Ever been curious what your next door neighbour is up to? When you hear those muffled voices and hints of disruption that fills you with that tantalising urge to break their privacy and find out what exactly they’re up to? The emotion of curiosity can be a strong one and we don’t enjoy being kept in the dark because of that inherent uncertainty that fills us with fear. Is your spouse cheating, what is your child doing, where is that person you care about going? We’d all like to know, but we all have that right to a private life away from prying eyes. But what would you do if you were forced to be in charge of breaking people’s privacy in order to further the ill intents of an unfair and totalitarian government? That’s exactly what Beholder’s premise is.
A dark, messy world
Set in a world where citizens are subjugated and massively censored, Beholder’s landscape is suitably bleak. People get arrested for the smallest discrepancies, ranging from reading books to owning fish. Any slight against the state is treated as extensive treason and the authorities are not afraid to beat an uncooperative citizen to death if they have to. It’s in a world like this where you fear for your very life every day, no matter what your position is and this is true for protagonist Carl Stein who was given the “honour” of being put in charge of an apartment building and functioning as its manager. He moves in with his family and is given increasingly difficult tasks by the ministry, usually involving finding incriminating evidence against someone and calling the authorities. You must also profile the habits of citizens, marking any “undesirable” actions in their file.
As you’re lulled into this false sense of security, the game just brutally throws you down.
As such, Beholder is a strategy game. You are given a verticle slice of the apartment building and you can move in tenants at will. It’s your job to monitor them by any means necessary. This involves secretly installing surveillance cameras into their apartment and monitoring their actions while they believe they are alone, rummaging through their belongings for any illegal contraband and trying to manipulate them into trusting you and giving away valuable information. For each trait you profile on a citizen, you receive money and the same happens for arrests made with sufficient evidence. The money and reputation points you earn are used to maintain the apartment building, your family and buying specific goods you need in order to fulfil requirements for tasks.
So far it sounds like a simple management game with some voyeuristic elements, but oh boy does it go from zero to sixty in no time flat. The game provides you with the tools in order to be a lucrative peeping tom, but it mercilessly throws you with curveballs at every juncture of your task. It starts innocently with small bills for the maintenance of your wife and two kids as well as the apartment building. There are time limits given to tasks handed out by the ministry, but at the start, they are fairly reasonable and allows you some breathing room. As you’re lulled into this false sense of security, the game just brutally throws you down. Unreasonable requests come through from the ministry that only seek to cripple you as you get fined for not sticking to the exact parameters that were stipulated.
A wise and terrible decision
Then there’s the aspect of morality that also throws a spanner into the works. The requests you receive are often bereft of empathy or consideration for a person and the easy way to the completion would be to be the biggest selfish totalitarian that you can be. The people who end up occupying your building have their own stories, their own aspirations and through your constant monitoring, you can also see what type of person they truly are. The game wants you to crush them in order to benefit yourself, but you’ll be wrestling with yourself and trying to find other ways that can potentially help them. However, the game, unfortunately, shoehorns you into making some awful decisions because of how it’s balanced.
Here’s an example that hits you close to the start of the game: your daughter is sick and she needs medicine. Sounds simple, right? Get her a bottle of aspirin and let her go on her way. No, that medicine costs so much money that you’ll have to blackmail your tenants by threatening to report them to the authorities for owning some fish and steal from them in order to get that money. If the time limit runs out and you haven’t made the money yet, your little girl dies. This happens while you’re being hounded by the state and also receiving random fines out of the blue that massively set you back. Your daughter dying is also just one of the many, many problems that you’ll be shackled with and they don’t get less severe.
What this translates into is a constant feeling of stress and pressure as you’re playing the game. Trying to figure out how to do tasks optimally while having these awful scenarios hanging above you. There is no recompense, there are no moments to breathe. It’s a constant battle raging between your morality, your funds and your survival. It can seem appealing to have such a depressive and difficult experience, but all I’ve felt was frustration as I was not allowed to play how I wanted to and constantly being on some kind of doomsday clock. The moral decisions you’re given and the scenarios in the game are well executed and offer some deep insight into the nature of humanity under totalitarian rule, but again, being forced into such a set path feels like I was in a stranglehold most of the time.
It’s a waste of potential since if the game was balanced better, it would have been something great. You can play multiple playthroughs in order to get the most efficient use of your time and get the right resources when you need them the most, but that adds to the frustration in the end. I’ve restarted multiple times in the beginning because I was still learning the optimal gameplay loop but the game saw fit to punish me for that and make the game nearly unwinnable. That lack of balance is what holds Beholder back the most. I understand wanting to create a real and difficult moral game, but there’s a limit to what a player can realistically do that is often not respected.
Dark, shifty eyes
Possibly the most interesting aspect of the game is its art style. It’s set against a bleak backdrop with all the characters appearing as silhouettes that have extremely expressive features. It ties together with that depressive theme while also giving the characters their own unique personalities just from the visual presentation alone. However, the sound design wasn’t as good. The soundtrack is widely forgettable and the mumbled unintelligible speech that is used by the characters becomes massively grating since there is often just one loop associated with each individual character. The sound effects are also not that great, with simple effects that are not pleasing to the ear that happens on a constant basis. The bus that picks up and drops citizens off at very regular intervals will just become this annoying background static that you’ll have to deal with.
I understand wanting to create a real and difficult moral game, but there’s a limit to what a player can realistically do that is often not respected.
Also, on PS4 the game was quite difficult to control. It’s a management game, so a mouse and keyboard would be heavily recommended and the controller makes it significantly harder. You’ll often select the wrong thing or stand in the improper location to initiate something and it makes the game feel sluggish. You’ll often want to do some micromanaging such as rifling through the belongings of people while also monitoring where they are as well as the people in the other apartments. That is almost impossible with a controller as you’ll be battling with one thing that takes up all the time you can also use to do something else.
Ultimately where I land on Beholder is one of reverence filled with huge disappointment. The game has the same level of intriguing repression that a game such as Papers, Please has with moral decisions that can throw you for a wild loop. The characters are great, the premise is wonderful and the mechanics are sufficient, but due to that extreme lack of balance and being under constant crushing pressure, I cannot for the life of me say that I enjoyed it. It’s a game I wanted to love and that is right up my alley with a strong morality driven premise, but there is just too much wasted potential. If the game can be polished, be more merciful and give a lot more player agency, it could be one of the greats within this niche subset of indie games.