Beholder Review & Analysis

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.

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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.

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The last landlord. Surely you’ll do a better job.

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.

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The perfect, dingy room from which to monitor your tenants!

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.

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Keep track of reports, blackmail, and turn people in all from one convenient desk!

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.

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You can always take a stab at something new…

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.

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Dazed and Confused

Confusion is commonly used to create uneasy tension in media. Video games are no different. I’m a little tired today so I may not say much, but what I do want to talk about is an example of an RPG plot line that utilizes confusion to drive it from start to finish. Of course, the game itself was a beautiful example of the PlayStation 1 era incomplete RPG, so a lot of it left the player a little confused, but I still really enjoyed it.

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Bet you thought I’d go for the status effect.

SaGa Frontier was a game I didn’t play until about 2015, but it still became one of my favorites. This is in spite of the fact that the translation is abysmal, the mechanics are poorly balanced, and the game was just not finished. There’s something about it that really appeals to me, and one day I will probably talk more about it! However today I’m just going to talk about one person’s story. The story of Asellus.

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She’s the finest regal clown conductor in all the land!

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So the Drama – Chrono Trigger and Dramatic Direction

What makes for a good dramatic moment in video games?

And to be clear, I’m talking about grand, sudden, striking events that stir us, not maudlin, over-the-top moments of melodrama. Of course it’s all too easy to mess something up and cross the line from the former to the latter, but I’m more concerned with what makes us feel the stakes in a game are real or care about the events transpiring. While I’ve talked before about how difficult it can be to convey emotional video game content to people who haven’t played the game themselves, I do want to offer some examples of dramatic elements in a game. For this, I’m going to look at Square’s Chrono Trigger.

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Fingerbones Review and Analysis

I finally found some time and willpower today to sit down and finish a task I had inadvertently started. It began with a game that drew me in with its striking aesthetic, and continued with a meandering trip from one that preceded said game to one that followed it. By chance, the fourth and final David Szymanski game (as of this writing) for me to review is actually his Steam debut. Like The Moon Sliver, The Music Machine, and A Wolf in Autumn, Fingerbones is a short, first-person perspective, psychological horror game. As it is the first, it understandably has less complexity in its design, storytelling, and puzzles. I’m not going to pay too much attention to those faults, as they are clearly addressed in Szymanski’s later games. Furthermore, the game is free on Steam, so there’s likely little reason in addressing the mechanics and enjoyability of the game as anyone can easily play it for themselves and see what it’s like. So instead, I’m only going to briefly touch on the gameplay and then dive straight into what has become a mainstay for my reviews of these games: examining the story. Needless to say, the plot will be spoiled here, so if you have any interest in playing, don’t read on. Also, the game features blood, references to sexual abuse, murder, and dismembered body parts, so if that isn’t your thing, don’t play the game. With all that aside, let’s get started!

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Choice of the Dragon Review

Awhile back I alluded to the desire for more dragons in my reviews. Well, I, for one, am not about to let random, barely-known, non-readers down! It just so happens that I stumbled upon a little game that is both about dragons and related to something I’ve written about in the past. Also I actually like dragons, so perhaps I have an ulterior motive. Well, no matter! The reasoning doesn’t mean much in the long run. So perhaps I’ll quit kidnapping your time and just move onto the meat of the matter. Today’s pick from my hoard is a game I picked up on my cell phone. It’s another choose-your-own adventure style game called Choice of the Dragon.

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Promotional Image for Choice of the Dragon

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The “Art Game” and The Lady Review/Analysis

Are video games art? Undeniably. They are the amalgamation of a variety of creative expertise that result in a product rendered unique by the joining. As the film takes sound, images, acting, lighting, digital effects and editing to create a cohesive, immersive experience, so too does the video game. However, the question of artistry is so often more layered than that. Usually there’s an implication that “art” is something more than the construction of media—that there is a defining characteristic to “art” that moves beyond directly informing the audience’s reactions through conventions of form and becomes something that can be seen as a true statement on the part of the artist. There’s a snobbish air that comes with this thinking, as all forms of expression are statements from the perspective of the artist and are interpreted from the perspective of the viewer, however it isn’t necessarily an inherently wrong line of thinking.

In film, “art cinema” is a distinct style that is defined by the presence of the artist first and foremost—the film’s goal of achieving a cohesive narrative comes second to its role as a vehicle for the filmmaker’s message. While it’s not necessary to break the rules of film-making to accomplish such a task, it’s more likely that in order for the filmmaker to express themselves conventions must be manipulated or done away with entirely, setting it apart from the classical Hollywood style of film-making. Should a filmmaker wish to evoke the painful drudgery that is “everyday life” it may be necessary to do away with spacial and temporal familiarity and have characters appear and disappear from scenes that have no clear connection to each other. Perhaps sound will be highlighted in such a way that it overwhelms the visual, or people will behave as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening when something would strike the viewer as unusual. Without verisimilitude to fall back on, the viewer must now accept that the way they expect movies to behave (and life in this case) has been overridden, and their new job is to discover why. For some, this is an exercise in navel-gazing with no clear purpose (and thus a disappointment.) For others, it prompts intellectual curiosity (and perhaps soul-searching.) While neither response is necessarily more correct than the other, its important to understand that even if you consider what is happening a waste of time, an artistic intention was still there.

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Four different scenes in Elephant (2003). Similar shots all taking place at different times in a narrative chopped up between many different character’s perspectives.

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Choice of Robots Review and Analysis

Sometimes, it’s very easy to overlook the power of words. Lost amidst the bright flashing special effects and bold images, the written word’s communication seems to take a backseat, furnishing only integral information regarding the rules or plot. How they’re chosen, though still deliberate and important, is often an under-appreciated art in the video game world. Though often the analysis and respect for the written word is resigned to books, there is often much to be learned about our experiences in games through the text offered, from the meanings behind dialogue all the way down to the choice of the font. Of course, plenty of games do well with minimal visual stimulation—visual novels, adventure games and the like can easily shed their modern graphical veneer and still be unforgettable experiences. The most obvious style, and the one that today’s game uses, is that which forgoes all images and takes back some of the near-mystical wonder of words from books and stories: the text-based game; and Choice of Robots, from Choice Of Games, is a rather sprawling, thought-provoking one at that.

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That’s right. I’m doing screenshots of a text-based game. Text-in-text is the new big thing!

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