Beholder: Orwellian eye
Updated: Jul 21
(Full disclosure: I have been involved in the betas for Beholder one and two. The former was the result of Greenlight voting.)
Beholder was a game that I had my eye on (that pun was most certainly intended) for some time now. How could it not? A management survival game based in an Orwellian nightmare city with you being part of the government, it is an interesting idea with loads of potential. The biggest problem the beta had going against it, was the spelling and general lack of polish . Beholder is the first game from Warm Lamp Games and it’s fantastic start.
Carl Stein and his family have been transferred to a Class D apartment complex on Krushvitze 6. A grim apartment complex in a city clothed only in blacks and whites. While there, Carl has to fight to keep his family afloat, run an apartment complex and keep in the good graces of an increasingly erratic government. These goals often conflict with one another and Carl’s morality is put to the test. The story is quite decent even if it has some contrivance to it.\
The opening conveniently explains to you why you have no need for sleep. It reads as someone trying to patch up a plot hole at the last minute. However asides from that little bit of contrivance the writing is otherwise pretty good. The gradual sense of escalation is done well, with the government deeming more and more things to be illegal-things that can get your own family in trouble: like reading a book.
However, the characters (personally) never struck me as particularly interesting or memorable. The dialogue strikes much in terms of character. Martha is the innocent little girl who might die tragically due to the state failure. But she is little else then that. An innocent two dimensional creature who only asks her dad to play ball with her and little else, Anna and Carl have a tension filled relationship that suggests anger towards the state but it is never truly explored. They act catty towards each other and that’s it. The cast never really fleshes out and become something really special. While people can claim that is the point: they are simply fodder for the state. But unfortunately it does not make for compelling story telling.
What dystopia are we in again:
Warm lamp games: being a Serbian dev team, would have undoubtedly have either had some firsthand experience/ known people who were present during the Soviet occupation of Serbia. However it’s not overtly inspired by real world Soviet era governments per say, there are decrees of Stalin/ Lenin era controls (such as banning of anything non patriotic, frequent use of comrade as a unifier, withholding passports and other documents to control citizens etc).
In reality, Beholder is heavily influenced by novels such as 1984 (which can be seen as a comment of Stalinist Russia). The seemingly endless Ministries, the brutal police that enforce a number of arbitrary rules that threaten the state in some way and the fact privacy does not exist. Beholder is no Bioshock and it’s not ashamed of that. Its use of an Orwellian style setting brings a wonderful set of moral questions about survival and family. The oppressive threat of government action looms above the heads of everyone in Beholder which is brought across wonderfully through newspapers and various government actions (propaganda broadcasts etc) .
Choices, choices and more choices:
As with many games (Until Dawn, Bioware games and TellTale games ) Beholder advertises itself as being a game about choices and how they will totally effect the rest of the game. In the case of TellTale and Bioware choices made do not affect the overall story as a whole (mostly smoke and mirrors and maybe a change in hats.).
Beholder falls more into the Until Dawn category, where choices do matter to an existent. When the game threatens the death of a person, they not only stay dead but the game makes damn sure you are aware of it. If you give a person the wrong advice, they will remember it and people will not be willing to ask for your help.This consistent reminder that failure will have real damage creates a nice degree of tension and helplessness. Kind of like that time when you struggle to decide if blackmailing a depressed alcoholic is really the way forward.
Beholder has a mixture of point and click stirred in with management mechanics. You have to make sure the apartment complex is running smoothly by spending and earning money. But in order to get Carl around to spy on the tenants and rummage through their personal belongings, you have to click on the various objects and spaces. It not a bad system, the controls are quite tight and responsive with an interface that is easy to use and navigate.
Management comes in the form of two currencies: That being money and reputation points. You gain both by completing government tasks. Money which can be used to buy and upgrade items and reputation points such measure what your reputation is like with everyone. Allowing any of these to drop to zero will result in a bad ending. This becomes a tense game of balancing finaicals that can easily spiral out of control. The government might force you to spend money you might be hoping to save for your sick child. The constant threat of financial loss can resort to you doing some amoral things. Which brings me too...
I’m watching you:
Wouldn’t be an Orwellian nightmare with mass surveillance would it? Each of the four apartments can be fitted to hold cameras so the population can be effectively monitored. As your job involves making sure the tenants remain loyal to the state. Should they misbehave (like eating an apple, reading a book or crying in the wrong place) you have the option to profile their behavior and report any disloyalty to the state. However if you want to try keep your tenant for whatever reason you can blackmail them with the information. I do wish the amount of money increases for each offending item instead of a static price. Reporting to the government offers more money at the cost of a tenant that is often replaceable.
Some quests (such as government orders and certain quests) are timed based. As your choices have consequences: failing to achieve the quests can have terrible effect on Carl and those around him. This works well to push the player into doing some really terrible actions in order to serve or protect. It melds into the theme of morality well and creates an atmosphere of desperation. The less important quests don’t get a time limit which allows for a little bit of pacing and rest from the panic.
Graphics and art style:
The graphics are rather low quality with a zoomed in camera. But ultimately it does not matter. The monochrome art style is beautiful in its sheer bleakness. I love the distinct, almost doll like quality the character models have. Their shape, being the only distinctive feature in a world almost void of colour and individuality. This art style melds with the thematic oppression perfectly.
Beholder is a good game. Don’t get me wrong, I have had no regrets playing through it and might even replay it again someday. I wish the characters were a little more real, then it could have been something great. A great game for a single play through.