Beholder Review – A Terrifyingly Realistic Panopticon
Discipline and punish.
Developer: Warm Lamp Games
Publisher: Alawar Premium
1. Beholder – a person who becomes aware (of things or events) through the senses
Perhaps, out of mere curiosity, you’ve succumbed to an episode of Big Brother and were intrigued by the way other human beings behaved when they were aware of being filmed. Perhaps you’ve read through Orwell’s classic 1984 and clearly remember turning the last page in utter dismay as you vowed to go off the grid. Whatever your motivations, the idea that we are all being watched as if we were specimens on a petri dish has been circulating for a long time, and this is exactly the premise upon which Beholder is based.
Beholder is an unapologetically bleak examination of power and the decisions we make for the sake of self-preservation, even when those decisions spell disaster for others. In its tangible dystopia, you assume the role of an omnipotent landlord who must track the activity of his tenants or else face punishment: A chilling opening cutscene illustrates the consequences of failing to follow directives from the Ministry of Order, which comes across as even more sinister because of Beholder’s minimalist art style. Characters are portrayed as black, faceless silhouettes, not unlike Limbo’s memorable protagonist. Carl Stein the Landlord simultaneously embodies the spirit of archetypal family man and brazen executioner; A frightening dualism that is largely left up to the player to manage.
Probably best described as a mishmash of management sim and RPG, Beholder’s gameplay consists of helping Carl accumulate money and reputation points, the latter of which is like a moral trophy system that can be used to gain people’s trust and manipulate them into making particular decisions. It’s such a creepy, realistic prospect, which is further heightened by the dark, atmospheric jazz soundtrack with sudden, sharp orchestral touches. It feels very much like an invisible menacing aura, slowly unfurling its claws towards you. Figuring out how to play Beholder isn’t exactly a breeze – you can’t wing it and hope for the best, because like me, you might fail to meet a directive and end up publicly attacked and humiliated by those in power. In-game tutorials will teach you how to profile tenants, create blackmail letters, and install surveillance cameras in their apartments to carry out the Ministry’s various edicts. Of course, there’s some wiggle room; You’ll often be presented with choices that have varying degrees of leniency, but some, like the decision to pay for your daughter’s medical bills or forward the money to prevent your son being expelled from university, are not so easy to make.
Using the WASD keys to navigate between the different rooms, you can easily observe what’s going on with each tenant, and gather the necessary evidence to profile or convict them. Every so often, government directives are released stipulating what is and isn’t legal. They pop up like notifications on a smartphone, and throughout the course of the game become increasingly totalitarian, to the extent that crying is outlawed. As ridiculous as this government seems, all the tenants at 6 Krushvice Street are bound by its regulations, and Carl is expected to enforce them in addition to taking care of his own family. Tasks eventually build up, so prioritising what needs to be done most urgently is a key component of Beholder’s gameplay and helps direct the narrative – one which is flexible, open-ended, and can be significantly influenced by player decisions. Despite the pervasive negativity in many of the people and situations in Beholder’s world, it’s interesting that Carl has some level of ability to genuinely help others if he chooses the more virtuous and more discouraged path.
Ultimately, Beholder is a study of the human condition. Like the Milgram experiment before it, it exposes disturbing psychological truths about social power structures and man’s apparent helplessness when it comes to defying them, and the very real, inextinguishable sense of fear that manifests when we do. Through its minimalist aesthetic, brooding melodies and timed-objective based gameplay, Beholder creates a palpable tension in the player that is temporarily (but never completely) relieved when they bow to power – an endless, seemingly inescapable cycle.
Interested players can try out Beholder today on PC, Mac and Linux for a discounted price of $4.99 USD (available until February 24).