Orwell’s Animal Farm review
“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” This iconic line from George Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm sets the tone for its dystopic premise. Somewhere in rural England, the animals revolt against their human oppressors and take over the farm in an attempt to form an equalitarian, self-regulatory regime called “The Republic of the Animals.” Soon, however, the animals realize that oppression is infused within their society as well, and while some concepts may be noble in theory they get deluded and disabused in practice. Of course, when Orwell wrote his book in 1945 he was critiquing communism in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, his astute observations on politics and social formations make his work relevant up to this day. Now the story gets a new interactive spin by Nerial Limited that is minimal in its gameplay and lacks the larger perspective of its source material, but should satisfy anyone interested in exploring the novel in a playful manner.
Orwell's Animal Farm is a narrative-driven game that gives players the ability to manage the eponymous farm and influence its course over seven years, though it remains true to the spirit of the original by removing any sort of a real happy ending. You are required to make difficult decisions while trying to overcome external struggles (the weather, the attack of nearby human farmers) and internal conflicts (should the animals work or rest, should the rats be allowed to stay or chased away from the farm) and keep dedication to the cause high. It won’t be long before you realize that retaining this balance is no easy feat and that sacrifices need to be made. Even if the animals manage to survive for seven years and reach one of the four reasonably successful endings, the feeling of precariousness and uncertainty still lingers. The struggle, the adversity, and the fear thereof are never completely removed, making the game pertinent to the novel’s dystopian message that oppression and rebellion are a constant cycle humanity cannot escape no matter the best of intentions.
In the game, the player does not assume any particular role but is instead responsible for the farm in general. After the initial scene, in which the animals rebel against their owner and chase him away, you can command the progression of the narrative and the fate of the farm by choosing one of the available options, represented by different animals (e.g. the dogs are usually in favor of military actions such as building up a fence to keep attackers away). These options appear against a static game screen, most often a bird’s-eye view of the farm and/or the barn where the animals convene, over which you move the cursor and the available interactive points get highlighted. The amount of control you can exercise is limited, however. You can only choose from a predefined set of actions in a handful of given situations, with no direct influence on the story’s linearity or progression of time. Not only are the options few, the choice-making is sparse; this is not a farm simulation game, after all. Through this scarcity of choices, which resembles the scarcity of resources that plagues the farm, you are forced to understand that there are by no means any defined routes to success.
Instead, every decision brings a consequence, the results of which are imminently obvious: if you choose to allocate resources to building a windmill, for example, the stack of hay, which represents the currency power of the farm here, is immediately diminished, which means that the animals may not have sufficient food during the winter. Equally, if you opt to have the animals constantly work, they will get tired and unmotivated, some may die or flee the farm, and their dedication to the cause will also suffer. This dedication – the spirit of Animalism as it is described in the game – is a value that measures how devoted the animals are. If it falls very low, then the animals abandon the cause, which brings a premature ending. The game does not provide any indication as to the ramifications of each option, which makes the decision-making even harder, especially in the first few playthroughs, and somewhat tedious in the following ones.
As such, the game by itself cannot convey the full philosophical context of Animal Farm. It is interesting for someone familiar with Orwell’s work, but if you do not know anything about it then I’m not convinced this adaptation will inspire such musings as the novel did. Perhaps this was never the intention of the designers, but at the same time if someone plays the game without prior knowledge of the book, they will probably get annoyed by the rigidity and arbitrariness of the available choices. Even though the game time follows the succession of the seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter, and so on – there is no cyclic consistency of which animals can do what, and when each event will happen. Boxer, the horse, for instance, can sometimes work while other times he cannot (as in he does not appear as an option). This makes strategic management of the farm very difficult and limits the opportunities for experimentation. Some results can only be avoided by certain choices that in turn negatively affect other outcomes.
In this way, the game feels more like a simulation of the novel’s narrative rather than the situation described by Orwell, meaning that it follows the same execution of the author’s “what-if” plot rather than taking its high concept and allowing you to experiment with the various ways it could have played out. (For example, how different would the story be if it focused on Benjamin’s unrequited love for Boxer?) This makes sense, though, since Orwell’s whole corpus is based on the futility of choice. Having personally read Animal Farm, my immediate reaction during my first playthrough was to do everything in my power to undermine the pigs, Napoleon especially, because I detest his authoritative and dictatorial attitude and thought it was the main reason behind the farm’s failure. Yet this approach resulted in a lack of leadership and a diminished Animalism. Moreover, each of the three pigs represents a different set of options: Napoleon is the military power, Squealer is the propagandist, while Snowball is the idealist. If one of the pigs is removed due to your choices, then the remaining available options are reduced. Without Napoleon, for instance, you cannot make any military choices or enforce the rules of the Republic of the Animals, which leaves the farm in a relatively defenseless state.
