Beholder is a rough experience, and I mean that in many ways.
To explain, allow me to share a personal story from the game, my first playthrough which culminated in a unique tale all my own, just as the developers have intended with this interactive morality play. Beholder is a choose-your-own-adventure reinterpretation of Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, with the level structure of This War of Mine, but ultimately fails to provide as memorable a venture due to its particular design philosophy.
The game often feels unsatisfying and even unfinished in a few areas, as presented in my own time with it. But there is a variety of features and details which place it above other contemporary indie titles, especially in regards to its engaging, if messy plot structure.
The first detail of Beholder that grips me is the unique aesthetic. The characters’ impressive art style is reminiscent of chalk lined figures scrawled on black pavement, a fitting metaphor for the totalitarian perspective which dominates the game’s central mechanics. Yet despite their color uniformity, their silent demeanors and oppressive daily routines, these NPCs ooze charm and individuality, no matter how often I repair apartments and move new people in.
The protagonist, Carl is a landlord working for the state; but he is also a father, as illustrated by the opening cutscene which depicts his family moving into the complex to accept his new job. He is replacing the previous landlord who apparently failed to live up to the standards of the government’s strict regime, and thus the player is immediately compelled to watch their step.
Overstepping one’s boundaries is the key to either success or failure in Beholder, and money rules all. Timed objectives will demand harsh payments, as will bills for misconduct or everyday necessities. Often Carl will be forced to consider robbing his own tenants while they are away at work, utilizing his security system to commit his own treason, arguably the game’s most provocative symbolic twist. Big Brother is watching, and he may use that awareness to his own advantage.
Morality acts as the underlying current to every decision made in the game, and the systemic structure constantly forces players to quickly weigh the good of the people against the good of the family, and perhaps even the good of the self. There is nearly always an objective to carry out, if played ‘correctly’ (more on that later), with consequences for their completion ranging from satisfactory to catastrophic.
For there appears to be no ‘winning’ in Beholder, only perseverance; surviving another hour, another day, another tenant, another conspiracy, another death in the family, etc.
The state requires I move in a new tenant. So I choose a professor who is looking for a long-term lease, which deems him trustworthy, at least in my eyes. I set up a couple of cameras in his room while he is away at work, and after a few days of inspection my trustworthiness proves vindicated. I even help him find love (I hook him up with another tenant’s niece). Relationships are formed, which allows these NPCs to actually seem lively.
Carl represents the ideal social figure, trapped within the hypocritical institutions defining his dramaturgical identity. A family man committed to fatherhood; a proletariat dedicated to patriotic workmanship. The family unit versus the nation’s longevity, personified by this interactive avatar.
Back in my basement abode, I deal with the issues plaguing my family. They are small inconveniences if anything (my daughter has lost her doll, my son needs a book for school), but these early predicaments prove both satisfactory and foretelling of greater problems to come. Beholder is at its best when juggling different concepts at once: as a moral balancing act, a time-obsessed historic document, a situational tragic irony.
Soon my daughter becomes sick. She needs aspirin, so I wait until night time to purchase some from the mysterious backdoor salesman outside the complex. The medicine helps, for a while, and completing the task feels like a successful venture. Like checking off a to-do list, which ironically simultaneously undermines and strengthens the game’s emotional goal.
The numerous tasks players are given throughout overwhelm them at nearly every moment, causing a disconnect between empathy and workmanship. The player’s ultimate goal then becomes to consider how important the sanctity of their conscious humanity means to them. Like Papers, Please before it, Beholder serves as an interactive fictional rendering of the dehumanization process inherent within industrial corporations. A morality play influenced by Marxist idealism, which is heavily indebted to its primary influences, but ultimately held back by the more complex system management.
My son needs books for school. They’re expensive, so I ask the professor in Apartment 2 if he could help. He owns the necessary texts and agrees, in return for a promise to overlook his unofficial citizenship. Fortunately, Beholder allows the ability for players to change their benevolent minds. I retain this info for future use, if at all necessary.
Meanwhile, my daughter’s sickness has grown more intense, and my wife and I agree she needs to see a doctor. The prognosis demands an expensive surgery, and I am $15,000 short. Action is now necessary. Being a good neighbor no longer applies.
