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.