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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Orwell Review and Analysis

Privacy and surveillance are growing concerns for us as our lives become more and more accessible and our activities are put on display without much of a thought. Social media presence is a normal part of our lives and ways to spread our information and ideas have expanded to include not just text, but sound, images and video. The growing concern over who has access to what information and for what purpose it is to be used is understandable, as the ramifications of potential overreach by government bodies, law enforcement agencies, and even private businesses with enough resources to do so are indeed dire. If one’s thoughts are shared online and those thoughts are censored by those who deem them to be unacceptable, then what happens to our supposed freedom to practice and profess individual beliefs?

While the subject itself is a very complex one, it’s one that is beyond the scope and ability of my blog. The gravity of its importance, however, I feel is reflected in a surge of video games that deal with the subject of surveillance and authority. It seems that the fear of fascism has brought about a creative reaction akin to (and obviously inspired by) literary classics such as 1984, Brave New World, or Kallocain (admittedly, that one is less well-known, I just like it.) Or perhaps it’s not fear in each case, but curiosity that drives some to convey through story and interaction the processes through which control is maintained. Though the motives may differ, the fact is that game designers feel compelled to create games in which the player is put into the role of the arm of the state. Having noticed this trend, I decided I would do a short series on this sub-genre, looking at several games that feature a dubiously-cast protagonist who holds the power to actualize the efforts to constrain personal privacy for a more security-focused state government. For today I’m going to look at a game that allows the player access to a sophisticated network of information, tasked with tracking down and potentially thwarting would-be terrorists through seemingly mundane clues, such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or chat logs. Today’s game is indie developer Osmotic Studios’ Orwell.

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Orwell’s intent is known instantly through its title, the name of the author who wrote 1984. It is also the name of the surveillance network in the game that allows you to dig through people’s personal information and conversations to further investigations of their potential threat to public safety. As an average person who happens to live outside of The Nation, where most events in the game take place, you are handled by an agent who guides you through a one-way feed. In order to gain authorization to gather information on individuals, they must be deemed a potential threat. Once some connection to dangerous activity is established, you may then expand your search, generating a web of potential conspirators and terrorists.

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Enter a caption

The interface is simple to master. Drag and drop pieces of information highlighted within news stories, websites, chat logs and more to establish a dossier. It is a pretty simple game, but there are some mechanics that ensure the choices you make do matter. First off, as the investigator, you choose what information is put into Orwell. You may choose to grab superfluous information, or omit some entirely, although there are points where omitting information will leave you stuck until you just drag the link over to the left side of the screen and cause the next part of the story to go. In that sense, there isn’t infinite freedom, but Orwell isn’t supposed to be an open world game, so that’s not really an issue. You also will find data that Orwell flags as contradictory. This is where you will use the information you’ve found otherwise to decide which information is correct—or perhaps which will get you to your end goal. Once the day is over, you will have one last chance to update any information, then your authorized access to that information will expire.

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This is one of a several ways a day can end.

The options Orwell gives you are intended to make you think about what should and should not be considered private. Who is worth investigating and what actions are truly dangerous? Are the checks in the Orwell system enough to ensure relative freedom? Does the oversight of a handler and the required authorization to investigate hitherto unrelated persons counteract the fact that Orwell can remotely inspect computers so long as they are on? Furthermore, because you, the investigator, are the only one authorized to sift through the information, it is up to you what exactly your handler is shown. You can leave certain facts out if you feel they are irrelevant, or you wish to guide your adviser down a certain path of reasoning.

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It’s like a game of spy telephone.

I’m not one to belabor realism in games about computer technology or hacking. There are many times where its obvious that the way Orwell and its interface when entering computers and phones to extract data are overly-simplistic. This is fine. Most people aren’t familiar with the technical aspects of their computers, and many of those who are aren’t going to be too bent out of shape by some “Hollywood hacking.” While immersion is definitely important to the game’s creators, verisimilitude is not the chief goal Orwell. Its clear that its message is the main point and the game its vehicle. There are, however, a few times that Orwell could have had a little more thought put into the realism of its design, such as displaying remote PCs as if we are seeing their desktops, but populating folders that link directly to browser history and archived e-mails is a bit too convenient to retain disbelief. In my opinion, it would have been better to forgo the desktop display and just stick to a custom interface. Orwell is already a rather fantastic concept; why not go that one step further and have each aspect of the game be a constructed part of its eponymous software?

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I mean, if someone just has two files that say “Sys” and “Private” well, maybe they shouldn’t be too surprised someone found out all their secrets.

