Games

The Depressing Relevance of Totalitarianism Sim 'Beholder'

Between the election of Donald Trump and the UK's Brexit vote, 'Beholder' doesn't feel like an alternate reality.

by Patrick Klepek
Dec 5 2016, 4:00pm

There are lots of games where players need to manage a building full of tenants, but Beholder makes a more sinister request. It asking you to do terrible things to your tenants: spy, learn their secrets, and, depending on your actions, rat them out to the totalitarian government who made you landlord in the first place.

"We all want to know more about other people," said Alawar Entertainment marketing manager Evgeny Kapustin. "In this respect, a game that would allow you to peep and just get a little more information about others' private lives, that seemed to be a controversial but still interesting idea for a game."

(Though Kapustin comes from marketing, he oversaw the game's development, and, more crucially, of everyone inside the company's office in Siberia, he said he spoke the best English.)

Playing Beholder is a grim affair, with constant moral trade-offs. Your first task is to investigate the man in the apartment above you. Upon discovering that he's making drugs in his place, you report him to the government, who savagely beats him before hauling him away to prison. You might be able to rationalize why a totalitarian (or any kind of) government would outlaw drugs, but a mark of totalitarianism is the passage of arbitrary laws to keep citizens in line, and a total lack of due process for the accused.

For example, early on, you learn that not only have jeans have been outlawed but apples, too! And while there's some gallows humor in a government deciding to ban something innocuous like dancing, it provides the gives the player justified, if illogical, reasons to throw people out of their complex and into jail. The more you serve the government, the more resources you get. The more resources you have, the more you can gather about the people in your building.

"When you have a totalitarian state," said Kapustin, "you will expect some directives that are irrational and cannot explain because this is the state and [when] the state issues laws you have to abide by them. "

It's not totally without precedent, either. North Korean leader Kim John-un recently banned "sarcasm."

Of course, players don't have to abide by every law, and it's not necessary to report every infraction that you find, but that comes with its own risks; your family is in the building, too.

Images courtesy of Alawar Entertainment

Inspired by George Orwell's 1984 and other dystopian fiction, Kapustin said Beholder isn't set in any specific location and doesn't represent any real government. My hunch was Beholder took inspiration from the country the developers are in, Russia, but Kapustin disputed that.

"If the game was about Russia," he said, "we wouldn't be able to develop and publish it in the first place. [laughs] A totalitarian state wouldn't let its citizens release such a game."

Russia is more authoritarian than totalitarian—there's a big difference. The country technically holds regular democratic elections, but there are plenty of questions about the legitimacy of those elections, and Russia has aggressively cracked down on journalists and other media critical of the government. (Hell, there's a Wikipedia page dedicated to journalists who have been killed in Russia.) That said, Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union, was totalitarian, exercising complete control over its citizens. North Korea would be today's closest parallel.

But I'm not the only person who played Beholder and thought "Oh, Russia." Kapustin has noticed this tendency among other players, especially people who grew up in the United States and either have memories of the Cold War or have felt its impact through media.

"I would say this is the result of different press articles and news where you can see Russia as a country that is an aggressive state," he said. "I think a lot of players, especially ones who are 30 years of age of older, they may just remember the Soviet Union period when the whole Soviet Union was considered a totalitarian state."

Given that US intelligence points to Russia meddling with the most recent United States elections, one that resulted in the election of the authoritarian-tinged Donald Trump, it's not shocking that some people might have Russia on the mind.

But Kapustin noticed something interesting as more people played it: players from different countries saw something different in Beholder. Some saw shades of their own history.

"But speaking as someone who is in charge of marketing, I was sitting and thinking 'Maybe it's a great thing? Maybe we can talk about Trump in this game?"

"We had several responses from players from different countries, like Germany and Hungary and several Eastern European countries," he said, "and we have even two responses from players in the United States, who said that this was the game about their country. The name of the game, Beholder, is very symbolic. Every player of Beholder is actually [the] beholder, because every player see something special in this game."

It's not like the United States hasn't flirted with authoritarian behavior plenty of times, from the Japanese internment camps created during World War II to building the infrastructure for a surveillance state through the National Security Agency after 9/11.

And during Beholder's year-long development, the creators have watched the world begin to embrace authoritarianism. Between Brexit, in which the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union on the back of a xenophobic smear campaign about the influx of refugees into the UK, and Trump, a President-elect who's advocated for banning all Muslims and "deportation forces" to track undocumented immigrants, Beholder feels scarily prescient.

"It was surprising," said Kapustin. "We didn't expect these issues that we actually are talking about in our game to become so realistic, so close. On the one hand, we thought that this may somehow be helpful in promoting the game? [laughs] As you know, as any developer or publisher [knows], we want to make a game that players like or will talk about, but speaking as someone who is in charge of marketing, I was sitting and thinking 'Maybe it's a great thing? Maybe we can talk about Trump in this game? Maybe we can somehow relate to the scandals in Germany, when the United States was listening to the phone calls of the German chancellor?'"

The team decided against it, however, and the events referenced in Beholder remain fictional. The scarier part, unfortunately, is how much the game looks increasingly prophetic.