Last evening, I played Orwell. It was an interesting, mostly engaging, often fun experience. It was narrative-focused, and it played with heavy themes. I spent some time thinking about the game and its story and its central themes afterward. I still don’t know if I really liked it, though.
Before I go any further, let me admit that I have never read 1984. I have read one book by George Orwell, and that was Animal Farm. I’ve never had a great love for dystopian fiction, and 1984 is one of those books that, rightly or wrongly, you feel constantly aware of whether or not you’ve ever engaged with it. It’s alluded to heavily; it’s a part of the culture, in the way of The Bible or Star Wars or Elvis. Of course, the thing about things that are so ingrained in our culture that we think we know of them by sheer osmosis is that our general impressions are typically wrong. That said, my peripheral understanding of the novel and what it meant appeared to suffice for all that this game had to say–which on the one hand means that this game does do a good job of engaging with a large audience, but on the other hand makes it feel like the only way that the game engages with 1984 is to remark, wow, all this government surveillance and effort to form and control opinion is pretty dystopian, eh? Regardless, the game has prompted me to want to read 1984, if only to see if there are more thematic or narrative connections that I’m missing and to figure out if the episode and achievement titles in the game are direct references to the book.
In Orwell, you are an Investigator in the eponymous monitoring system. Investigators are independent, nongovernmental contractors outside of the Nation (ruled, of course, by The Party) who research named targets of interest, combing over social media timelines and blog posts and news articles and police databases, recorded phone calls and online chats and emails and text messages, and eventually even remote views of suspects’ computer and cell phone desktops. Investigators do not assign targets and are not allowed to make official conclusions. To screen and limit the influence of Investigators, they are paired with Advisers. Advisers can review “data chunks”–data determined significant by the Orwell monitoring system and selected for review by an Investigator–to draw conclusions and determine whether additional action is needed, in the form of more intensive and focused investigation, or perhaps the assignment of a new target of interest, or even authorization to make an arrest.
The game starts as you begin your job. The game is set within this Orwell monitoring software tool, and so you set up a profile and begin playing the game as though interacting with the actual Orwell program. It’s a fun gimmick, and one I’ve enjoyed in other games. When you are first familiarizing yourself with the program, it’s in the setting of investigating a target of interest following a bombing. The game spreads quickly to cover other targets of interest, as you eventually investigate the involvement of an activist group named Thought as demonstrative acts against the government increase.
At first, I felt frustrated by the game. The entirety of the “rules” of Investigator/Adviser are not clearly explained by text block–you gradually learn them as the need arises. The later parts of the game are especially fun as you have many targets and know the rules and are cycling between phone calls and websites and furtive looks at suspects’ desktops. But early on, I was confused and frustrated as to why I could only click very limited information. Certain leads seemed so obvious to me, but I couldn’t pursue them or signal to follow them until the Adviser got around to it, typically a game “day” later.
I’m torn by this reduced functionality and unclear explanation. I thought it was frustrating, and I still do. Sure, the last two-thirds of the game are quite exciting, but you’re playing for an hour or two at the beginning with a limited deck. It feels very linear, and the fun of the game doesn’t really emerge until later. But here’s the thing: by limiting functionality with little explanation early on, the game encourages the player to want to break the rules, to choose efficiency over process, without ever saying anything explicitly–and the final part of the game reveals how that urge is in line with how the Nation’s government wanted to use the system, if not for some flimsy ethical checks put in place. Hence the Investigator/Advisor role. Hence the requirement that new targets are assigned before one proceeds. The ending re-frames a lot of the game in an interesting way, and I won’t get into it all here. It’s interesting to realize that a motivation for efficiency or improved security or to cut out the bureaucracy can actually lead to favoring an abusive system. But it feels a little bit like cheating; would I have been so eager and willing, even in a game, to break the limits of the rules if I had a clear explanation at the beginning of what those rules were and why they were required?
Here’s another problem that emerges: the game wants to show that you have been complicit with an evil system all along. It wants you to see the banality of evil, how people can find value and meaning and a sense of purpose in doing even bad things. Aha, the game practically crows, you have been complicit all along! Did you see how we seeded doubt about your actions all through the game? And still you did the bad things! Well, yes, game, sure, I did do the bad things. In the game. Which I knew was a game. Tell me something I don’t know. Given that I am opposed to the ever-broadening surveillance state in the US, and given that I have long valued constitutional rights and civil liberties more than state security theater, I am not particularly seeing anything from a new perspective. My problems with the TSA or border patrol or state and federal law enforcement don’t mean that I assume that all members of those organizations are bad people. Of course good people can work for bad causes without even realizing they are bad. Of course good people can do good work in organizations that may be abusive or oppressive. Of course there is a real balancing of interests; some people really do believe that any incremental push toward greater security from Bad Guys is a good thing–even if we let the state do bad, destructive, invasive things in exchange for that. Hell, I suppose the game made me think about how willing I am to put data about myself out there online, but that’s always a background worry, and my concern is more with the incredibly intimate and invasive data out there that can be stolen away even though I never really consented to it being there anyway (setting aside private companies’ storage of my data, with or without a clear TOS agreement, the obvious examples would be the credit reporting bureaus in the private sector and the IRS in the public sector).
