Take control of an apartment block. As the Landlord Carl, it’s up to you to look after the building and its tenants. There’s also your family to worry about. The bills are due, you must find the money to pay for your son’s education and your wife needs money for groceries.
On the face of it then, Beholder doesn’t sound that interesting. Challenging and filled with pressure, yes. But who wants to worry about utility bills and paperwork when you could be standing by for Titanfall?
Except you’re not just the Landlord. The state didn’t install you there to look after your residents’ well-being. You are there to monitor and profile them. You must investigate their habits and report any violations of the State’s many strict directives.
Set in a country under the rule of a totalitarian state that draws on various fictional and real regimes. Your only view of the world is a cross section of the building you manage. The ant-farm style view will be familiar to anyone who has played recent XCOM games or mobile games such as Tiny Tower. You are not an omnipresent force, however, but must guide your avatar throughout the building to talk to residents, install surveillance equipment and perform other various tasks.
Beholder’s visual style, perfectly matches the setting. Drab sepia tones mute the colours and give the building a suitable air of stagnation and decay. The characters are reduced to black shadows, almost representative of the superficial profiles you create about them. The voice acting, though imperfect, is saved for moments of narration that outlines your unfortunate demise. All the games interactions are communicated through subtitles and garbled mumbling. The writing is simple, but conveys the nuances of the various characters well. Your wife can be brusque, poorly masking her unhappiness, making moments where you do something right all the more satisfying. Whether a tenant is there for most of the game or barely stays in the apartment for a few days, the characters feel distinct, should you seek to learn about them.
Beholder truly conveys the chilling nature of totalitarian bureaucracy. You reduce your tenants lives to nothing more than a few lines on a form. Even you are subjected to unforeseen and arbitrary fines. Trying to understand the world outside is difficult. While your tenants come and go, you are trapped there. You must glean what information you can from your residents or read the state newspaper to try and piece together what events are unfolding in your country.
The meat and potatoes of the game is walking around the building to talking to tenants, both about themselves or what they might think about others. When the tenants leave for work you can sneak into their rooms to search their belongings and install hidden cameras. Any illegal items you find will be highlighted, allowing you to log that item to the Tenants’ profile. There is no direct violence in Beholder, your power comes from filling out paperwork to profile and report those in your charge. Filling out the paperwork is simple and bland, yet can have dire consequences. Reporting on those who violate the arbitrary directives the state issues can result in their arrest and likely imprisonment or death.
The pace of the game ebbs and flows, one moment you’ll feel as if you have little to do, but tasks will gradually pile up, culminating awful moments of tension and pressure. You use your mouse to click on where you want your avatar to move, double clicking to run. The simple mechanic of being able to run results in these organic moments of organic and dramatic tension. You’ll be in the midst of searching an apartment when you see the bus drop the resident outside. Trying to rapidly search the last few drawers and spring out of the room is exhilarating. Though on occasions when you are caught the penalties aren’t all that severe.
The needs of the residents, your family, and the state rarely align making every choice difficult. There are numerous stories that can play out in multiple ways depending on your decisions. There is no easy moral high road to take, every decision has weight to it. Do you protect your family at the cost of your residents? Will you abuse your power and report an innocent Tenant for your own gain?
Beholder is excellent, every element conveys its message and theme. My only major criticism comes with the checkpoint system. There is no manual saving, instead, the game saves every time you receive a new task from the state. This can result in having to replay large sections of the game. At times it’s useful allowing you to take a different course and change important decisions, while at others it can be tedious and a little frustrating.
I reorganised my steam library several months ago into several macabre categories. Namely, the ways in which you cause death and destruction (Not sure if that says more about me or the majority of video games. Probably me). Among ‘Guns’, ‘Lines on the Map’ and ‘Sharks’ there is one small category that only contains a handful of games; ‘Decisions’. No game has fit that category more than Beholder. The game is about relationships and the impact of your decisions. Whether it’s the petty dislike you have of a certain tenant or the desire to make your daughter happy, every decision will hinge on your relationship with the NPCs. If you can get invested in this game, you’ll find it one of the most interesting pieces released this year.