Orwell review

Game Info
Platform Win
Publisher Surprise Attack Games
Developer Osmotic Studios
Release Date Oct 27, 2016

It's timely that Orwell, a game about state surveillance from developer Osmotic Studios, is set in a fictional country (called The Nation) that's not unlike Britain, a country which once prided itself on the ancient liberties of its people.

In November, the British government passed the Investigatory Powers Act, a raft of intrusive snooping powers that NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden says "goes further than many autocracies" in monitoring citizens.

In the wake of murderous terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, London and elsewhere in the early to mid ‘00s, it was British prime minister Tony Blair who instigated deeper monitoring of Britons. But this is an international trend that's mirrored in the United States and other democracies, as they seek to cope with domestic and external acts of terror, while grappling with social media, cellphones and other newish communications technologies.

Orwell is a fiction. But it's a frightening parable about real people, ongoing events and a troubling change that's being wedged into our lives, right now.

You dig through online posts, social media, and private correspondence

The place-names, dialog and governmental structures in Orwell carry an authentic British feel. The country's leader is a man called "Blaine," who presides over an ever-expanding governmental role in the "safety" of the people.

The Nation has commissioned a program called Orwell to investigate citizens suspected of affiliation with terror groups. The player is hired as an anonymous operative who digs through the online posts, social media activities and private correspondence of suspects and their associates.

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A game about freedom of speech

"Our main goal is not to transport a message. It's more about asking questions than giving answers," says co-creator Melanie Taylor. "We're hoping to get people to think about online information and surveillance as well as security.

"It's this privacy vs. security thing. The more security we have, the less privacy we enjoy. On the other hand, the more freedom people have, the more one could be afraid of security risks."

The team met while studying on a game design course. They've worked on smaller, individual games before, but this is their first together.

"We originally set out to make a thriller, not a political game," says designer Daniel Marx. "We felt that somebody should cover this topic of privacy, so we started brainstorming." (Read more)

A deadly bombing in The Nation's capital sets the scene. At first, I was tasked with following a single lead, a young woman captured on CCTV near the bombing's location. She was previously tried for attacking a police officer at a political rally. My boss - a true believer in the power of information - notes that he does not believe in coincidence. This one sentence distills the general menace of Orwell's masters, who assume that malevolence lurks in every corner they cannot see.

I began by checking out the suspect's police files, her social media pages, her employment records. Before long, I was using Orwell to spy on her telephone conversations and text messages.

I found that she is connected to a group of activists called Thought, who are concerned about the erosion of liberties represented by governments that spy on the people they are supposed to serve.

All this is presented as a series of text conversations in which key snippets are highlighted. Your job is to decide which chunks of data to upload to Orwell. It soon transpires that your decisions will have life or death consequences.

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I sifted through a lot of data, reading emails, call logs, website manifesto, social media drivel, internet comments. If I wanted, I could've skipped a lot of the the text. The relevant data is always easy to access, unlocking new documents and new paths forward. But I took a great deal of pleasure snooping into the lives of these people. I read almost every word of text Orwell (the game and the system) put in front of me, something I hardly ever do in games.

Happily, Orwell is one of the most competently written video games I’ve played. Its dialog is vibrant, engaging and realistic. It reads like an engrossing and complex spy novel. Every conversation and clue offers potential narrative leads that pulled me forward into unfolding plots and conspiracies.

The initial suspect, like all of us, is part of a social nexus of friends, relations, colleagues and acquaintances, who each branch off into their own social sub-groups. Before long, the player understands that they all must be investigated and either discounted or identified as potential targets.

I looked into every private aspect of their lives, including health records, emails and personal photographs. I accessed the GPS records on their cell phones. I hacked into their computers at work and at home.

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Orwell creates a fabulously convincing microcosm of the internet, which offers a perceptive cross-section of the media and of the narcissism of Facebook, Twitter et al.

