Orwell: We are watching you
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
Eric Arthur Blair (famously known under the pen name of George Orwell) was a essayist (someone who writes essays for a living), novelist, critic and journalist. He lived between 25th of June 1903 to 21th of January 1950 and was most famous for two books. Namely Animal Farm (17 August 1945) and 1984 (8 June 1949). Animal Farm is considered to be a classic of allegorical story-telling and political satire. 1984 on the other hand is a book where endless parallels can be drawn to in real life.
Where the grim (sometimes terrifying) warnings of totalitarianism, twisting of words, meaning and history appear to become more of an reality. 1984 is considered to be one of the best books ever written (an opinion that I share myself). Its influence on narrative art, politics and language cannot be understated. Today’s game: Orwell owes a lot to 1984, right down to naming itself after Blair’s pen surname.
The Nation: (a totally innocent democratic country) has recently (secretly) passed the Safety Bill. A law that allows the government assess to everyone’s personal information. This results in a massive downfall in crime and the invention of Orwell. Orwell is a government backed data collection software and Spyware. Designed to monitor citizens and insure that disobedience in any form is discovered and collected. You are a citizen outside the Nation, selected to enroll into the Orwell programme.
After accepting the proposal you find yourself caught up in a investigation regarding a ‘terrorist cell’, that has been causing a series of acts of domestic terror. As stories go, Orwell is very enjoyable. It has tight pacing, insuring that the game never gets boring. The intrigue built up nicely through character interaction and postings online. Characters can behave differently, often in contradictory ways (more on that later).
The characters rebelling
One of the game’s themes and commentary is how people present themselves online and “offline”. This is no more evident than with the various interactions the small groups of characters have with each other. Cassandra Watergate (get it?!) is on one hand, an emotionally unstable, childish woman who does not care about adult responsibility. However on the other hand she is apparently a activist who might have been responsible for a series of bombings and assaults on police.
Which character is the real thing? That is what helps make the story compelling, Orwell sets up characters that behave in unique ways, behaviour patterns that often conflict with your perception and then ask you to decide who they are. People are very different online and in the presence of other people (could this man be impersonating another man who might not even be alive?!). Orwell uses limited perception and distorted character presentation to compel the player to continue playing.
An Orwellian inspiration
Orwell is inspired by 1984. Extremely heavily inspired by 1984. That is not really a bad thing in particular, a piece of narrative art does not have to be coy with its inspirations as long as it is good art and weaves it into the story. Bioshock and Black Swan are both examples of unsubtle narrative media (Bioshock with its criticism of Libertinism and Objectivism, Black Swan as study of overworking and obsession). You do not have to be subtle in order to be good. However, unlike the other two examples mentioned, Orwellgets rather annoying with its references to 1984. Your co-worker/assistant has the online handle of Symes.
In 1984 Symes was a co-worker to Winston who gloats about how Newspeak is going to remove freedom of thought. He gets (spoilers!!!) killed by the party for knowing too much. In Orwell Symes is a co-worker to the investigator (using Orwell). He flips between gloating and cold professionalism about Orwell’s use. He gets ‘removed’ by the government towards the end of the game. It is a little annoying when the game mimics storylines from the book as well as the endless references to 1984 and infamous scandals (Watergate anyone?). It is rather distracting when I see chapters referencing passages and concepts from the book without context. (Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree, Unperson etc). This might not be so much of a problem with you but it sadly was for me.
A misunderstanding of Orwellian
A lot of people get confused by what is Orwellian. Most assume and think that it means oppressive government systems, mass surveillance and social credit systems. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are important and present in Orwell’s work. But those elements are not necessarily Orwellian. They would fall under the Totalitarian. Orwell was concerned about how oppressive regimes use language to abuse their power and control the populace.
Newspeak was a prime example of this in 1984. The dictionary gets smaller with every reissue, gradually destroying any free thought or ability to criticise (also known as thought crime). These concepts are very interesting and could/should be explored in depth. Sadly Orwell does not explore these themes, rather government intrusion and mass surveillance. Themes and concepts that are only loosely based from Orwell’s work, making the references to 1984 all the more haphazard and lacking in understanding behind the inspiration.
Gameplay is rather easy and straightforward. You use Orwell to find data on various persons supposedly involved in terrorist activities. In order to uncover who was responsible and who was not. Relevant information is highlighted in blue. At worst you have to decide which information is relevant to which character. You would also have to decide what information is important or valid (someone saying that they are from wonderland is not valid for obvious reasons). However there is not much of a failure (at least for me ) as all I got was a scolding from Symes. However I did find myself debating on the various behaviour patterns and deciding which behaviour fits with the character’s overall personality. Orwell might be easy but that does not mean it is not compelling. Simple but straightforward and very polished.
Who is telling the truth?
One of the more complex elements of data gathering is via conflicting data. This can be anything from people claiming that the other is responsible to where they live despite our better knowledge. It is here where the game does get rather interesting, as you have to make decisions that could help or hinder you. I found this aspect very engaging because it is fun and compelling to analyse behaviour, messages and both claims before making a judgement call. I do wish the game would always show the conflicting behaviour (the show conflict button does not always work) as it would make things more convenient. But it also allows for organic investigation and careful study (conflicting data is yellow). By studying the situation surrounding the conflicting info and biased perceptions make for compelling, enjoyable. But most importantly, somewhat challenging.
Now about that ending
(warning for minor spoilers)
After Symes gets been doxxed, the Minster of Security herself takes over his role. She tasks you for finding key evidence that proves Thought is a terrorist cell as well as the member’s locations. You have to do all of in fewer than 20 turns. I like this, as stakes have been raised both in a narrative and gameplay challenge. The game demands the player to seek out the best and only the best information for Orwell. Having to choose one of five locations that might be hosting the final group is quite harrowing. Then the hacker takes over Orwell. Then the game becomes a glorified cut scene for an (estimated, not sure if this is correct) ten minutes or more.
No gameplay or any procession done by the player. All you can do is sit and do nothing. It’s not the worst ending to a game but it is a disappointing one all the same. What if you could discovered the facts that back up Thought’s justification or find the evidence to the mastermind behind the bombings yourself. It would have been better than just being given the reveal . Not terrible but could have been so much better.
Graphics and Art style:
Orwell benefits from a clean, crisp visual style. The Orwell programme has a very clinical colour scheme (whites and greys), the programme is stylish and efficient, lacking in any personality. Cold and uncaring. The minimalist colour scheme allows personality expression via colour. The stained (?) class style given to the human characters is highly inspired and beautiful to look at.
Orwell’s relevance is undeniable, the balance between private and public with the invention of Social media has become. The encroachment of government surveillance for safety from a threat that might not exist is a legitimate possibility. The erasure of privacy encouraged by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Where everything you say and do is recorded to be sold to the highest bidder. Orwell’s importance as a game will always be relevant while Britain and China’s surveillance states continue to become more of a reality.
A word to you
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