But as I said, this game’s heart is its message. The social and political spheres of our world seem to be coming apart at the seams. To many, we are indeed walking towards, or perhaps already living in, the future that author George Orwell had depicted in his books, one of manipulation, surveillance, and cruel fascism hidden behind a face of stern nationalism. The analogy may not be a one-to-one match, but it’s difficult to deny the Orwell the game let’s us explore the notion that our data is our identity, and that our contexts are becoming irrelevant. Rigid adherence to a strict code of law, necessitated by the purported need for stronger national security, could render the hodgepodge of thoughts, opinions and affiliations we make online acts of self-incrimination. Profiling and arresting a group deemed a threat to authority, activities that continue to enjoy historical precedence, could be as simple as a click, drag, or drop. Will you catch the terrorists? Or will you aid the rebels? Are those people one in the same? With the information you compile, what perspective will you have?

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Criminal? corporate executive? Both? Or…

While there are elements to Orwell that are perhaps a bit too simplistic and optimistic towards the end—everything kind of falls into place too nicely, the game does let you fiddle with your decisions and toy with what results you will get, opening or closing off lines of dialogue as you go. Unfortunately, it can be all too easy to mess something up and find yourself getting the same result. This is standard fare for the investigative, visual novel-lie game, but you don’t have the option to save at any point. The game auto-saves after you add information. This does give a suspenseful finality to your decision-making, but means that if you want to try for a different outcome, you may be replaying the game from the beginning more than you’d like. Still, it’s an interesting experience that asks you to make decisions that affect the fates of total strangers.

The last thing I will say is that sometimes I worry that I harp too much on the negatives of a game. Truth be told, I have been compelled to go back and play Orwell over again several times. If you are the type who likes a story-heavy game that you can carefully manipulate, then you’re in for a treat—Orwell is definitely worth playing.

Zavix Tower Review

I’ve been on a bit of a hunt recently for a particular kind of game. You see, I’ve had a hankering for an old-school dungeon crawler with complex, if not obtuse, systems of character management. You know the type, where you pick a warrior, a mage, a thief, or whatever you want and make a party and outfit them and go trekking into a horde of monsters or an evil king’s castle… Something like the Ultima series, but not Ultima.

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Or hell, maybe just Ultima. (source)

I figured since such a game, though requiring a finesse in balancing and coding, really doesn’t need a huge amount of resources to design, the indie community was certain to have what I wanted. However, it seems that RPG Maker games and overly-sexualized anime games are more en vogue, and whenever an “innovative” adventure game is released, the style gravitates towards “gritty, hardcore 16-bit game”. I don’t have anything against these games. They’re just not what I’m looking for. I thought I had finally found it though, my barebones adventure RPG… However it seems I may have been too keen on sloppy design (or perhaps the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia is making me forget just how unsatisfying those old games can be…) I shouldn’t be too negative, though—it’s an okay game, it just lacks that finesse I mentioned earlier. Also the interface is less minimalist and more lazy. But enough of the vague assessments, today’s game is Zavix Tower.

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So as I said before, Zavix Tower is a dungeon-crawler RPG with a customizable party system that throws you into your adventure and basically lets you go with minimal hand-holding. You start out by assembling a party of four, customizing their stats and abilities, as well as their race and gender, though the latter are more cosmetic than anything else. Then you’re thrown into the eponymous Zavix Tower. Here you will wander and encounter enemies, find treasure, the works! Though it is fairly straightforward and functional, the gameplay leaves something to be desired.

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The most bustling of towns.

If you played the first few expansions of World of Warcraft, you’ll quickly recognize where this game borrows a lot of its game elements. The abilities and talent trees are built pretty closely to match the command and talent trees of the MMO. Of course, World of Warcraft doesn’t have the exclusive rights to such things, but in some circumstances, it really looks like things were lifted and modified, as opposed to simply being inspired by the aesthetic.

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Though warriors do have mana instead of rage.

There is a story involved in the game but, frankly, it’s pretty stock. The heroes travel into a tower in search of treasure, fame, and, ultimately, conquering the unseemly power at the top of the tower. It’s all fairly easy to overlook, but it’s also not the main draw of the game. I will say, however, that the text boxes suffer from a lack of effort—the text is often off-center and can occasionally don’t stay within their frames. This makes the dungeon-crawler gameplay, something heavily reliant on the usability of the game’s interface, rather difficult to enjoy.

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So a goblin, a succubus, and a wolf walk into a tower…

Even with time, you don’t get used to the issues the game has—difficulty reading, selecting, and at times even moving never really cease. Unfortunately, Zavix Tower failed to satisfy my craving. With talent trees, ability names and more reminiscent of early versions of World of Warcraft, and a slipshod attempt at design, this game lets you down in many ways. There is a working game here, however, so if you’re the type who likes to overcome such challenges, by all means—but I for one was not pleased with the unfinished feel of this game. You may want to explore the menacing Zavix Tower, but you won’t likely come out. Not because you will be overwhelmed by the enemies, but you’ll likely just lose interest.

