I was fortunate enough to see a variety of promising titles at this year’s gamescom. If I had to name my personal favorite, though, it would be a close race between Osmotic Studio’s surveillance thriller Orwell and Quantic Dream’s futuristic PS4 exclusive Detroit: Become Human. But while the latter is well-known and highly publicized, frankly I didn’t even know about the existence of Orwell until the first evening of gamescom. During a relaxed dinner, three colleagues from the German website Adventure Corner were raving about the game, so I decided to have a closer look myself. Two days later, I met Osmotic’s co-founder/artist Mel Taylor and Lex Suurland of Australian publisher Surprise Attack Games to get a personal glimpse at the studio’s debut title.
As I soon found out, virtually the entire game takes place within a fictional surveillance Operating System named Orwell. The invisible user of that OS – namely, the player – gets assigned by the government to find the perpetrator of a bomb attack that killed three people. Using various tools that Orwell has to offer, gamers will have the opportunity to research people who might be linked to the terrorist attack, and spy on their everyday lives in multiple ways. As we get to know our observation subjects in a very intimate way, tough choices await. Do we stay entirely loyal to our boss? Do we keep probing for secrets about characters who might want us to protect them from being incriminated?
As players decide which info ends up being permanently noted in the OS, there’s a strong responsibility on our shoulders, and when I played the highly immersive beginning of Orwell, I realized that few other titles had made me feel this uneasy about my actions before. Games have very different ways of challenging intellect, and Orwell takes a very different approach compared to traditional puzzle-based adventure design. If you appreciate games that soak you deep into their world, and make you ponder your decisions very carefully, I predict that you’re in for a real treat.
I won’t say more about what I experienced in the game’s first chapter, as it’s best to hear more about the game directly from the source. The following interview with Mel Taylor will provide a much more detailed idea of Orwell’s distinctive concept before the game’s scheduled Windows release, coming some time later this month.
Ingmar: Hi Mel, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Please introduce yourself for our readers, and tell us about Osmotic Studios.
Osmotic Studios' Mel Taylor
Melanie “Mel” Taylor: My name is Mel and I am the artist and one of the founders of Osmotic Studios. My co-founders are Daniel Marx, who works on game design and writing, and Michael Kluge who does the programming for Orwell. We are a young indie studio committed to making games with narrative and personal resonance that challenge players to reflect on the world around them. Orwell is our first game to be commercially released and we have been working on it for about two years.
Ingmar: Let’s talk about the unusual premise of Orwell, and how the game introduces it to players.
Mel: The intro sequence is seen through several surveillance cameras that show a busy plaza in the fictional city Bonton. During that scene, a bomb explodes, kills three people and destroys a monument. You, as the player, are assigned by the government to find out who’s responsible for the terror attack. The thing is, the game takes place within a fictional OS named Orwell. After the intro sequence, your boss Symes contacts you, introduces you to Orwell, and explains your assignment. Then he presents you with a fictional web browser which allows you to access a news website that contains an article about the explosion.
Very soon you have a main suspect who is the first person you’ll need to research. Let me explain: The security cameras at the plaza have scanned the faces of everyone who’s been around before and during the explosion. A blue-haired woman named Cassandra has drawn attention because of a previous entry on her police record. As Symes introduces you to the police database, you’ll find out more about her police record. This results in the player being able to fill in an Orwell profile about Cassandra.
Ingmar: How do we do that?
Mel: This is actually quite simple. The Orwell window is on the left side of the screen while other sources of information are on the right. Content from the right window can be added to Orwell via drag-and-drop. The more info you add, the more access you’ll receive to further documents. The Orwell system acts as a kind of keyword search engine, highlighting the most important information on the suspect by using former keywords you already put into the system. These keywords or text passages are named “datachunks”.
Ingmar: What does Cassandra’s police record tell us about her?
Mel: She participated in a protest march at the plaza in the past, and got accused of injuring a police officer during that event. Symes says it can hardly be a coincidence she’s gone to the same location again right before the bomb went off. After all, we know she’s a political activist who became conspicuous for violent behavior before. Since we put this particular info into Orwell, we are able to research further documents; for example, an article about the protest march. Now it’s up to you to dig deeper and find out more about Cassandra. I should add that you can’t just mechanically add content to Orwell as not everything you find is relevant, so you need to ponder the importance of information.
Ingmar: What can you tell me about the impact of player investigation?
Mel: In the beginning, Symes also explains why the government didn’t just come up with kind of a search engine where all the data is collected. There is an ethics codex behind Orwell; you as the researcher are the only person who is able to rate information, and add it to Orwell. Having said that, the degree of a character’s incrimination is based on your decisions. There is a strong human aspect to your work, so your task is not just about collecting data.
Ingmar: Does that mean I can put less effort into researching a character if I see no reason for it?
Mel: Yes, that’s possible. The events of the game are split up into several days. The first day is rather linear, and your influence is comparably linear as this day focuses on Cassandra.
Ingmar: Kind of a prologue to get used to the OS, I guess.
Mel: Right! On the second day, for instance, you can research three or four characters. How much effort you put into researching respective characters is up to you. As I indicated before, if you only add very little information to Orwell concerning a particular character, the less suspicious that person is (though this might not always be the case). During the course of the story, slightly different things can happen, based on how you depict people.
Ingmar: I imagine this could make players feel quite uneasy about some of their decisions.
Mel: We definitely have the ambition of making players feel uncomfortable about some aspects. Like, in the beginning when you start researching Cassandra, you might feel it’s likely she’s involved with the terror act. Yet, as you get to know characters better you realize they’re not always who they seemed to be at first glance. So, yeah, we certainly want players to question certain actions, and perhaps feel sorry about some of their decisions.
Ingmar: The people we observe become more than just a name in a database. That reminds me of the Academy Award-winning movie The Lives of Others.
Mel: (smiles) That’s an excellent comparison!
Ingmar: (smiles) A brilliant movie, by the way!
Mel: I agree completely, and I really like using The Lives of Others as a comparison. In that movie, the Stasi surveillance agent built up an emotional relation to the person he observed. We really hope players will feel a similar way when they play Orwell.Continued on the next page...