My friend Jason used to live in Berlin, and gave walking tours of the old city (he now runs a walking tour company in London). One of the most bizarre and unsettling things he ever told me was that the Stasi – East Germany’s secret police – used to collect people’s smells.
They had a collection of thousands of tiny jars, each containing a scrap of cloth imprinted with a person’s scent. The idea was that if they needed to track someone down, they could present the person’s smell to a sniffer dog, which would then lead them to the dissident. The idea of a ‘smell library’ is almost comical, but it also shows how absolutely nothing in Communist East Germany was private, and the lengths to which the state would go to spy on its own people.
Likewise, Beholder from Russian studio Warm Lamp Games is initially comical, with the government banning things like blue jeans and owning spare light bulbs, but it quickly becomes brutal – like when your daughter dies because you can’t afford to buy antibiotics on the black market, and then you get thrown in jail because you can’t afford to pay her funeral fees.
The game sees you take on the role of the landlord of an apartment block, with orders from the government to spy on everyone living there. You’re encouraged to report every tiny detail of their lives, even banal things like their fondness for chess or tobacco. In that sense, it’s very much like the absurdly detailed dossiers that the Stasi kept on German citizens – right down to their particular smell.
The game is a clever balancing act. On the one hand, you need to keep on the right side of your government paymasters, but on the other hand, you recoil from some of the things they ask you to do – especially as you get to know the people in the apartment block and start to consider them friends. And then there’s the fact that the only way to make enough money to treat your daughter and stop your son from being sent to the mines is to resort to blackmail.
It’s clever, affecting stuff, and I’ve only scratched the surface so far. Look out for a full review once I’ve managed to play it all the way through – hopefully without my family dying.
Beholder is out now for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, IOS and Android.