A Healer Only Lives Twice Review

Whenever we play games, as the common narrative goes, we do so to enter a world where we are the hero, the invincible savior. Oftentimes, that means we’re the strong, dauntless fighter whose perseverance and well-rounded skills ensure victory. However, any RPG player knows that there’s only so much a fighter can do, so long a warrior can go before even they fall to the endless onslaught of their enemies. They need someone who can support them, someone who can tend to their wounds and embolden them in the face of overwhelming odds. That someone is the healer! … Okay, sometimes they’re the bard, but usually they’re the healer. And in today’s game, the focus is definitely on the cleric, the priest, the shaman, the spiritualist who brings solace and mends with all their might. After all…

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A Healer Only Lives Twice throws you into the role of the healer backing up a knight while escaping a dungeon. As you progress, you have to learn and upgrade abilities and spells to ensure you and your escort survive. You also have to keep track of materials you find to create special items, monitor your torch to light the way, and direct the knight when choosing which line of enemies to attack. Quite the to-do list! But you have a variety of spells, providing the knight regeneration, protection, strength, and more, to help you survive as long as possible.

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Aw, I meant to queue up as DPS!

Most of the gameplay comes from balancing the skills you use to the limited health of the knight and mana of the healer. Conserving mana and managing health becomes further complicated by time. Though the dungeon doesn’t allow light in, mana regeneration is better at night while health regeneration is better during the day. Mastering mindful decisions early is key to success later on, when monsters will charge much faster and your mana will drop more quickly.

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Fight for life and limb! And limb life!

If the knight dies, it’s game over. However, in this game, once you die you start back where you started, with the healer waking up from a nightmare and able to take all that was learned from the endeavor and put it towards stronger spells and special skills that will make your healing and protection more potent. Keep a stiff upper lip and build your healing powers and maybe you’ll see the light of day again. Maybe…

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Heal-ception.

My main complaints lie with the item mechanics and drop rates. So often you will find yourself missing one ingredient that you will never be able to effectively make a scroll or potion. Further, torches are too sparse and burn out too quickly. You can level up torch use, but I feel like it’s a mostly unnecessary portion of the game.

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Skills you can improve that aren’t torch-related.

A Healer Only Lives Twice is a decent diversion for those looking for a quick strategy fix. The learning curve is a bit steep but that is part of the fun of it. The rush lost in the formulaic nature of the fight mechanics is restored through the need to be nimble when selecting and strengthening skills. One wrong decision, and you may not have what it takes to keep your partner standing. While there are some aspects I think could be improved, A Healer Only Lives Twice is a solid, engrossing game. Even though it can be overwhelming at first, you needn’t worry if your knight buddy dies. You just simply have to wake up, shake it off, and try again.

Let’s Play! Ferrum Secrets: Where is Grandpa? Part 1

I thought I’d start something a little different. I have been considering reviewing a handful of jarring, unimpressive puzzle games that I got on Steam for less than a dollar (total), but not much really stood out about them that you couldn’t tell from their descriptions and screenshots. I pressed on, however, intent on finding something interesting. This led me to “Ferrum Secrets Where Is Grandpa?” or as my Steam menu says “Ferrum’s Secrets: where is grandpa?” I think it was the oddly sinister title, what with its foreboding secrets about lovable old grandpa, that drew me to this one in particular. After a bit of play, however, I felt like a review wouldn’t be enough. So instead I decided to play through the whole game. I’m just not sure I could express how odd this game is without accidentally enticing someone to waste their money. I suppose I couldn’t stop you either way, but I hope you’ll find this to be enough. Also, bear with me. It gets progressively more… strange as you play.

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A Quick Update

Hey, everyone! Your ol’ pal Shell here!

This past week I’ve been moving and starting a new job, so I haven’t had much time to write really. However, that’s all settling down so I should be coming back shortly. My goal is to have a new post by Saturday.

I’ll also take this time to thank everyone who is following me. It really does mean a lot that you find me interesting enough to keep tabs. 🙂

Hope everyone out there is doing great. See you again soon!

Zero Time Dilemma: Deconstruction of Choice in Video Games

I apologize that I haven’t been posting much lately. I’m kind of preparing to move and being in that phase leaves me feeling rather blasé about writing. I have found time, however, to play a new game from start to finish, and since I just finished it last night, I think I’d like to discuss it here. It just so happens the game is Zero Time Dilemma (3DS), the final game in the puzzle/visual novel Zero Escape trilogy. And today’s prompt is dilemma – what are the odds? I’m likely going to slip in and out of spoiler territory, so be forewarned.

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