George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the sort of writer whose work is unlikely to ever feel irrelevant or unimportant. Although his writing is only explicitly mentioned a few times in Orwell, the game questions modern surveillance techniques and the security of online communication in a way you'd imagine the author would were he still alive.
You play as an “investigator” with access to Orwell, the ironically named surveillance system used to accumulate data on suspicious individuals. Your first day on the job opens with a bomb detonating in a public park, and the next five days, spread between five chapters, are dedicated to working out who was behind this attack and preventing further incidents. This is all done by collecting information about suspects from their digital presence, both public (blogs, comments, social media) and private (bank account, phone calls, email, their home desktops).
The Orwell program has an “Ethical Codex” that requires each piece of intelligence found to go through a two-step process. Data you find can be sent on to an “adviser” who does not have access to the same systems you do, cannot have a conversation with you, and must judge evidence impartially. This system means that you need to really pay attention to what data you’re sending through and what you’re choosing to ignore.
As you peruse the evidence available to you, certain pieces of text will be highlighted in either blue or yellow, corresponding to suspects in the case. The blue-highlighted text can immediately be uploaded to Orwell, but it can be misconstrued. Send through an innocent joke between friends about one torturing the other, and without the proper context, the adviser is likely to think the person is unhinged. Yellow-highlighted text denotes a contradiction with another piece of text, and it’s up to you to study these contradictions and figure out which piece of information to send through. Not being able to go back on your poor choices feels like a gameplay constraint rather than something that makes sense in the narrative, but being forced to commit to your questionable choices ramps up the game’s tension as you search for details.
Orwell simulates the busywork of an office job to tell a larger story about surveillance. You soon find yourself investigating “Thought,” a mysterious collective made up mostly of young activists with awkward Internet histories. As a game focused on searching through in-game websites for dirt and details, Orwell lives or dies on the strength of its plot and characterization. Thankfully, the writing is consistently lively and intriguing. The depiction of a surveillance state feels extremely relevant; it’s made clear that the obvious advantages of being able to easily track terror suspects online come with a disquieting loss of privacy for innocent civilians. In an age where so much personal information is willingly released by so many, Orwell brilliantly explores the implications of this data being misinterpreted.
The characters feel real and familiar, without ever drifting into cliche. Investigating their lives and relationships means getting to know them and figuring out which characters are actually committed to the ideals they claim to hold. You never meet any of these people, but the characterization runs deep. Suspects like Harrison, an angry idealist with an attitude problem, an inflated sense of self-worth, and a clear willingness to sell-out on his ideals, feel genuine. The game’s writers have a strong grasp of how people communicate online and how rhetoric shifts between personal and public conversations. It’s also interesting how personal bias can seep into the gameplay–I often found that whether I wanted to hide or release certain information depended on how much I liked the person I was investigating.
The changes brought about by your decisions and discoveries are significant, and while they won’t upend the entire plot, there were noticeable differences in my second playthrough. Subsequent runs are unlikely to be as satisfying as the first, though, if only because solving the central “mysteries” of Orwell signposts which decisions are likely to be “good” or “bad” on a second attempt. I found myself needing to purposely reach conclusions that I knew were incorrect, role-playing as a bad investigator just to see what would happen. But even knowing the “right” answers isn’t always enough–I tried hard to change an outcome at the end of Chapter 3 on my second playthrough, but the thing I’d been trying to avoid still happened, albeit for completely different reasons than I’d experienced on my first playthrough. Orwell’s twists and turns are surprising and exciting, even when you have some idea of what’s coming. There are a few minor issues with Orwell’s current build–the game hard crashed on me a few times, or refused to load images–but each issue I had was fixed with a reload, and because the game saves constantly, I never lost progress.
Orwell is a hard experience to pull back from, even as the dirtiness of your job sinks in. It uses simple mechanics to tell a complex and engaging story, one that feels particularly relevant right now. This is a game where your choices matter and resonate, and which will leave you with plenty to think about once it’s over.