Orwell begins with a scene of ordinary people milling around a European city piazza that's fringed by curbside cafes and centered with a modernist monument to liberty. It's a pleasant day in the sort of agreeable place reminiscent of Amsterdam, Bruges or Copenhagen.
Then a bomb, planted near the monument, explodes, killing and wounding dozens of people.
The attack sets off a nationwide panic. Terrorists are clearly to blame though, as the media soon points out, no organization claims responsibility.
The government's spooks are under pressure to find the killers and bring them to justice. In the hushed corridors of power, urgent inquiries begin as to how this might have been prevented, and how it might be prevented from happening again.
The attack sets off a nationwide panic.
You learn that the government has recently implemented a secret new intranet dedicated to logging and tracking the activities of anyone suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.
Called Orwell, it requires a small army of monitors who trawl the web and social media looking for leads, while also logging into the private emails and cell phone messages of anyone deemed to be a threat.
You play as one of those monitors.
Written by Hamburg-based three-person development team Osmotic, Orwell is due out on Windows PC later this year. The game takes its name from British novelist and activist George Orwell, whose mid-20th Century novel 1984 warned of a future in which the state carefully watches and controls the lives of its people.
The game comes at a time when the surveillance activities of Western governments are a cause for increasing concern, most especially in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks of seemingly uncontrolled global surveillance efforts by U.S agency, the NSA.
Meanwhile, public fears of terrorist attacks are at an all-time high, following mass murders in European and American cities, perpetrated by killers who cite political goals and beliefs as their main inspiration.
Orwell is one of a growing number of political games that address contemporary concerns.
The debate over security and privacy is one that faces governments as well as corporations with access to personal information, and individuals. This issue sits at the very heart of all our lives. It is at the nexus between you, your personal relationships, your cell phone, the company that makes it, the telecoms provider that supports it and the authorities that seek to monitor your activities.
At the same time, the rapid rise of social media has altered the nature of personal relationships and of the very notion of self. Many lives have been ruined by incautious proclamations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Every day, the courses of lives are changed by a potential employer or college admissions official skipping through the online profiles of individuals, oblivious to their own undoing.
Orwell is one of a growing number of political games that address contemporary concerns, while asking pertinent and sometimes difficult questions about our own complicity in dangerously faulty social systems.
Although clearly sympathetic to precious liberal notions like free expression and the rights of the individual, it also addresses the reality of terrorist bombs and the enormous dread and fear they inspire, as well as the often over-zealous overstep of governmental responses.
And it offers some stark lessons in the way we all present ourselves online, to the various congregations we expose ourselves to, from family, friends and potential lovers, to employers and the government.
"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."
This is a smart way of demonstrating the way power works in real life.
In early parts of a media demo, which I recently played, the main character learns to grapple with information and data tools. These include normal research tools, such as online newspapers and social media. The game highlights key pieces of information on suspects. It's up to the player to decide which pieces are relevant and which are not.
However, once a piece of data is uploaded to the Orwell database, it cannot be pulled back. And so the government begins to construct an image of the suspects that's far less nuanced than the player's view of that same person. This is a smart way of demonstrating the way power works in real life, in which complex identity factors — race, religion, education, geography, family — are reduced to binary indicators, sometimes catastrophically.
Here's an early example:
The first person the player investigates is a young woman called Cassandra Watergate. She has some loose affiliations with political groups and a minor criminal record for activism.
She is spotted, via security cameras, near the scene of the bombing. So, we start digging into her life, where she works, who she hangs out with.
Turns out she is using a credit card that does not belong to her. As a player, I saw this as being significant, and so I dragged that piece of information across the screen and deposited it with Orwell.
Only later did I realize that the credit card belonged to her lover. But by then, Orwell had already flagged her as a thief.
This is how security works in democracies, in which well-meaning systems drag innocent people into damaging nets.
"There are pieces of information out there about us all," says Marx. "But the true meaning of things is between the lines, between the data. Having to interpret that is part of the game but sometimes there is no way to express that nuance. There is a disconnect between data and the real person behind it."
Watergate seems like a person who dallies with activism and the seedy underbelly of the city, but she seems to me to be a confused person masquerading as an revolutionary. She's not unlikeable; she's just a bit annoying. The people she clings to are the ones who are more dynamic and arresting, and who the game goes on to investigate.
In a way, the Orwell system is doing its job, leading us to what the government euphemistically calls "persons of interest." But whether these more arresting people are bombers — or mere political agitators — remains to be seen.
Of course, by the time I've figured this out, Cassandra is already in the system, where she will continue to be flagged and identified for years to come, even as she grows and changes.
"The story looks at how people are judged because of things they've done in the past," says Marx. "We look at how inhuman it is to force people to confront old mistakes. It's scary that the web just doesn't forget.
"It comes back to hurt us because of a mistake we made or even an interpretation that we made a mistake."
Orwell is a commentary on free speech and on government surveillance, but it's also a metaphor for self-surveillance through social media.
"We have these very obvious George Orwell references, " says Taylor. "But 1984 was about an oppressive state that forced people to do certain things and surveilled them without their permission. Nowadays people put their private lives in public without even thinking about it or being forced to."
It's a metaphor for self-surveillance through social media.
Taylor says that Orwell is likely to appeal to young people who have grown up with social media, and are now coming to a realization that it is not an entirely benign or welcome presence in their lives.
The game serves as a warning and as a self-help guide for people who are getting to grips with the balance between revealing their true selves to the people they care about, and revealing a self-damaging version of themselves to the world at large.
"The game tells the story of these people and their different personalities and how they approach personal data in different ways," says Taylor. "We judge people by their online profiles. But think about the difference between a Facebook profile, a dating profile and a resume on LinkedIn, all belonging to the same person but all designed for different audiences."
"We want to warn people to be careful about their data," says Marx. "But at the same time it's really a shame we have to do that. The internet is a great achievement. It should be there for people to speak out freely and to share ideas."
Video games are getting better at driving powerful political points. But they do so in a way that is often different from novels or movies. Whereas more passive arts usually make a specific point, which the viewer or reader is expected to follow (e.g. apartheid is bad), games rely more on the freedom of the player to explore potential outcomes, and thereby, potentially divergent conclusions.
"In novels and movies, the author's underlying opinion is the most important," says Taylor. "But in a game, that doesn't work so well. You do need some freedom of decision as a player. It shouldn't feel too much like you are being pushed in a certain direction. Games are very good at provoking thoughts and perspectives, which is what we want to achieve."
Orwell is reminiscent of that classic political game Papers, Please, which investigated how barbaric, overbearing governments function, through the selfish but necessary participation of the oppressed. The player is a border guard who sacrifices social justice for survival.
Although Orwell takes place in a nice democracy, the underlying lessons are similar. As a government operative, players are ostensibly protecting their own interests by earning a living, as well as the interests of the state, by rooting out terrorists, while justifying and supporting a system of oppression.
The state spies on its people, and does so in a way that (arguably) may ultimately be more damaging to the good of the people than any number of terrorist attacks. Marx concedes that the personal views of the creators skew the game's central point in a certain direction.
"At the very heart, there is a sort of bias towards freedom of thought, that it should be possible to express yourself openly without having to fear repression of being prosecuted on points of data. But we still acknowledge that some kind of safety measures are probably necessary. The balance is up to the player to decide."