Did the game make me think that perhaps, despite my values, I would willingly participate in such an intrusive and abusive system? No! It is a game. I did the bad things because doing the bad things is sort of the premise of the game. When you go into the game knowing that you are a (fictional) member of the surveillance state, you are going to surveil some shit for the (fictional) state!
I will admit that doing the bad things–namely, spying on people and releasing often very intimate information to my superiors–often felt rewarding. After all, the targets you were investigating were involved in a series of bombings. I realized that my choices probably mattered and the game was probably deeper than I was giving it credit for when, about two or three hours in, my investigative work stopped a bombing. (How do I know it was a choice? I had to infer from background information to decide whether a mall or government building was at risk, and picking one or the other eliminated the other options.) So the fantasy of saving people provided an interesting glimpse into how people working for an oppressive regime can justify it. Although…without getting into many spoilers, the oppressive regime itself proved to be the trigger behind the violence to it (in the form of resistance to the state; the game refreshingly laughs off the idea of the bombings as false flag operations, deeming them nothing but conspiratorial nonsense, and it reinforces this interpretation with the firmer answers you get at the end).
Maybe the most interesting thing the game did, however, was to show how willingness to comply with a bad system can have a lot to do with personal connections. For much of the game, you work with the Advisor Symes. Symes does not always make good decisions, but he talks through things with you. He is honest. He believes in what he is doing. He values you, teases you, praises you when things go well, is desperate to confide in you when things go poorly. I liked Symes. Symes was an attachment I had to this bad system. He seemed a good person who worked for a very bad organization.
Another spoiler here: something bad happens, and Symes is removed. I was worried for him even as I was told to forget about him by the new supervisor. And I was relieved that he appeared to be unharmed in a newspaper article I found–though I recognized by this point in the game that the newspaper could be lying. Symes mattered to me and was one of the better elements of the game.
All the above said, while I had fun playing the super-“patriot” (are you a patriot if, even in the game’s fiction, you’re someone from outside of the Nation?), I made the effort to shut down the entire Orwell program when presented with a final choice. Of course, even then, my snooping impulse was strong–I of course dug through all the files left, even the ones that could have been used against the “good guys,” before committing. I was grateful especially in those moments that the Advisors can only see data that the Investigators have shared. Furthermore, I’m still not so sure I would have been so willing to burn it all to the ground and abandon ship if my trusty Advisor Symes had still been involved. That connection, and its implications, fascinate me.
The game took six hours to play. It had some interesting choices. I stand by my choices in the game. I’m not too interested to see the other options play out. I don’t care about playing games to one hundred percent completion. And I don’t think I’d see a new perspective on things. The alternative slideshow-style endings probably wouldn’t be worth the effort of playing through the game again (I think the game’s just auto-save, so you commit to the choices of your game experience on a given play-through).
Not only do I not think I would learn anything new, but I would have very little patience to play through that first hour or so again. And another thing: while much of my review might sound at least somewhat positive, I have to confess that the writing was less than satisfactory throughout. This is an incredibly text-heavy game, and the writing just wasn’t strong enough. I’ll admit that I didn’t watch the credits, but the game’s script feels like a one-person job, in that: (1) there are a lot of really bizarre and unnatural phrases, and (2) all of the characters sound more or less like they are speaking with the same voice. Sure, some characters are clipped and some are loquacious; some are kind and some are abusive; some are formal and some write in Internet slang. But the overall quality of the writing started off at sort of a mediocre level; characters could be dumber, but more educated and thoughtful characters didn’t really seem, well, more educated or more thoughtful than the baseline. While the writing could be intentionally worse than that baseline at times, reflecting typical Internet shit-posting or a character rushing to send off a text in a heightened emotional state, the writing was never particularly exceptional either. It felt a bit like the entire game was written by a non-native English speaker–and surprise, surprise, the game’s developer, Osmotic Studios, is a three-person German team. Maybe it’s unfair of me to judge this game so harshly on the bizarre voice employed throughout. But it’s distracting and weakens the verisimilitude of the experience. Still, if the writer(s) were to ever see this, I’d just want to say, good effort: the big emotional moments mostly pay off, and you did a great job with Symes.
Orwell, in short, is an imperfect game, but it has a lot to say and leaves a lot to think about. Games that invite consideration and discussion, beyond merely recounting stories of exciting in-game moments, are still quite rare. I’m glad that a game like Orwell exists.