Beholder is a game about morals, ethics, and choices. Beholder puts the lives of hard-working families in your hands and whispers, “Do what you will with them.” This game has you manage an apartment building in a totalitarian state not unlike Soviet Russia. Is it fun? Well, is the frantic juggling of life’s little puzzles fun? Is quietly humming to yourself while you pretend to soothe your anxiety while building a desk from Ikea fun? Is real life fun? If you answered “yes” to those questions, then you are going to LOVE Beholder. It’s fun for those of us who want to play games but need them to be grounded in a dark historical reality.
You are Carl Stein, and you are hired to manage an apartment building. Neat! You move your entire family into this apartment building and are then given a drug that allows you to work through the night so you don’t have to sleep. The last building manager did not do a good job and was dragged out in handcuffs. Less neat! Early on it is explained to you that you must make “The Ministry” happy, or the same fate might befall you. Those are the stakes. You are to hate what is happening to you but feel trapped in it. The game does a fantastic job of blooming these feelings within you.
The order of play is as follows: You receive a task, you have a time-limit on the task, most tasks beget another task, and more than one task can be running at a time. When Beholder is at its most challenging, you will have several things to do all ticking down and limited resources with which to accomplish them. Each task is unique, and you will need to use different tricks in order to properly “investigate” your tenants in order to get information. By investigate, I mean spying. Placing cameras throughout your building and straight-up breaking into tenants’ homes is how you play Beholder. You receive two currencies for your troubles: money and reputation. This allows you to buy certain items that will help you along your wretched journey.
Once you get the hang of these mechanics, you’ll be fine. However, the beginning tutorials are not exactly diligent about holding your hand through a task to completion. You will feel lost until you don’t, then you’ll feel panic. Also, there is a wellspring of menus, and they just don’t quit. The left menu holds all of your items. The right menu has 5 separate tabs that all house different functionalities. There is a shop. Every surface in the game can be looted. One hour into the game, my head was spinning with math. There is an exhilaration to this, but streamlining some of these systems wouldn’t have hurt this game at all.
Beholder looks pretty good but not always great. The character models all have that breathy, black-and-white atmospheric haze that is reminiscent of Limbo. The playground itself is Gotham City-esque. When I first fired up the game, my first thought was, “How much is this going to be like Papers, Please?” If you haven’t played Papers, Please, do yourself a favor and play it immediately. On “paper” Beholder sounds like a similar concept. Then I saw this:
Wow! These game devs weren’t even trying to hide the correlation. These are both Soviet-era games where you work a mundane job with hard choices and difficult outcomes. Honestly, I don’t mind that there are two of these. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if this turned into a whole new genre. Sure, it’s dark and bleak. However, the illusion of real choices in games is a novel idea that has never fully fleshed itself out. Historically, games that offer you this choice seemed to zero in on an idea that morality swung from “good” choices and “bad” choices. Here you just have choices. Some of them will hurt you, and some of them will hurt others. Some will help others and hurt different people. In the end, you try to make choices that best represent yourself in these situations. Good and bad don’t have much to do with it. Carl Stein (you) at the end of his life will either think “I did my best” or “I am full of regret.” At least in Beholder you have the chance to do it again and again.
I had to play through this game several times in order to get a “good” ending, and I never received the “best” ending. In fact, I died a million times and got “terrible” endings. This is brilliant game design. Much like a choose your own adventure book, you will want to start fresh runs of Beholder to try and best your last attempt. The game practically beckons you to return, making its replay value incredibly high. Each attempt can take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours depending on how thorough you are.
Oh, and guess what? There is DLC! Beholder: Complete Edition for the Nintendo Switch includes Blissful Sleep. Remember the last building manager who was forcibly thrown out? His name is Hector, and you get to play as him. If you are steeped in Beholder lore, then this is a quick hot gulp of fill-in-the-gaps. Hey, more content is more content, and there is definitely more content here. The only thing I wish is that there was more of a change to the environment or gameplay in the DLC. I do not have a solution for this, but it was a little eye-rolly to have to go back to the literal same place we started. Perhaps it would have been better if the DLC took place in a different apartment across town or whatever. That being said, Blissful Sleep is just as dark, depressing, and challenging as the main Beholder game.
Developer: Warm Lamp Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 6th December 2018 (Nintendo Switch), 16th January 2018 (PS4), 19th January 2018 (Xbox One)