Some games are meant to make you feel powerful, and feel great about it. Some games want to make you feel weak, but triumph over adversity. Orwell makes you feel very powerful indeed, but wants (and succeeds) at making you feel sick about it.
1984 is suddenly quite popular, who’d have known ? Of course the book is about much more than Big Brother and surveillance. Thought control through information manipulation is a major theme of the book and one that was often overlooked in popular culture. At least until the recent US election and the downright cartoonish rewriting of facts we have been witnessing in the recent weeks/months. But one aspect of 1984 is definitely the idea of omnipresent surveillance and how the government of the Nation uses agents to monitor all citizens to identify dissenters and suppress them, permanently.
In Orwell, this is the part we are focussing on. In the age of constant monitoring and overreach from agencies like NSA (and its international counterpart, since every country has its own information agency, prying more and more into your private information), Orwell puts you in the role of an Investigator. After a bomb attack on a public place leaves two people dead, you are tasked with finding the culprit and prevent future attacks. Working with the brand new Orwell system, you are tasked with browsing through some persons of interests online presence, then their chat logs, phone calls, and even personal computers. Your role is to look for pieces of information that can be used to figure out if the person is a potential threat, who they are connected to and find incriminating evidence that can be used to arrest them.
The game plays through a simple graphical interface and is basically the Orwell interface from beginning to end. You are the investigator and are working from your terminal. The immersion is really well handled and keeping the entire game within the interface makes you feel immersed the whole time. Grabbing information and adding it to the file of your suspect is as easy as clicking and dragging it, and there is no time limit. You are simply working on your Orwell terminal and browsing through the information you find.
The laid back pace does not lessen the impact of your actions, however. There are moments where your actions lead to some incredibly dark events and because of how well you get to know the people you investigate, the consequences of what you do hits really hard. Saying more would be a spoiler, but I can at least say that I felt disgusted with myself during the game, and the end made me feel really uneasy… And I love the game for that.
To achieve that effect on the player, Orwell had to nail it’s characters, and the writing is definitely its strongest point. Orwell’s characters come off as very human and relatable. They are flawed, sure, they aren’t angels, or victims, at least not all of them. But they are layered, and they really make you question what you are doing. Similar to Papers Please, Orwell makes you weigh your actions and if you get invested, you start trying to think of ways to subvert the system to try to make things better.
The freedom you get is fairly limited, which makes sense in a game that is more narratively driven than a real puzzle game. But this limited freedom does make sense in the context of the Orwell system, since it would be automatically flagging information it deemed important for you to parse through. In the end I felt like the whole thing was pretty believable, which made it even more upsetting.
Orwell is a short game. I finished it in about 3 hours and one sitting. I know there are different endings and that things can branch pretty dramatically during the game depending on your play style… But I am not sure I want to play through it again. I was so impressed with how well the game came together and how it made me feel the first time through, that I feel it would be a disservice to play it again and break the illusion. It’s a bit like how The Walking Dead worked brilliantly the first time through, but replaying that game broke the structure wide open.
I would recommend Orwell to anyone. It’s short, it’s cheap, anyone can play it as it is very easy to pick up and the gameplay boils down to reading text and picking up data chunks that are relevant, or that you believe to be relevant. But it goes places, it has something to say, and it does it in a pretty smart way. I have not been so happy that a game made me feel so bad about what I was doing since Papers Please and Cart Life, and I love it for that.