Please. I was caught between shelling out my hard-won cash for eye-poppingly expensive medicine for my sick daughter, or investing in my son's continued enrollment in university. The choice was meant to feel matter-of-fact and cruel but as a player, I merely felt cheated and inconvenienced. If the game had broken my spirit as thoroughly as it broke those of the characters inside it, I would have grown furious or despondent, and could have cursed it properly.
In reality, playing Beholder just made me feel tired and defeated, like a lab rat who had suffered one too many shocks and decided to simply lay down and accept a future of senseless punishment. The world inside Beholder is grim and flat, yet its attempts to evoke either despair or hope ultimately fall short.
You play as Carl Stein, a hapless milksop who has just been installed by the Ministry of Allocation as the apartment manager at Krushvice street. A brief introductory cutscene shows the Stein family travelling to their new home via train. As they arrive at the building complex, each of them sees a battered man being dragged off by the police. He is your predecessor, and the Ministry found his efforts wanting. Carl has been given drugs which render him a perfect, permanent insomniac. His real job will be to spy on his tenants and neighbors, through peepholes and secret cameras. Carl will also have the chance to legitimately help them by getting ties, radios, cameras and many other quest items.
On behalf of the Ministry of Allocation, he has the ability to file reports on their habits and vices, illicit and otherwise. The longer the game progresses, the more of its items and activities become illegal. From the ownership of jeans or music records to smoking or gathering in groups of four or more, the state's strict rules become ever more draconian as the calendar year progresses. Thanks to this suppression, Carl can blackmail his tenants for a quick buck, get them evicted or arrested, or simply steal the contraband and sell it for a pretty penny. The game wants to you experiment and walk the line between serving your state and your neighbors while protecting your self-interest. There are two difficulty levels which alter quest difficulty and game's generosity with its resources.
Each kind of quest grants some mixture of cash and favor points, the two kinds of in-game currency. For a while it is even possible to play like a naïf, never reporting or stealing from your residents and doing everything possible to help them and your family. But soon enough you learn there simply isn't enough cash or time to meet everyone's needs. My vision of Carl as the pristine Savior, untainted by the corrupt systems he's caught in, fell apart early.
Maybe I played too quickly, blazing through quests that were trivial to solve instead of stockpiling resources. Maybe I should have spent less time listening to my tenants, engaging them in idle chit-chat and trying to discover the details of the game's semi-fictional faux-Soviet setting. I guess I should have snooped instead of talked, farming information and money. Eventually I got into a chain of dead ends that gave me 'game over' screens interspersed with funerals for Carl or his family. Because the game saves after every new or completed quest, I had a little difficulty imagining how deep my hole was, and how far back into the savefiles I should go to change my fate.
This self-inflicted downward spiral is to the game's credit, to be sure. My urge to be a white knight and sweep everyone off their feet, whisking their problems away all the while, was patent nonsense and the game wasted little time in trampling it underfoot. I liked a few of the early reversals of fortune: arranging a date that leads to a wedding that may end in horror, or smuggling a friend fleeing the country and ruining their life in the process. But after a while this cruelty felt arbitrary and haphazard, like it was there to artificially teach me a lesson. It felt authored, unnatural. And this, along with the ever-tightening budget and life-threatening problems plaguing my family, were prime examples of hardship as a cudgel rather than a prod. One could argue that this hamfisted approach to world-building is entirely the point, that bleak authoritarian systems do not need subtle or sinister representations because their workings are straightforward.
Beholder wants to make its decisions moral and vexing, but at the end of the day I gave up on being good and started just playing good - becoming better at balancing the books. To make ends meet, I instructed Carl to make extensive reports as often as possible, and filch a trinket here and there to fence on the side. I understood objectively each of those actions were moral compromises, but they lose much of their bite when it's the only possible way to move forward. Still, while game's darkness is not as deep or compelling as it perhaps wants it to be, if you're curious and diligent you will find plenty to enjoy. Much like beauty, fun is in the eye(hands) of the beholder...