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Paranoia On Four Wheels
by Jacob Geller on Jul 30, 2018 at 04:00 PM
Platform PC

Several times in his life, developer Ondrej Svadlena has found himself on the run. First as a political refugee, then as a frightened student, and even as a regular motorist, he knows what it’s like to feel chased. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that his new game reduced me to a bundle of nerves, anxiously looking over my shoulder while under tight pursuit. It’s right there in the title – Beware.

When I started my demo, all I knew was the basic premise: It’s survival horror in a car. And while cars usually offer protection in survival horror, Beware quickly proves that in the right circumstances, four doors and a motor are no reassurance at all.

The game opens in a trailer park at dusk. I’m already seated in my car. The family compact feels refreshingly tactile; the engine doesn’t turn on automatically, nor do the headlights. My perspective bounces around realistically as I pull out of the park, smacking against the side window when I accidentally drive into a ditch. The game makes a point of reminding me that I’m not controlling the car, just the nervous guy inside it.

I eventually find a road and follow it into dense woods. After a while alone in the forest, I pass the first sign of life I’ve seen: a well-lit building, with frosted glass only revealing the shadowy outlines of figures within. I apprehensively eye the windows as I continue along the road but only start to sweat in earnest when two spots of light appear in my rearview mirror. The car has no indication of ill-will, but an ominous music cue and the claustrophobia of the one-way road suddenly make me wish I was the only motorist out that night.

Beware’s level of visual fidelity is surprising given its one-man development team, and this is largely due to excellent lighting detail. Reflectors from empty trailers glow eerily in response to the car’s headlights. The map has the unearthly brightness of an overcast night in winter, but visibility is limited by a dense fog. The dark trailers feel like they stare back at me, and my lights barely penetrate the thick trees. Similarly, a lurking soundtrack only reveals itself when I'm found by a second car. The mix of low piano notes and a throbbing bassline fit right in with the frantic growls of the car’s engine.

Beware’s tone takes inspiration from Svadlena’s tumultuous past. He grew up in the Czechoslovak regime but only after being pressured by his kindergarten teacher to snitch on his parents did his family decide to flee the country. In 1984, they risked a moonlit trek over the Yugoslavian mountains into Austria.

“I still remember seeing the border station below us in a valley,” Svadlena says, “with shouting guards, barking dogs, and floodlights skimming through the forest.” Fortunately, they escaped and were successfully able to rehabilitate as refugees in Canada.

Beware doesn’t plant itself firmly in any specific historical period, but I can feel Svadlena’s history in the design decisions; Fearfully navigating around checkpoints in the cold night, I don’t know exactly what happens if I’m caught. The soundtrack and the isolation of the road are enough to convince me to not find out. 

I keep catching glimpses of the other car on the road through this fog. After every turn, there’s a brief period where I can’t see it; every turn, I pray it simply turns around. It does not. So I drive faster, I take corners more recklessly, and in my desperate efforts to get away from the other car, I spin out onto the shoulder. Immobile, I watch as the headlights grow closer and then, shockingly, drive right past me. I laugh – they were just another person out at night. The pursuit and malicious intent, it had all been in my head. And then, about 50 yards ahead of me, the car’s brake lights flash on. They start to turn around. I try to back up, but I’m trapped in thick mud and just rev the engine helplessly. Several men climb out of the other car and start banging on the hood of my car, and then the demo throws me back to the beginning.

My time with Beware raised my heart rate and made me anxious for more. The distinct lack of game conventions – No HUD, no map, no tutorial whatsoever – left me feeling like I didn’t understand the rules of the world. For most games, this would be a criticism. Horror thrives on insecurity though, and I’m excited to not know what else lies in wait.

Beware’s full release will include car customization and more explicit missions than what’s in the demo, but according to Svadlena, tasks within the game will be much more about gathering knowledge than literal vehicle enhancements. The entire map will be open from the start, so the decision of when to confront whatever lies at the end of the game is up to the player. He says the feel of the world will hopefully be similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – that is, a world with emergent systems that operate independently of the player’s actions.

Instead of scripted encounters, enemies are random enough that it doesn’t feel predictable. If you’re a good enough driver, you can outmaneuver a pursuer or attempt to turn the tables and run them down.  The demo I played had just a fraction of the world, but my two attempts are radically different. The second time, no one follows me after the lit-up building and I leave the forest for an open and abandoned series of towns in the countryside. In fact, I never encounter anyone at all. I just drive around the hills of Beware’s world for a while, trying to fight off a feeling of overpowering paranoia. Eventually, I simply quit out; while the demo has a hidden goal involving following a strange woman with a lantern, I can’t find her.

Svadlena doesn’t want this feeling of paranoia to apply exclusively to individual enemies. It’s a tone important to the overarching narrative. He spoke about hiding from drunken police in Morocco and being followed by a semi on a nighttime drive, but he also references fears on a societal level. He views the threats of an unequal distribution of resources and a diminishing sense of privacy as just as real as a hostile car on a quiet road; growing up in a totalitarian regime, he’s had plenty of experience with both. The game’s open and mysterious world has plenty of room to hide story details. How deep a player wants to delve into these themes is up to them, but ultimately Svadlena wants Beware’s full release to have “a sense of relevancy in the bigger scheme of things.”

That full release is pretty far off. The game is being funded by a Patreon promising continuous updates, with a Kickstarter campaign upcoming. Even in this early state though, Beware has me checking over my shoulder each night, hoping I’m on the only one on the road.

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