Do you ever have those moments where you’re happily browsing away online, looking up something silly on a whim and thinking to yourself, ‘hoo boy, I sure am glad there’s no giant Government watchdog conspiracy group watching me right now because this would probably look kind of bad for me.’
No? Well. That’s weird. We all do that. I’m pretty sure, at least.
Anyway, that’s basically what Orwell looks at, and says ‘ha ha, no, you are absolutely being watched and/or judged.’ As the name ‘Orwell‘ would imply, if you’re familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four and the idea of a Government that monitors every last thing you do, no matter how insignificant. But the concept is brought forward to a more modern setting through internet surveillance.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Orwell places you in the role of a user chosen to be an investigator as part of a project created by ‘The Party’, the leading authoritarian Government of ‘The Nation’. Essentially, this program gives the player the job of looking through various users information, both public (blogs, social media, user names, etc.) and private (phone calls, instant messaging accounts right through to their desktop or phone). The player is tasked with picking out specific pieces of information, forwarding them to their ‘handler’ and, in theory, making the world a much safer place.
The catch is, of course, the information is forwarded without the context the player receives. Where the player might view an anti-establishment blog post full of compelling arguments and valid reasoning, the only thing the player may be able to forward is something along the lines of ‘I hate the Government’ which will instantly put the blog posts creator on a suspect list. So you are then tasked with deciding what information is and is not relevant to any given investigation.
This is done rather simply. It sort of makes me think that, if a video game could write a thoughtful and detailed love letter to another video game, Orwell would be the love letter to Papers Please, but given a much more modern and high definition coat of paint. It’s all about figuring out who is and isn’t involved in the plot, inconsistencies in their thoughts, trying to sift through all the information until you find the one piece of gold that can further things along.
Essentially, your home screen has the ability to maneuver through information and people. For information, you could select, say, a blog post from a suspect. Important pieces of information are highlighted for you, and can then be dragged and dropped to the relevant users profile to build up an idea of who they are, what they believe, and how they may or may not be involved in the plot. But don’t think that makes it easy. It’s important to read through the information to discover context, because highlighted information isn’t always relevant. It could just confuse matters or be an outright lie.
To further complicate things and thus, make them more interesting, certain pieces of information will also be highlighted in yellow. This means there’s an inconsistency with another piece of information. An opinion a user written on a blog post might contradict with an opinion the same person has written on their social media, for example. It’s then up to you to sift through everything they’ve written, figure out their true feelings on the subject and use that piece of information.
Now, Orwell is interesting because the story can branch off in a few places. Meaning if you don’t choose the correct piece of information, there could be disastrous consequences which are on your hands. So it pays to delve deep into the information presented. And this, of course, can quickly lead to getting attached to the characters and events. Which makes it even harder to figure out what you should really be doing.
The characters are all beautifully written and feel like real people you could easily stumble onto online. They all have intertwining relationships left to the player to discover, thoughts and ideals, hopes and dreams. I know I was left with a sort of fondness for everyone involved, but this weird, uncomfortable feeling knowing despite the fact I felt like I was a friend, I was just a fly on the wall picking apart the lives of people I didn’t know.
And that’s what makes Orwell really interesting. The plot revolves around something serious, a bombing, and the need to prevent more incidents in the future. And yet, you soon view every suspect as more than that, as someone as interesting and unique as they are suspicious. And I began to wonder, who here deserves to be prosecuted? Should I be doing my job, or helping the people I think need it? A lot of power is placed in your hands and it’s up to you entirely how you use it.
Orwell is a game that encourages players to play more than once, if only to see how their actions have an effect on the story in ways they couldn’t imagine. Also because it can be a little short. It also encourages players to think about the current political climate of surveillance and asks the question: ‘Do you really have nothing to hide? How would someone impartial view what you’re doing without context?’
It’s a game as thought-provoking as it is immersive.
The game comes in five episodes, with the first being free to try – and the whole bunch is a steal on Steam.