In today’s political environment, privacy and the reach of government agencies is a particularly hot topic. From Snowden to emails on private servers and a failed census, it seems that data collection and retention is never far from the news. It’s not as new as we think and certainly not surprising. In The West Wing episode ‘The Short List’ from 1999 Sam Seaborn states “the ’20s and ’30s it was the role of government. ’50s and ’60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not.” A quote that seems omniscient in retrospect, but then consider George Orwell. In 1949 he publish the book 1984, a dystopian story of citizens constantly under surveillance, public manipulation by the government and Big Brother, a term now synonymous with the public being watched by the government.
And now, nearly 70 years after the publication of 1984 we have Orwell. Developed by Osmotic Studios and Australia’s own Surprise Attack Games, Orwell is a big brother investigative game that tasks you with protecting the citizens of The Nation through surveillance and monitoring. Your role is to examine and extract information gathered online so others can act on it, be it making arrests, preventing terrorist attacks or opening up investigations on other people. What makes Orwell truly terrifying is, unlike it’s namesakes book, it doesn’t seem even remotely removed from reality.
Orwell begins immediately following a bombing in a public square. Originally released episodically over five episodes, each episode comprises a single day in the game world and will take around an hour to play though. Day one feels very much a tutorial episode and it’s here you’ll learn the basic mechanics of Orwell, which are quite simple.
Looking through news reports, social media posts and public facing websites, you’ll extract information you deem important, and upload it to the Orwell servers, with a simple drag and drop. It’s a simple mechanic and this is essentially the entirety of the game play, although it is far from the entire game.
As the game progresses you’ll have access to more and more information on suspects. Their bank accounts, medical histories, desktops and phone conversation all become available for examination. It begs the question, should governments be looking at our information? Is someones sexuality information that the government needs? When should the government be able to access a phone or desktop without a warrant or evidence of a crime?
While Orwell doesn’t shy away from these issues it’s not the focus of the game. Choosing what to upload to prevent attacks and catch perpetrators is what Orwell is really about. There is a huge amount of information but thankfully the text you can upload is highlighted. That being said you certainly shouldn’t upload everything. From simply being berated by your supervisor for uploading irrelevant information to painting the innocent guilty with out of context quotes, what you chose to upload is important. In fact, it’s the difference between life and death. I played through the game twice to see if different decisions would result in different outcomes and they do, drastically. I won’t spoil anything but it’s absolutely worth playing a 2nd time and I’m contemplating a third.
While most of the time the upload mechanic works well, occasionally knowing what information to upload can be inconsistent. Sending some information up the line is treated as snooping while other, seemingly even less relevant text, is sometimes required to move the game forward. When it happens it can feel frustrating, leading you to upload details you don’t want to in an attempt to trigger access to new data sources. It doesn’t happen often, but often enough to notice.
Orwell commits one another sin. You’ll soon be able to monitor conversations, both text chats and phone calls. When you do the conversation is displayed as if it is being typed out in front of you. This is fine early on but as the conversations become more in depth and go for longer the text displays significantly slower than my ability to read it. This is a problem for two reasons.
It completely broke the immersion, which is a travesty because that story is genuinely tense and exciting. Losing the momentum, and the players attention, breaks that. It was slow enough that by day three I would take the chance to grab a drink or surf twitter while I wait for the text to populate. This leads directly with the second issue. There are times when you need to be paying attention to these conversations as they progress to upload information on the fly. It’s a great mechanic but more often than not monitoring a conversation is staring at a screen waiting for more text to appear. Monitoring conversations would have been better served only occurring when real time action was required, with the remaining conversations appearing as a transcript to examine.
That being said, these are my only criticisms of the game. The story itself is absolutely engrossing and perfectly paced, escalating through each episode to build to a crescendo of tension or revelation before the next chapter provides the chance to catch your breath and take stock, before ramping up once more. It’s like that perfect Netflix show that ends each episode on the exact note to make you want just… one… more.
The story manages twists and turns expertly. So often in a tale of deceit massive, ludicrous twists are thrown in: a long lost identical brother, a split personality, or a inside job by the most trusted person in the organisation. Thankfully there is none of the that in Orwell but there are some excellent plot twists and character turns and I became totally invested in catching the perpetrator. Towards the end of the game, as I became certain I knew who was behind it I became genuinely excited and actually exclaimed ‘got you, you bastard’ to my screen as I uploaded a particular data chunk. It was a tad premature though, as I soon discovered.
Overall Orwell presents an engrossing story with simple mechanics and crisp clean interface. It speaks to modern concerns of privacy and terrorism and asks what lengths we should go to be safe without beating the player over the head with it. At $9.99 US on Steam it’s an absolutely steal.
Big Brother is watching...
An engrossing story with simple mechanics and high replayability. A steal at the asking price.