Beholder and choice in game design

I could really have written this post about a few dozen games I’ve played lately, but I want to focus on Beholder for a moment, because there’s so much else the game gets right that it’s frustrating to see this one area drag it down a bit. I still enjoy Beholder from time to time, but I can’t find it quite as gripping. The area is choice.

There is a trend in recent gaming to deny players choice as a form of social commentary. For example, Jack cannot be 100% above board and have a sterling reputation in This is the Police, because then he will make very powerful people angry at him, and you will essentially lose. The game creates the illusion that you can play it straight, but in fact, you cannot. This really disrupts immersion for me, especially since the early part of the game makes it so clear that Jack is the one honest cop in the land of the crooked. You can be more or less crooked, but you still have to be a little bit crooked. In This is the Police, you can eventually come to grips with this. However, Beholder is a different story.

In Beholder, you play a secret policeman in what is almost certainly 1980s East Germany. Your “day job”, as it were, is manager for an apartment building, and you ruthlessly spy on your neighbors to see if they are breaking the law. If you want to be a zealous defender of the state, you die. If you want to be crooked and skim off the top, you die. If you talk to the wrong person without enough money or reputation, you die. There is, essentially, one and only one path through the story that you can discover through trial and error, with only minor deviations tolerated. As a bit of social commentary, it’s clever, but as a game, it does get frustrating.

It gets even worse when the game makes it clear you need money for things. See, if you can’t pay bills, you fail. But, if you don’t know the bills are coming (and you never do, except through repetition), you will almost never have enough money, unless you frantically exploit every possible source of money, at the cost of (say it with me) dying. It is very easy to get into a death spiral, where one wrong choice makes the play through a failure, but the game prefers to let you suffocate to death rather than putting you out of your misery. Add in a save system that only saves when you complete a quest, and this is where the death spiral comes in.

The saving grace of Beholder is that it’s short, and apart from Karl’s wife and daughter, the characters are interesting enough that it’s worth replaying again and again. However, setting clearer goalposts and/or allowing for more deviation from the optimal strategy would significant improve the experience, in my opinion.

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