A qualified success; the positive aspects still outnumber the negative, but the weaknesses noticeably hinder the experience.
There’s a reason that most adventure games choose not to tackle meaty social subject matter, and it’s a pretty simple one: doing so in a way that provokes actual thought and consideration rather than mockery and unintended laughter is very difficult. It requires great writing with believable scenarios while dancing around the landmines of unnecessarily heavy-handed plot and painfully stereotypical characters. Orwell, the debut game from German indie Osmotic Studios which is described by the developer as a “privacy invasion thriller,” is a game that attempts to incite a dialogue about a very prominent modern question: in a world where there are indisputably very dangerous people capable of doing very bad things, how much surveillance of our personal lives by our government should we be willing to tolerate?
The game, indirectly named after British author George Orwell, whose post-World War II novel Nineteen Eighty-Four remains a chillingly prescient discussion of government oversight, puts you in the role of a newly employed investigator for The Nation, a position charged with operation of the country’s new in-depth surveillance system. As you proceed to fulfill your duties through five connected chapters, you’ll have to make some very difficult decisions about how to utilize the information in front of you that could—and possibly should—put lives at risk. Orwell is very well-designed and proves to be effective at provoking thought on the consequences and the benefits of this level of surveillance, but is tripped up from its full potential by its hammy dialogue and extreme lack of difficulty.
Life as an investigator is pretty humdrum, consigned to stare at a computer terminal all day, and this is the conceit of Orwell, a game in which you’ll spend literally five hours simply interacting with text and looking at a few static pictures—it’s the story unfolding in front of you, and your role in moving it forward, that creates the intrigue. The game opens with a brief cinematic setting the stage: a terrorist bombing in a public place has shaken the faith of the citizens of the Nation. With an initial person of interest identified, it’s now time to utilize the capabilities of the recently developed (and ironically named) ORWELL system to start building a folder of information.
You build this information initially by simply browsing the in-game internet, though there is no text entry of web addresses in the game—everything you’ll need is pre-bookmarked for you as the omniscient computer’s process flags it as potentially relevant. As you come across facts or statements that appear to be significant to understanding your current target, or their relationship to other possible persons of interest, they are automatically tagged on the screen as a “datachunk,” which you then manually drag over to another window where you’ve pulled up that person’s file to add the information. You will soon find yourself building background files for multiple people, although only when someone is considered a person of interest does your program actively hunt cyberspace for relevant data on them.
You are just the investigator here; you don’t get to make any direct decisions about how the information is used. That action role is left to your partner Symes, who can communicate with you but can’t, in turn, see you or receive any information from you other than the datachunks you upload. It’s not adequately explained why the system requires this one-way firewall between you and Symes, but that’s what you’ve got to work with.
As an example of the investigative process, you may find through a social networking site that your present suspect uses a certain alias; dragging that alias over to their file causes your system to flag another website where they’ve left a comment that shows their negative feelings about the government. Now some more sleuthing through the websites that open up (or previously visited websites that are flagged for newly relevant information) gives you an email address or a uChat ID—and of course, this being an Orwellian society, once an individual is an investigation target you are free to hack into their email or their uChat. Once you find a phone number you’ll even be able to listen into their phone calls (there is no voice acting; listening to a call is limited to watching the text transcription crawl, which is clever but also a bit time-consuming), and in some cases you’ll hit the grand prize: their unique computer ID, allowing you to hack directly into their computer system and browse their files, including their pictures, browser history, and other very private items that they may have left in their desktop Recycle Bin.
Things get a bit more complex when the system encounters what it determines to be contradictory facts through datachunks. Even though it might be abundantly clear what is an actual fact versus misleading text that the computer interprets literally, you can pick one of the two to upload. If someone posts on social media that their job is “bothering random people,” you and I know that’s not their actual job. But to a humorless computer, that’s a perfectly valid option. Sometimes you’ll get chewed out when an obviously wrong fact is chosen for upload (which you likely wouldn’t ever do unless you were trying to be bad at your job) but sometimes you really will have an effect on the investigation. You can also get a stern talking-to from Symes if you upload useless information; apparently he does not care about someone’s favorite flowers or birthday, but he obviously has no control over the information, he just decides what to do when it’s provided to him.
