An emptiness gripped me as I stared at Orwell’s ending credits. The same lingering questioning kept replaying in my mind: what had I actually accomplished? A lot of people got arrested, others died, the status quo of the surveillance state was unchanged, and at the end of the day, the mastermind behind the whole terrorist plot somehow got away.
While there’s no denying that Orwell does act as a venue for the developers to impart social commentary, it’s also not entirely black-and-white commentary. The Orwell surveillance system errs in ripping too much information out of context, incriminating anyone who so much as whispers of rebellion, but at the same time, few of the suspects you investigate can be classified as good people. At times, their actions might even justify the system.
I don’t wish to delve into too many spoilers, but suffice to say, certain characters involved in the game’s terror plot are driven to violence by a strong distrust of governmental surveillance. It’s a classic case of “do the ends justify the means?” My answer to that question was an emphatic no, but I also sympathized with the cause itself. The result was some very haphazard decision-making on my part that ultimately didn’t resolve a lot.
It may not have been the ending I was looking for (in fact, none of the endings have happy resolutions), but it made me rethink issues of privacy, security, political activism and political violence in ways I hadn’t before. It just validated the notion that Orwell is as interested in entertaining players as it is in facilitating political discourse, and I absolutely love that, if only for how refreshing it is to see that today in the games industry.
It’s just a shame that the reveal of the mysterious mastermind behind all the terrorist mayhem ends up feeling predictable, especially because most of the red herrings have already been dispensed with by that point. The motivation behind the attack certainly makes narrative sense, but I was waiting for a gut-punch that never hit me as hard as I wanted it to.
There are still surprises in store for the player, though, like a brilliant character twist in episode four that nearly made my jaw drop. And if you’re diligent, the game even rewards you with revelations about previously untouchable characters like the anonymous and eccentric hacker, Initiate. Some sparingly used, yet highly effective music cues even help to elevate tension, when appropriate. And for a text-based game centered on terrorist atrocities, there’s even a surprising amount of humor thrown in to balance the gloom out.
Unlike previous episodes, episode five introduces a limit on the chunks of data players can upload. It’s a neat change of pace that not only adds urgency, but also dramatically ups the challenge by forcing players to consider far more carefully what’s relevant to the investigation.
If there’s one major hurdle to truly enjoying the final episode, it’s that some choices feel obscure or difficult to correlate with available evidence, and consequently, it can be a bit confusing figuring out what to do next to achieve a certain ending. Compared to prior episodes, there’s a lack of signposting to guide players. This could be intentional, but it also feels awkward accidentally triggering certain irreversible events by merely clicking a tab. It doesn’t help that there’s no rewind feature, although Osmotic Studios has confirmed via Steam forums that such a feature is planned.
One scene had the suspects conversing and telling each other not to hide out in places they had visited in the past 24 hours. Eventually, though, you’re staring at a handful of addresses that they’ve both visited in the last 24 hours and you have to pick the right address. I get it, there are some red herrings involved, but it turned deduction into guesswork, which made it feel less like a victory when I accidentally chose the right address. The episode also isn’t completely free of bugs. Certain data chunks veer off to the corner where you either can’t read the entirety of them or disable them.
Curiously, there’s no option of remaining a totally loyal government drone until the end. This might usually be construed as a con; other political games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided merely drop an issue in players’ laps and ask them to interpret it as they please. That’s all well and dandy, but it also comes across as apologetic, as if game developers aren’t allowed to actually say anything meaningful of their own. That’s why it’s all the more commendable that Osmotic Studios makes full use of the video game medium by allowing for player input without shying away from making a statement.
There are still plenty of ways to express one’s views throughout the final episode. Even if you play along with the government’s premise of spying on the people, you have a lot of opportunities to rebel against the state. Conversely, you have the option of jailing many of the freedom fighters who have chosen to rebel against the system.
Ultimately, despite its flaws, Orwell is a successful experiment I would like to see continued. It’s a story about the limits of looking at points of data without knowing the whole story, and that story is enhanced by virtue of being part of a video game that features tons of player agency. It’s also a story that didn’t need high production values to be told, and that is probably the most impressive takeaway here. Whether Osmotic Studios expands on their storytelling prowess in a sequel, DLC, or an entirely different game remains to be seen, but I for one am excited to see what they cook up next.
Rage Against the Machine
While it takes some missteps, Orwell's conclusion is as satisfyingly thought-provoking as the rest of the series.