The media is also excoriated. News sites are presented as puppets of power, focused intensely on self interest. One of my favorite sections is a hilariously sycophantic interview on a major news website, with an entrepreneur who also happens to be a major advertiser.

I got a kick out of knee-jerk outrage from homophobic internet commenters, the douchebag musings of slacktivist bloggers and craven "I-can-see-both-sides" types wedging themselves pointlessly into the conversation. A host of characters act as surrogates for various viewpoints on the safety-or-liberty spectrum, from well-meaning fools to dangerous fanatics. They are recognizably familiar people, but they are never stereotypical.

For most of its six-hour run, Orwell delivers a constant stream of new leads and intriguing cliff-hangers.

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Orwell's use of readily supplied slugs of information means there's usually little challenge involved in identifying what is likely to move the story forward. Artificial intelligence and game design is not far enough evolved to simply allow me to find and create my own montage of information, and so I mostly allowed myself to be lead by my nose towards the conclusion.

For me, there were occasional times when leads ran dry and I became lost in a maze of documents, searching for the key to progress, like a bad RPG player wandering around dungeon corridors. These moments were frustrating, but diligent research always yielded progress, eventually.

The Orwell system says it only wants information that is relevant. My boss scolded me when I uploaded something trivial. But when I was lost, I found myself just throwing information at the database, hoping that something might turn out to be useful. Often, Orwell failed to highlight data that was obviously going to be useful, like a person-of-interest's photograph, only to later put the data in play, once other narrative doors had been unlocked.

But these shortcomings are forgivable in a game that innovates so smartly in turning a gripping drama into a work of genuinely interactive fiction. While the player's choices are partly plot-driven, they are also deeply moral.

It's obvious from early in the game that Orwell is a nasty piece of work. My first target is taking medication for anxiety. I upload this information, thinking it might come in useful. Orwell decides this means she has an unstable personality.

Following this outrageous leap, I'm much more cautious about my decisions. It also made me really scared about the information I put online about myself, and how it might be used against me.

But as a government snitch, at least in this game, my job is to be vigilant. This is not merely a Kafka-esque exercise in domination and power. Bombs are going off. People are being killed. It's the state's job to catch the murderers.

It's significant that Orwell is actually good at what it does, even while it tramples upon civil liberties and basic decency. By uploading certain data-chunks, I know that I trigger consequences beyond my control. In contrast, if I cut the individuals I watch some slack, I might be endangering civilian lives.

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During my playthrough, I uncovered a terrorist plot and was hailed as a hero. But I also made a series of decisions that caused the death of an innocent person. Even as she was gunned down by the police, even as the media portrayed her as a probable terrorist, I felt like was doing the right thing. I was wrong. Systems like Orwell are often wrong.

The crux of the moral problem is that the choice between intrusion and liberty is not a simple one. If it were, the game's central theme wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting. Osmotic Studios’ writers are obviously hostile to increasing levels of surveillance, and the arguments used to support these intrusions. But Orwell takes the time to present the case for legislation like the Patriot Act and the Investigatory Powers Act

In real life, governments insist that snooping protects us, that we have nothing to fear so long as we have nothing to hide. This is an argument that many people believe is true. They are openly willing to accept the possibility of their Facebook messages being watched, if it helps catch the bad guys or prevents just one atrocity.

These dilemmas are played out in Orwell, which soon turns its attention onto its own makers and administrators, whose concern for safety shifts rapidly when they become investigatory targets.

Wrap Up:

Orwell's dazzling satire is a warning

Orwell grabs the problem of how we balance our own liberty and our safety and turns it into a thrilling adventure. It unfolds complex debate points into a dazzling satire, that neatly presents all the relevant arguments as a series of moral problems, dressed up in a frighteningly convincing world.

But ultimately, Orwell is a warning. To play it is to submit to the anxiety of knowing that we are being watched, and that the watchers don't always have our best interests at heart.

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