Review In Short
Ben says: "An immersive story-driven clicker that pits you as a shady government snoop trying to protect The Nation. The mechanics were solid and the dialogue was well written but some of the twists left me deflated especially without the option to go back and try again."
If you couldn’t guess it from the name, Orwell is a game all about surveillance and the way in which it can be misused and misinterpreted. It leans heavily on story but shares various mechanics with games such as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Her Story, and Papers, Please.
The Party has created a surveillance system called Orwell with a number of ethical breakpoints designed to avoid some of the issues surrounding state surveillance. You play as an investigator that is allowed access to huge amounts of the online and digital data of the citizens within The Nation; your job is to put what information you feel is relevant to your case into the Orwell database where your superior (who doesn’t see any of the other information) will then make the call on what happens. This means that you are slightly disjointed from the outcomes as you are merely providing information without knowing what will happen because of it. For example, if someone makes a joke about wanting to take down the Government and you flag it in the Orwell database, that information may be used later to send a more aggressive tactical team to arrest them than they would have if you hadn’t provided that information.
Data is provided to you as a series of ‘data chunks’, text that is highlighted to let you know that the computer has flagged it as important and requiring of your attention. You can then disable it (with the option to re-enable it later) or you can drag it into the Orwell database which is a non-reversible action; if you later find out that the information you put in was incorrect, there is no way for you to set the record straight and you’ll have to live with the consequences. This is particularly important when it comes to conflicts, data chunks that the system knows are in opposition to each other. For instance, you might find a data chunk showing the person of interest is married whilst another will show they are single; you’ll have to work out which is correct and then commit that version to Orwell.
The interface is very simple with information that you’ve committed to Orwell on the left hand side and the data you have been asked to sift through on the right. Orwell will give you a profile page for each person you have been asked to investigate and it will render a relationship graph to show you how each person is connected if you upload that information.
There are three different ways you can sift through the information you are given; Reader, Listener, and Insider. The Reader is the first tool you have access to and is basically a web browser through which you have been given certain pages. As you click around, you’ll see blue text which are the data chunks you can choose to commit to Orwell by dragging them to the relevant profile. As you commit more information, your superiors will give you access to more pages that may be relevant and also open up other profiles for you to investigate requiring you to go back and see if more data chunks are available in past documents. The Listener tool allows you to monitor phone calls and online chat sessions in real time; whilst the mechanic of fetching data chunks is the same, it has a sense of urgency about it as in some situations you’ll need to upload information ASAP. For example, if you are monitoring the phone call of someone trying to evade arrest you you may be able to upload data to change the outcome whilst it is playing out. The final tool is the Insider which gives you unlimited access into the computer of someone you are investigating allowing you to read through their emails, documents, and trash; again, the mechanic of dragging data chunks is the same but this tool feels far more voyeuristic as you are effectively seeing the real person rather than the person they are online.
The game is broken up into five chapters each of which took between 45 minutes and an hour to complete. Due to the different data chunks you can commit, there are multiple ways events can unfold throughout the game; however, you’ll always end up at pretty much the same point with three possible endings to choose from determined by your actions in the last 10 minutes of the game. I was disappointed by the ending in my game as it was definitely not the one I wanted (I just accidentally opened up a document I shouldn’t have which changed things dramatically). I’m also not sure if the true ending I’d want exists in the game as it seemingly wants to push you in the direction of “surveillance of this scale is bad, see?” where I would have preferred something different.
There is support for achievements within Orwell but the captions are necessarily vague so as to avoid spoiling the game. If you’re an achievement hunter, you’ll definitely have to play through three times (if not more) and I’d recommend a guide as otherwise it’ll be quite difficult to work out what you’d need to do to unlock each one. There is also support for Steam trading cards which are cleverly based on the profile photos you can choose for yourself rather than characters within the story.
The one issue with all of this is that there is currently no way of going back to the start of an individual episode, you can only start the entire game from scratch. Had I been able to revert back to the start of episode five, I may have played through again to try and get the ending I wanted but I wasn’t keen to replay all of the other episodes again so soon after completion. This is due to be fixed in an upcoming patch in February.
Despite the heavy-handed naming, the writing throughout Orwell is fantastically good with everything from social media posts to private emails and phone calls all feeling believable. You’ll witness arguments, break ups, legal battles, and a whole lot more but every piece fits in without feeling too preachy. I was expecting to be beaten over the head about how surveillance is wrong but was pleasantly surprised that there were more shades of grey within their scale of morality.
One aspect that deserves special mention is the sound design. The background music and sound effects all work well but there are particular moments that cause a trigger in the music as you find some crucial piece of data. It reminded me heavily of the music in Phoenix Wright when you have someone on the ropes in court and really added an extra rush when you were unfolding some twist to the story.
The thing that I found worked really well in Orwell was the way in which it sold itself as a fallible system that requires multiple people to maintain its ethics. I couldn’t work out, at the start, why the computer was intelligent enough to say to me “this data is important” but couldn’t just send it to my superiors automatically. It turns out that it probably could but then things would go badly quickly. For example, in the screenshot above you can see a friend joking about the “torture and cruelty” of being made to go out for the evening; the computer flags that as “engaged in torture” which, if added to her profile, would likely be a big red flag as your superiors don’t get to see the context.
In the end, that is what Orwell boils down to; context. You are going to make a number of judgement calls based on information and sometimes you won’t have the whole picture. Throw into that a number of lying protagonists and a twisting story and you’ll often end up seeing consequences you didn’t intend. It’s a fascinating look at how such a system could work, and maybe not as far-fetched as it initially seems.