Beholder: A Resource Management Game Where Your Resource is the Suffering of Others
WTF is Beholder?
Beholder is a video game that came out in November 2016, in which players take on the role of a landlord named Carl who’s been tasked with spying on his tenants in service to a dictator. Gameplay involves hiding a bunch of cameras, taking notes about what your tenants do, tracking the notes against an ever-expanding list of outlawed activities, filling out really particular paperwork and – much less often – making a moral choice about whether or not to help someone.
The central premise of Beholder, as sold in its advertising, is that landlord Carl can either be evil and ruin the lives of the people in his building, or “risk his life to save them.”
In this case, game mechanics are everything
Remembering that time I turned evil as soon as I started Tyranny, I made a solemn vow during the opening cutscene of Beholder, and swore that I would protect Carl’s family first, but then do everything in my power to avoid destroying his beleaguered tenants. I determined that I would go against the central premise of the game by staying as ignorant as possible so that I couldn’t report anyone to the police.
That plan went out the window after 20 minutes.
By that point, Carl’s daughter needed $20,000 for antibiotics, his son needed $15,000 to stay in school, I was trying to smuggle a tall, skinny man and his wife out of the country, and everyone wanted whiskey from me. My reward for multitasking really well was that the tasks kept getting more expensive and, perhaps because all of this happened in the space of three game days, nobody even paid rent.
After restarting a whole bunch of times and failing miserably, I went online and found out that the only way to keep Carl’s family from marching toward certain death is to stall every task that doesn’t have a timer while repeatedly blackmailing everyone for crimes like reading books and owning apples. Even though this went against my morals and my inborn need for efficiency, I did as instructed and, from there, it was a slippery slope to planting extra evidence to blackmail people with, calling the police on someone just because, and encouraging one tenant to kill another one so I could steal her stuff.
We have some compelling evidence at this point that maybe I am evil, but I’d like to offer an alternative explanation: Beholder is structured like a resource management game – it rewards you for farming X, selling for Y, and doing that in a timely way. Within that framework, players are encouraged to see the tenants as resource mines – important only because you’re rewarded with coins for blackmailing them or turning them over to the police. Especially in the later stages of the game, when tenants start to come and go more quickly, and you don’t have time to get to know them personally, it’s hard to see them as characters rather than tools.
Because Carl’s family requires such an extraordinary amount of money to live, and because there is literally no way to make money except by doing something wrong, trying to stick to real-world morals in Beholder is like trying to play Grand Theft Auto without committing a crime; maybe you can, but it’s not the experience you’re incentivised to have.
The game is designed so that you’ll play most effectively zoomed out
I mean that literally and figuratively. Carl’s building has six apartments plus a common area and the space his family lives in, in the basement. In order to see everything and plan your next steps most effectively, the best thing to do is zoom all the way out – to a point where you can’t hear the “peas and carrots” dialogue the characters are having, or see the details of their animations. Combined with the stylized, silhouette-like character design, it creates a huge sense of distance from what’s happening, and helps explain why, even though dictatorships are largely sustained through fear, Beholder doesn’t really seem that scary.
The horror of dictatorship comes from being zoomed in – inside the hearts and minds of human beings struggling with impossible decisions. Beholder doesn’t bring the player anywhere near that kind of introspection; it’s more like a grisly skin for Diner Dash than like the game equivalent of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Almost to the point that it seems like a very dark attempt at satire.
And, while I’m kind of into it as a dark attempt at satire, I’m not sure that’s what it was supposed to be.
The gameplay experience is also not always straightforward
I tried to play this game with an Xbox controller, and that straight-up didn’t work. I couldn’t select all of the hotspots I needed, thumbing through Carl’s notebook was buggy, and I ran into a lot of issues where I lost time because I couldn’t B out of the pop-up windows easily. I also couldn’t zoom in and out very well, had a rough time moving between floors, and couldn’t always see which dialogue options were highlighted when I tried to choose one.
The mouse and keyboard offered a much smoother experience – and I notice that most of the in-game directions seem to assume that that’s the interface you’re using. I know this is a big faux pas, but it might have been better to just declare that there wasn’t controller support instead of trying to tack it on.
There were a few design issues as well, the main one being a bit of a throwback to early 1990s adventure games, where you can arrive in act three only to discover that you’re perma-fucked by something you did in act one. That’s fine if you want to play once, casually, and just drink in the experience. It’s annoying if you want to find the optimal path and have to do a total restart every time you try.
In conclusion, the game I played was different than the trailers made it seem
Beholder, taken as itself, with zero expectation, is kind of a black comedy resource management game that can provide a few hours of entertainment if you play with a keyboard and mouse. Taken in the context of an emotional-looking trailer about life and death moral decisions, it’s… not exactly what was promised.