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.Continued on the next page...