Today I want to continue on the path of exploring security, privacy and surveillance by moving from the social and communicative, to the personal and intimate. A surveilling government agency is just as interested at what you’re doing in your home as they are what you’re saying online. When it comes down to it, physical investigation is such a familiar activity that we seldom give thought to it happening. We walk down the street with our bags, store secret items in our drawers, keep books, newspapers, notes… All these mundane parts of our physical worlds can become incriminating evidence in the right situation, with the right set of suspicious eyes, and the right paranoid governing body. What if you were asked to go through people’s things and observe their actions to ensure the stability of society? Beholder lets you find out.
Beholder is a game in which you play Carl Stein, the new landlord of a state-run apartment complex in a fascist country with many similarities to the USSR. This is both a way to make a living and garner prestige with the totalitarian government. However, it’s of course not as simple as collecting rent. Your other job is to spy on tenants and be sure to report violations of the constantly growing number of laws in the nation. Of course, you can decide to play nice and look out for their best interests, but you will wind up hamstringing your efforts along the way, necessitating some sacrifice and possibly betrayal in order to move forward. In this bleak, fascist environment, only a loyal party member with a good head on their shoulders can make it out alive with relative freedom.
The gameplay of Beholder revolves around interacting with other characters and investigating the apartment building. To gather useful information on tenants, Carl can be straightforward and chat with them, or wait for them to leave and sneak into their dwellings with his master key and install cameras to watch them. Doing this provides information that your superiors will pay for you turn over to them in the form of profiling reports. As time goes on, new things will become illegal, making it that much easier for Carl to find some reason to turn in those around them, especially if they trust him.
Carl makes money three ways: rent, reports and by selling items on the black market. The first two create an obvious tension, as you need to balance out how many people you get arrested and carted off, never to be seen again. A consistent tenant can also become useful in later assignments or requests made by others in the building. These requests can be fairly trivial, or they can be very important, resulting in life-or-death situations. One must use restraint, even when being a model comrade of the state—so long as your superiors don’t find out. To make up for some of the shortfall you can face, it is also possible to steal from your tenants and sell their contraband items, or blackmail them after you uncover evidence of wrongdoing.
But just what does Carl do with his money? There are times in the game where the Steins, Carl, his wife, son and daughter, need special amenities, such as candy or school books. There are also circumstances where the government will make a request of you, but insist on funding the operation yourself. These things may seem inconsequential, and in fact it’s very easy to forget money is even a factor, but there come points later on in the game that require it, and there are harsh penalties for not coughing up the funds. With a practical and moral balancing act at play, Beholder will take some thinking to see through to the end.
There are some less-than-polished parts of Beholder. The game has two modes, one during wartime (hard), and one during peacetime (casual). The former makes your decisions count much earlier, while the latter is a bit more loose with how Carl and his family suffer due to a mistake. Some things are rather convoluted, however, and you can find yourself locking up a later quest-line due to one tiny mistake at the beginning, which is frustrating to say the least. Beholder also has some issues with its translation, with slipped tenses, dropped articles, and changes in pronunciation by the narrator of the beginning and ending cutscenes.
While Orwell focused on the nebulous world of digital information in relation to privacy, Beholder brings the message much closer to home, with the subject of the invasion of ones physical space. When the home you live in is being monitored, where do you truly have a place to yourself? Carl can dig through drawers, spy through peepholes, watch video surveillance and more, all in the name of national security. By having you play in this role, Beholder puts the burden on you to decide and examine what it means to do the dirty work of a controlling government. Where is “too far”? Is it planting cameras in your neighbors apartment? Framing your wife for possession of illegal substances? Arming an unstable woman? Or perhaps there’s a greater good to maintaining the status quo and looking out for what’s important? If you’re wondering if you should try Beholder out, I’d say you should give it a look and go with your gut. If it looks intriguing, give it a go. If you’re not sure you’d be into it, give it a pass. It is an interesting role to play if you feel so inclined, but won’t hold much interest if you were just wanting to try something new.