What’s most frustrating is when you legitimately make a mistake, as your choice of which contradictory datachunk to upload is permanent and cannot be overridden. One such possibility is uploading a character’s street address when two different social media references provide two options, making it very easy to misunderstand which one is the correct address. Now seriously, why would a system used to make life and death decisions about citizens enforce complete permanence on any sort of information that you discover? Although the game intends for you to always have enough information to make the right selection, in the event you get something wrong, wouldn’t the ultimate interest always be replacing the wrong information with the right information once you figure it out? While these contradictory datachunks are a nice game mechanic, their entire context makes no sense.
Although the reason a system would be designed this way is never explained well, the firewall between you as the data-miner and Symes as the information-parser is used to create meaningful choices, and when it works, it’s very powerful. As is my personal rule with reviewing choice-based games, I only played through the game once, but I could tell multiple times that I was being given a great deal of power over people's lives. There’s a poignant moment when Symes informs you that he’s sending a team of police to the suspect you’re investigating, and you have the ability to upload information that will either assist their pursuit or send their investigation completely off course, depending on the level of sympathy you’re feeling at this point for the suspect. The number of Steam achievements indicates that there are many branches to follow; in my first play-through I only received 13 of the 27 available achievements, which tells me there were many things I could have done differently.
The final decision of the game is your ultimate opportunity to take sides, but it’s also where the game really deteriorates from a storytelling perspective. Your choice, in essence, is to pull the proverbial trigger for a repressive surveillance regime and cast your lot with Big Government, or display grand sympathy for the citizens you’ve been investigating. I would venture to say that the latter would be a more plausible course of action if the bad guys weren’t written as such profoundly dislikable jerks, but with every social media post I explored, every phone call I listened in on, every uChat session with immediate family that I observed, I wanted to lock most of the characters up for just being rude and annoying. Sometimes they get so out of control with the shout-text and punctuation, I can only imagine how much more impact the game’s final scenes would have with characters that were more evenly human and sympathetic, rather than anti-societal caricatures.
Orwell is broken into five chapters which were originally released separately with only a one-week delay between episodes. The installments are generally broken up to focus on four different persons of interest, with each part’s climax showing that character’s fate and teasing the next bit of the story, and then a fifth and climactic episode to clean up the mess of a major cliffhanger. The developer states that now that they’ve released the full game, they are rushing back to stamp out bugs and typos before moving on to port to other platforms, which would lead one to reasonably believe they could have just added a bit more of a gap between episode releases and worked through all of those prior to early adopters playing through. The game is well-polished in most respects, but every now and then a word is missing from a critical sentence and it’s clear that things were just a little rushed.
As I mentioned earlier, there isn’t a whole lot to look at. The entire game consists of multiple windows on your terminal, plus occasional graphics through websites, newspaper photos, or the various profiles of the persons of interest in your investigation, with no animation ever present. The pictures are deliberately ugly, using blocky, texture-free triangles to create the art, presumably to establish visual consistency with the theme of a harsh and rigid government. Otherwise, there’s a whole lot of text at all times, to the extent that eye strain is a legitimate concern with prolonged playing. Fortunately, the game features a great ambient soundtrack throughout, a moody electronica score that is effectively sinister.
Though there are “goals” that are generally active throughout the game, usually relating to uncovering specific facts or motivations, they aren’t really what drive you, because Orwell’s biggest downfall is that it is far too linear and helpful. There’s really no investigation to speak of, since the system flags whatever websites or social media accounts have useful information. Your entire involvement is simply reading whatever the next thing in front of you is, processing (or rejecting) the auto-highlighted datachunks accordingly, and moving on to the next flagged conversation. There may be choices, but the choice moments come and go in the same linear format as the rest of the content. How much more interesting the game would be if the datachunks weren’t already designated so you could highlight them on your own, though I realize it would be much more difficult to program that way. This is a game for those who want to experience a story interactively, as it is completely lacking in anything that could be considered an actual puzzle, or even actual sleuthwork.
Orwell is a timely reinvention of a long-term concept and it works on many levels, so it's a shame that its potential is undermined somewhat by the one-dimensional dialogue writing and the incredible linearity of gameplay. The moments that utilize choice are interesting (at least up until the finale), but otherwise this is a game that requires patience and an appetite for a lot of reading. It’s certainly a design and a concept that is worth trying, however, and hopefully will be explored further in a better-written game in the future. After all, it’s not as though government surveillance is going away any time soon.