US: 9 Nov 2016
Beholder casts you as a tool of an oppressive government. However, after playing Beholder for several hours, I still don’t really feel like the tool of an oppressive government.
Part of me thinks this is bad design, the game being unable to properly express its themes. Another part of me thinks its brilliant design, the game making me truly feel the banality of evil; how hard it is to care about other people’s shit when you’ve got so much of your own to deal with?
In Beholder you’re the manager of an apartment building in a totalitarian state. You’re supposed to spy on your tenants and report any illegal activity to your higher ups. I’m a tool of oppression, I’m suppressing speech, I’m enforcing ridiculous laws like “Don’t wear blue jeans”, “Don’t read”, and “Don’t keep red apples”. At least, in theory I am.
Beholder is the kind of game that sucks hours from your life because there’s always something to do, and time is always of the essence. I have 72 in-game hours to find a way to get a life-saving surgery for my daughter, 48 hours to find enough money to keep my son in school, and 12 hours to buy candy for my dying daughter.
Meanwhile, I also have to watch my tenants’ movements, rushing into their homes while they’re out, rummaging through all their stuff for dirt. Damn, they came home before I could search the bed, file that blank spot in the back of my mind and rush back there next time they leave. And install some cameras, too, so I can watch their actions in secret. Multiply all that by six for my six tenants, then somehow cut out time for blackmail and writing profiles.
It’s a good god damn lot to keep of track of at once, but it is possible. However, all that rushing around means I spend so much time working towards a level of peak efficiency that I don’t have time to stop and consider what that efficiency actually means. I don’t realize that I’m becoming an efficient tool. I should feel ashamed or guilty, but all I can think about is the next timer ticking down. The busyness distracts from the themes—unless that’s the central theme.
No matter what your political or ethical ideals are, you will toe the totalitarian line in Beholder. You’ll spy, lie, snitch, and steal because the truth is that your shit is more important than their shit. Your family is more important than their family, and your financial safety more important than theirs. The oppressive state creates an every-man-for-himself mentality that forces you to compromise your morals for survival. This is a how a totalitarian state stays in power.
It’s also, ironically, how a capitalistic economy stays in power. The truth is that I spend so much time running around because that’s how I make money, and money is survival. Money will save my daughter’s life, money will keep my son in school, money will keep my wife happy, and money will bail me out of trouble if I’m caught doing something untoward. All my problems can be solved with money, so earning money becomes my primary goal.
The more information I gather on a tenant, the more detailed a profile I can write, and the more the government pays me for the report. So I embrace my totalitarian duties to spy and steal and snitch…but only so long as they earn me cash. When I do find someone doing something illegal, I never turn them in. I blackmail them, because that’s a more consistent source of income. Then, once I’ve done this a few times and I can see them in their home all unhappy and miserable, on the verge of moving out, only then do I report them to the authorities for the reward money. I’m a tool of oppression for both the government and myself; economic needs supersede totalitarian duties.
In fact, money quickly becomes a bigger motivator than fear of the state, because rebel factions will pay you handsomely for your help and you’d be a fool to turn them down: A rebel leader calls and says he wants to house a sign-maker in my building. I say no, it’s dangerous to get caught up with these people and I could get in trouble with oh wait you’ll pay me how much? Yea, let him come on over. Naturally, I spy on the sign-maker, gathering a good amount of dirt on him. I get him on camera making signs and then blackmail him, earning enough dough to buy groceries and keep my family happy.
When the government finds out about this (because the sign-maker is really a spy, spying on state-sponsored spies) my boss chews me out for letting a rebel operate out of my building. He calls me incompetent, but as long as he doesn’t deduct anything from my bank I’m fine with his threats. The rebel leader chews me out for letting his sign guy sabotage the operation, but again as long as he doesn’t drain my bank account I don’t care what he says. My economic concerns blind me to the context of my actions. I don’t care about oppression or freedom, only finances.
Ironically, in this simulation of an oppressive communist-like state, I’m actually more of a slave to capitalism.
I don’t know if that’s purposeful or accidental. I can’t tell if Beholder is thematically confused or thematically consistent. Regardless, it’s certainly interesting: It presents a world in which I’m a slave to the state and a slave to the economy, but I have just enough freedom of choice to distract me from my slavery.