This, in my opinion, is one of the strongest points of the game: the fact that you can identify with the animals and distinguish them through individual personalities with different advantages and disadvantages. This gives Orwell’s Animal Farm a more realistic dimension in comparison to the novel, whose characters served much more as archetypes within the allegorical setting of the story. The game can also function as allegory, such as Mollie the mare still representing the petit bourgeoisie that prefers human oppression as long as she gets treats and does not have to work much. At the same time, the fact that you can influence, albeit limitedly, the progression of the narrative makes the experience much more personal. The results of your actions (and indeed the available actions themselves) are very restricted here, which can lead to frustration, but this is exactly the message the game tries to convey: the asphyxiation and the inescapability of a dystopia.
The voice-over, exceptionally performed by actor Abubakar Salim, occurs only during the narrative parts and not the animal dialogues. As such, the effect is that of an omniscient narrator, who with his booming, resonating, and distinctively solemn voice recounts events as indisputable facts. The present tense of the text further reaffirms the impression of the story’s progress being a general truth rather than a matter of personal choice. This reinforces this feeling of acting out a dead-end story with predefined elements rather than writing it as you go.
In terms of ambience, both the music – an uplifting march-like tune – and the minimal animal sound effects are quite fitting to the scenery of a farm in upheaval. Visually, the color palette and the design, similar to a bucolic painting or a children’s book, contribute all the more to the sense of homage to the novel and the era it was written, with everything looking a bit old and rundown. And yet the scenery is not bleak but retains a cheerful and dare I say hopeful flair, especially during spring. This can also be translated as remaining true to the novel’s spirit, which, whether despite or due to its being a dystopia, retains a commitment to this perhaps naïve positivity: that everything can be done differently and everything can be done anew, even with compromises.
Since this is a text-heavy game, I must commend the excellent writing of Emily Short. The script is concise and to the point, does not try to over-explain or convolute Orwell’s story, and masterfully matches Orwell’s writing style. In terms of technical issues, all in all the game is well-designed, though sometimes animals that have died will appear to comment on a given situation, which is clearly a bug. Other than that, it bothered me that once you have played the first part of the game, each new game does not start from the beginning but only after the animals have chased away Mr. Jones, the human owner of the farm. It makes no difference to the available endings, but it would be better to revisit the prologue, or at least be given the option to do so, since in that way each playthrough would be a full reiteration of the story. You can only do that if you completely reset your game and thus lose any track of which endings you’ve already completed.
A playthrough to reach a successful ending takes more or less an hour, which is a good thing because longer durations of such rigid gameplay would become too tiresome. The way to reach the alternate endings is not that different, however, meaning that most of the actions get repeated and most of the dialogues remain the same. That takes away from the replayability of the experience, since the gameplay becomes tedious after the first couple of times, especially since you cannot skip any parts. That being said, the addition of original characters, most notably a camel from a travelling circus that decides to join the farm after hearing positive things about the animals' revolution, constitutes a note of novelty that mayhap the designers could explore further in any potential DLC.
To summarize, Orwell’s Animal Farm is a well-designed and thought-out game that succeeds in doing what its premise advertises: exploring Orwell’s novel and its messages in an interactive setting. It works best for those who already understand the larger context of the 1945 novel, and it is not a game for fans of action and puzzles, or even of simulations. The aim of the experience is not to allow players to best manage the farm. Instead, it provokes contemplation and reflection on how excessiveness and extremeness, in all directions, can lead to imbalance; that totalitarianism can spring out of the best of intentions when they are left unchecked; and that no matter how restricted our agency, we still are all responsible for the common welfare. Seasons will come and go, haters will hate, and problems will keep arising. It is our choice to continue to try even when things get tough; not for any false promise of stability and an elusive happy ending, but for being able to live out the consequences of our own actions. That’s a message that is as relevant today for us human beings as it was in 1945.
Orwell’s Animal Farm is a very good reimagining of the famous novel, staying true to the spirit of the dystopic Republic of the Animals. Though it lacks the kind of puzzles and gameplay to make it a full-fledged adventure, it’s a must-play for those who would enjoy a well-executed exploration of a classic novel.