I watch, I spy, I report. I do it for my family, and I do it because it’s fun- to a degree. What are you willing to do in order to survive? Will you obey the government or the fight for your fellow man? These are the broad moral questions raised by Beholder, an indie-adventure game where you spy on people for the government in a 1984 big-brother-esque dystopia. Beholder is the type of game that feels both far-fetched and familiar, holding up a mirror to our own world while still feeling distant. I questioned decisions I made, wondering whether or not I was as good a person as I thought I was, and felt overwhelmed at the task I was handed.
Developed by Warm Lamp Games, Beholder creates a bleak world in which players are given boundless choices on how to attempt to survive a totalitarian government. Players assume the role of Carl, a state-appointed landlord of an apartment building whose task is to gather information and profile the tenants within his building. Carl’s entire family is moved to the apartment building, including his wife, older son, and young daughter. The goal, or the one I attached myself to, was to try and juggle making my family somewhat happy, my tenants somewhat happy and the government somewhat happy. I’m sure you can guess by now that it’s pretty much impossible to do. Beholder is both a compelling idea and an exercise in aiding in and providing basic human rights. It’s kind of like The Sims but set in a very dark and unforgiving totalitarian universe.
It’s pretty easy to get sucked into the lives of Carl, his family, and those who dwell within the apartments. So much so that you’ll end up memorizing the daily schedule of the tenants, so you can go snoop through their few belongings and profile them in order to make money. The basic mechanics of the game can become very addicting, aided by the specific tasks outlined by the government or the people around you, which form a basic quest structure. It’s perhaps so addicting that I’ve played the game now twice and want to go back for more.
Beholder doesn’t take long to complete, and neither does the game feel drawn out or overstay its welcome. The gameplay is absolutely challenging and the player must face the consequences of whatever choice they make, whether or not it feels like the right choice was made. Every choice has a fallback option, so it’s not about making the right choice, but more about making the best of what you are given and just make it through another day.
The universe that Beholder is set in is very clear. The way each person is treated, what the government wants, and who is punished for what offenses is very consistent. The little details hidden in your environment is impressive; every character has an interesting backstory and items in their apartment that help you learn more about them. It’s a pretty intricate little universe, and even a tiny little choice you didn’t really think too hard about can have some pretty serious consequences.
Beholder is at its best when the game overwhelms you and you have to make those critical choices. What Beholder does really well is capturing the overwhelming, and potentially familiar, feeling of life’s everyday fears; not having quite enough money, sacrificing your own safety to help others, and trying to decide whether or not somebody deserves to take the fall so you can get ahead. You feel both powerful and yet weak in your position. However, there is a significant amount of downtime where I found myself wandering the halls hoping to trigger an event. It got to a point where I was speeding up time just to have something to do or to trigger an event that I needed one particular resident around for.
Overall there isn’t a good sense of balance within the game, though occasionally I would wonder if that was the point. Are you supposed to feel overwhelmed and then have a sense of relief when you finally have a moment to breath? While this idea is interesting, it doesn’t quite work well within the physical environment the player character moves in or the gameplay loop itself. Beholder walks a thin line – it could be frustrating players for a point, though it’s possible that the frustration is simply due to unpolished gameplay design. “Fascinating” does not always equal “fun”, and the difficulty curve can sometimes feel like a deterrent from continuous play, despite how invested the player may be in the story.
The tone of the game never quite comes together either. In one quest you find a bumbling doctor a goofy wife, and another deals with needing to pay for your daughter’s medical treatments, with your failure resulting in her death. The game presents the player with hard extremes at both ends of the tonal spectrum and doesn’t quite find a happy medium. What that meant for me, as a player, was not quite knowing how to react to these extremes, as they veer between light comedy and horrible tragedy so fast you’re left scratching your head wondering what the hell just happened.
Another element that doesn’t quite seem to fit is the element of time. As Carl, you aren’t required or even able to sleep, as the Ministry has given you a supplement to keep you awake 24/7. However, all other residents sleep, leaving you with a lot of time on your hands. Most objectives give you an hour-count timestamp showing when they need to be completed, but it’s actually pretty hard to keep track of what time and what day it is. The world itself is pretty bleak, so there’s no difference between day and night. Hours pass pretty quickly, and it’s actually pretty hard to determine beforehand how long something will take, or whether the game will pause the time for you. It’s easier to grasp this in the easier difficulty but damn near impossible in the hard – or “Government Elite” – mode.
Despite some of these flaws, Beholder is a very welcomed addition to any indie library. It’s worth at least a few playthroughs because of the number of choices that can be made. I also highly recommend the DLC as a companion to the original game, as it seems to iron out a lot of problems I experienced with the original. I will also recommend playing this game on PC as opposed to a console. I played Beholder on PS4, and this is definitely one game I would have preferred to play on PC because of the point-and-click nature of the interface. The UI isn’t the friendliest for PS4, but the game was still very playable regardless.
Beholder isn’t simply an adventure game- the game’s ambiance, characters, and reliance on the player’s own morality and ethics to make decisions allow the game to stand out. Not only were there multiple times that I found myself questioning whether or not I should turn in an individual to the government (or The Ministry), I felt a distinct uneasiness knowing that these sort of actions are, and could be one day, commonplace in our own society.