Let’s get one thing out of the way here: if you don’t like reading, you’re not going to like Orwell much, because reading is just about all you’ll be doing in Orwell.
Like Papers, Please and Her Story before it, Orwell relies on letting players do most of the work. It presents players with some very rudimentary gameplay mechanics and then forces them to engage their critical thinking to piece together the story that is unfolding before them.
In a day and age where exorbitant amounts of money are thrown at increasingly flashy shooting arcades, it’s refreshing to see a game take this approach by doing so much with so little.
Orwell is essentially a 1984-inspired data mining simulator with an interface that boils down to players pretending to be Big Brother as they scroll through a few social media pages. You are a surveillance agent of The Nation and your job is to investigate suspects in a terrorist attack.
To uncover more details, you basically stampede your way through the suspects’ personal information, chat conversations, emails, profile pages, status updates, blogs, and so on. It’s an incredibly simple, if not exactly elegant, interface, but it never threatens to overwhelm players with information.
What information you decide to discard or upload to your superior is entirely up to you. This might make it sound like you can just stockpile every tidbit of information you come across, but that actually becomes counterproductive. At certain junction points, you even come across conflicting pieces of information that either serve to incriminate or exonerate the victim.
In that sense, there is some roleplay involved and it goes a long way toward adding depth to what might otherwise just have been a mouse-dragging simulator.
Considering my great distaste for the overbearing surveillance state of Oceania portrayed in 1984, I had originally intended for my actions to err on the less invasive side of things. But by the first episode’s end, I still found myself dismayed at my own eagerness to point fingers at the suspect for the sake of progressing through the game and gaining favor with my superiors.
One particular instance involved finding out about a stolen credit card the suspect had acquired. It wasn’t proof of causing a terrorist attack, but it sure seemed like a red flag at the time, so like a good lapdog, I uploaded the information to my superiors. Only later did I discover that the credit card wasn’t stolen at all, but in fact, belonged to her boyfriend.
Another instance had me stumble upon the suspect’s social media feed to find some conspicuously violent and sinister rhetoric being directed at the government. Having failed to learn from my previous lesson, I took the information at face value and escalated it to my boss, who was no doubt pleased.
Of course, it didn’t take long to then find out that the suspect also happened to be on antidepressants and was suffering from a mental condition. Suddenly, the weight of her online rants had deflated like whoopee cushions, and my accusations seemed shoddy at best. It didn’t matter, though, because the damage was already done and my boss had taken the woman in for questioning.
That’s where the beautiful dichotomy lies in the game – on the one hand, it rewards you for trying to do your job and ‘beat the game,’ but on the other, it reminds you of the moral implications of what you’re doing.
It’s tempting to play the role of the Yes Man and simply do your job, and that’s a perfectly valid approach. But what, then, is the cost to freedom? Conversely, you could play the game as an undercover freedom fighter. Is the cost to The Nation’s security worth it in that case? It’s not an ethical dilemma Orwell answers so much as it broaches. It simply asks players to treat each moment in the game with as objective a mind as possible. You might even say Orwell is one of the first political games to truly do that successfully.
If there’s one downside to the opening episode, it stems from the inherent necessity of heavy tutorializing in a game like this. A good chunk of the episode is spent handholding players and introducing them to the game’s systems, some of which aren’t even unlocked by the end of the roughly one-hour long playtime.
In other words, the first episode mainly sets the board, hinting at greater things to come without diving too far into the mystery. It’s an appetizer, but a mighty interesting one.