I can honestly say that I never thought little, cartoony black blobs would ever put me in such a place of tension and capture my attention so masterfully.
Beholder doesn’t tell a particularly new story, but it does tell the story from a new perspective, a perspective that’s actually been tackled by a number of indie games recently. The story of an Orwellian police state and the moral issue of civilian surveillance has been a question tackled by art (be it literary, painting, film or game) for decades. However, Beholder puts you in the role of the person doing the spying, and by framing it as story balancing morals, family and safety, it creates a surprisingly tense story of choice.
Developer:Warm Lamp Games
Publisher: Alawar Entertainment
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by Publisher
Interface: Keyboard and Mouse
Available on Steam
A totalitarian State controls every aspect of private and public life. Laws are oppressive. Surveillance is total. Privacy is dead. You are the State-installed manager of an apartment building. Your daily routine involves making the building a sweet spot for tenants, who will come and go.
However, that is simply a facade that hides your real mission…
The State has appointed you to SPY ON YOUR TENANTS! Your primary task is to covertly watch your tenants and eavesdrop on their conversations. You must BUG their apartments while they’re away, SEARCH their belongings for whatever can threaten the authority of the State, and PROFILE them for your superiors. You must also REPORT anyone capable of violating the laws or plotting subversive activities against the State to the authorities.
The basic premise and gameplay loop of Beholder is fairly simple: You are a landlord in a fascist/totalitarian country. The state has given you this job with the understanding that you’ll also be spying on your tenants. State laws and directives are issued, and it is up to you to document illegal actions, report on your tenants, and even screen tenants as you renovate your building. Or not.
You ultimately have the power to not follow these rules and regulations, even if this puts you and your family at risk. Sometimes, it may even be worth your while to ignore a transgression in exchange for a service, or take this one step further and blackmail the people living under your (well, the state’s) roof.
This is the moral balance at play in Beholder, and it’s executed incredibly well, even if it isn’t exactly subtle at times. Do you act selfishly to save your family from disease, manual labor and death, or help these people, who may in turn be able to help you later?
However, the thing that stands out in Beholder, from the first moments you fire up the game, is the art style. All the background environments are done in a gray-gradient sketchbooky style, and all of the characters are portrayed as stylized and black and white blobs, full of personality (This ends up actually being a clever decision in the game, since it’s very easy to tell the different characters apart). Yet, the building itself, the furniture in it and all the items you find and purchase are done in quite high detail and are full of color.
This is a very interesting artistic choice that’s been made in Beholder. While the characters and environments don’t have a ton of detail, the items and equipment used in the game are richly colored and detailed, almost as if, in this situation, those are the things that suddenly become most important.
It’s a thought provoking artistic choice that say volumes about the situation this cast of characters has been placed in.
Mechanically, Beholder works incredibly well. Movement is controlled by clicks, as is your interaction with the environment. You’ll be managing two main currency in the game; cash and favor, and will need to use each wisely to not only equip your apartment with monitoring devices, but also pay your own bills, buy food, and purchase other needed supplies.
All in all, its a gigantic balancing act between family, strangers and the state. You will not always make the right decision; in many cases you’ll be in a place where there’s no way you can afford a crucial item or service that a characters life may very well rest on. But, are you willing to report on these people, many of them (though not all…) just living their lives from day to day. Some of the decisions will suck and you’ll feel like there’s no point in going on, but do. That’s part of the experience of Beholder, and part of its message.
Nevertheless, despite all the doom and gloom morality being discussed, the game is fun, engaging and enrapturing. You’re pulled into the lives of these characters and you get invested. Planting camera is often a tense exercise in timing, and a tenant catching you in the act is a sure fire way to get them pissed at you, and many of the quest lines have multiple ways to achieve your goal, often spanning the spectrum of moral grayness.