I played Beholder this last week – if you don’t know it, the boilerplate pitch is Papers, Please but you’re an apartment manager. A, uh, like a live-in landlord. I don’t know – we don’t have them where I’m from, so like I’m familiar with the concept from films but I don’t really know what to call them. It’s a landlord who lives in the apartment building and maintains everything and that’s their job. Papers, Please but that. It’s a nifty game, but your ability to singlehandedly overthrow the government annoys me.
So this issue applies to the wider genre of games set in like an authoritarian government – Orwell; Papers, Please; Beholder; so on. In each one, you’ll typically have some authoritarian government and you’re a low-level government official and you’ve got to tread the line between doing your job, not getting arrested by the government, not getting murdered by terrorists, feeding your family, and also maybe trying to do a little good in the world. Each game has its own unique take, but those are more or less the basic elements. And that’s all super cool. The really fascinating thing is that the laws of the government are more or less the rules of the game. The two are collapsed into each other – so if you want to resist the laws of this government and try and do good things, you’ve actually got to try and find loopholes or exploits in the ludic structure of the game. That’s a great little twist on how we normally think of player-game relations. It’s antagonistic, rather than the more kinda symbiotic relationship in most games. Or rather – I’m not sure how to best describe this. In most games, you want to harmonize with the rules of the game. Think about Bit Trip Runner, for instance – you want to get to know the levels and the mechanics and be so in tune with the game’s structure that you can duck, jump, and kick your way to success. It’s about trying to align yourself with the game structure. By contrast, games like Papers, Please are fundamentally antagonistic. You play them, but your job is in a sense to play the metagame, to find the gaps in the structure and try and do good things. Of course that metagame in itself is part of the game, which is confusing and abstract, but that’s just what it is.
Anyway – so they’re all cool games. But I finished Beholder recently, and one of the lines in the closing cutscene kinda stuck in my craw. There’s a few different endings, right, depending on your actions throughout. My playthrough was the kinda neutral apathetic approach – I followed the path of least resistance. I obeyed the government, reported all the resistance people who approached me for help, and generally just played lackey to the authorities. And in the final cutscene, we’re seeing all the outcomes from my actions. I’ve copied the relevant screenshot in above – note that first little bit of the extract there. “Due to the efforts of hundreds and thousands [of] people like Carl Stein, the state machine kept growing and growing.” That’s the bit that annoys me.
So on a strict narrative level, the game is here suggesting that it’s not just your actions that shape the political outcome at the end of the game. It’s actually the behaviour of hundreds, even thousands of people, all acting in the same way. That’s what the narrative says. But on a gameplay level, we know that’s bullshit. If you play through and support the rebels a bunch, you’re going to get the ending where the rebels overthrow the government and set up their own new government. It happens in Papers, Please, and something crudely equivalent happens in Orwell – the rebels don’t take over, but they become a major new political force. On a gameplay level, your actions, and your actions alone, determine the political outcome of your society. Firstly, that’s ridiculous, and I resent it as a narrative device. Secondly, it jars with what the game tries to tell you in this little text excerpt – which is why I’m pulling it out to talk about today. I accepted it when I played the other two games, because they didn’t feed me bullshit about how it was actually a group effort. It’s just Beholder that’s earned my ire on this point.
Let’s just check in quickly with those other two games, then, and see how they justify you being the most important person in the fictional world. In Orwell, I think it makes sense. You’re the guy operating the new experimental Orwell system, and you can aggressively derail the whole program because it’s new and experimental and you’re the only fucker operating it from your end. In Papers, Please, you’re the passport guy at border security, and you can either gun down the guards and let the rebels in, or gun down the rebels and help keep the border safe. You’re in an important location that’s super relevant for the ongoing conflict between two states. So both of those games seem okay. They place the character in pretty key locations. But in Beholder, you run an apartment building. And from that apartment building, you can overthrow the government. It just – it’s a little jarring. It’s not totally inconceivable, sure, maybe all these important characters do just coincidentally keep turning up at your apartment. But if that’s the case, it’s really just about you. The hundreds and thousands of other docile workers have very little to do with it. Maybe they’re all docile, maybe they’re not – either way, you’re still the centerpiece. It’s still your actions that determine the outcome of the game.
Really the wider criticism here is about how games position their protagonists. The industry in general is pretty attached to making the protagonist the Most Important Person at any given moment. That’s fine sometimes, but for other stories it’s just not totally appropriate. If you want to have a story about an authoritarian government quelling its populace through unscrupulous means, you need to show a difference in scale between the government and one individual. 1984 doesn’t end with Winston overthrowing Big Brother, right, because Big Brother is terrifying and all-encompassing and huge. You can’t just have one guy blunder around and accidentally destroy the entire system along the way, because it undermines the supposed strength of that system in the first place. I’m not saying Beholder has necessarily done a bad thing. I just think that if you want to communicate the immense power of a totalitarian government, you might be better off writing a protagonist whose actions are, at the end of the day, all relatively inconsequential.
[…] it. Plus – and this is something I’ve said before, about another game (Beholder, over here) – you don’t really feel the full force and power of a staggeringly oppressive state […]