So I take up stealing. I rob the tenants’ apartments while they are away, tending to their routines. Searching for purses and valuables and everything I can find of some worth, the police inevitably intervene, in a flawed system of punishment similar to the trite ticketing system in Papers, Please. I bribe them using my Reputation Points (which act as a separate form of currency the player loses and gains depending on relationships with the tenants), intent on stockpiling as much money as possible for the sake of my daughter’s health.
I sell the stolen items to the salesman, but it’s not enough. The timer ticks down ceaselessly, a countdown to demise. I hope for the best as it reaches zero, only to find my grieving wife bawling at the sight of our daughter dead on the floor of our room. I try to comfort Anna, but her grief dismisses any future happiness. Unlike its influences, Beholder has allowed me the opportunity to play the role of an impoverished father, working against time to feed his/my family, only to fail.
And that is truly special for this medium. Games often attempt to procure emotional investment in its characters and situations through “player choice,” which is normally undermined by established plot structures. Beholder sidesteps this issue by allowing for numerous outcomes based on decisions the player makes, often ending in tragedy.
Sadly, the game lacks polish in its effective storytelling. I talk to the grieving Anna, and after reading the one option for dialogue pertaining to the incident, it’s back to the other tasks at hand. This of course further argues the insignificance of personal tragedy in the context of the world, but I wish the characters gave a little more awareness to the circumstances. I speak with my son to explain what happened, to which he replies with remorse. But then another dialogue option mentions his sister as if she was still alive.
The messy dialogue extends to grammatical mistakes, as well. The Russian publisher, Alawar Entertainment provide only an adequate English translation, with some occasionally less-than interpretable lines. It wouldn’t be such a crushing issue if not for how much reading the player will be spending their time doing. NPCs love to chat, and their robotic understanding of language certainly takes away from their authenticity.
As the game continues, ceaselessly reminding me of the unstoppable nature of Time, my son is forced to drop out of University due to our lack of funds, forcing him to take a job at the coal mines; tenants leave and others replace them, and I take advantage of their empty homes while they are away during the day; bills mount and mount, and I shrug them off until they are eventually forced upon me for payment.
I grow weary, and slowly begin to just give up. My son dies in the mines, causing Anna to keel over from a broken heart. The toll of two dead children has proven too much for her to handle, yet Carl must struggle onwards.
This is where the game becomes too empty for its own good. I move more tenants in to fill the objective spaces left by my late family, but content begins to filter out. An anarchist organization earlier forced me into aiding them, but without a family to threaten I am without care to complete tasks for them. I basically begin waiting out the days until my money runs out, which to the game’s credit takes quite a bit of time.
Now a truck sits outside blaring propaganda at the complex, which becomes so aggravating I start losing focus on objectives at hand. I need a screwdriver to turn the damned thing off, but I can’t find one in any of the tenants’ apartments, and grow tired of waiting for them to leave so I may finally break in. It is an insufferable moment in an otherwise addicting, enjoyable experience, one that causes my interest to dwindle till I am numb by the deafening horn.
Eventually, a bomb threat is made, though I feel relief instead of fear. If I fuck this up, there will be nothing but sweet silence, finally. My family is gone, and there is no hope for ending this suffering. So I find the bomb in the washing machine, make an attempt to remember the order of the wires to cut, and blow up the entire complex thanks to my failed memory.
A final scene of memoriam plays, and my suffering has ended. Beholder is a tiring experience, for both the right and wrong reasons. Even in its most impressive displays of emotional depth, the game is undermined by a lack of systematic polish, which often aims to both condemn the player’s immoral reactions and praise them. Fortunately, there is plenty of opportunity to improve Carl’s situation, even if it means for keeping his family safe for just a day longer.
In the end, Carl and I failed to act out the role which society has historically deemed ideal, thanks to the oppressive economic institutions which limit individuals to liminal stages of repetition. Beholder, as in most games, feigns progression as a number to increase, and every time it decreases, the emotional stakes take a toll on the player and their situation.
A sociological masterclass, Beholder could be a better overall experience with some needed improvements, specifically more prompt to follow through with the various narrative experiences. But my lengthy, dramatic experience has proved to be truly worthwhile.