Choice is a unique element explored through video games because of their interactive nature. Yet, so few games feature the element of choice in a meaningful way.
That’s not to say those games are bad, and in fact, several games have told brilliant stories by examining the lack of choice, but for those that do feature choice, it can sometimes feel like players are given the option between acting like Mother Teresa or Satan.
However, there are exceptions to every rule, and one of those exceptions is named Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You.
Orwell was developed by the Germany based studio, Osmotic Studios, and published by Fellow Traveller. Orwell follows the player as they take on the role of an agent assigned to a new government surveillance system called Orwell, allowing the government access to phones, computers, emails and almost any piece of technology.
The first case the player is assigned to is a serious one as there has been a detonation of a bomb at “Freedom Plaza” in the fictional country of “The Nation.”
What starts as you and your supervisor, Symes, investigating a previous criminal possibly involved, evolves into a conspiracy involving an anti-government group called Thought, a shadowy hacker named the Initiate and an exploration of security and privacy in the modern world.
One of the best things about the story is the exploration of its themes. As one might imagine, the game takes heavy inspiration from the works of George Orwell, most especially 1984. The very first sentence of the games description on the digital marketplace, Steam, is even, “Big Brother has arrived – and it’s you!”
However, unlike Orwell’s seminal work of science fiction, the game’s morality is quite balanced. Symes often comments that he doesn’t feel right investigating people’s personal lives in such a way, but at the same time, believes in the power of the Orwell system as a means of protection.
The characters are very human–each one having personal goals, achievements, losses and faults which lends to the authenticity of the experience and cause the player to question their own morality. However, the gameplay is really what ties everything together.
Orwell, when really broken down, is a very simple game. On the left of the screen is essentially a notebook keeping track of those being investigated, and on the right, is whatever the player is investigating, whether it be an article, picture or someone’s PC. Potential pieces of evidence are highlighted and can be dropped into the notebook which the supervisor can see. From there, Symes makes decisions about how to proceed based on whatever pieces of information you provide.
Challenge comes in two forms. Firstly, in the more clinical sense. Occasionally evidence will be highlighted in yellow indicating that it conflicts with another piece. As a result players need to make judgement calls about which piece to submit, which may include referring back to the notebook, paying attention to dates or simply inferring based on what you know about the subject.
Secondly, there is a more emotional challenge. While some evidence needs to be submitted, not everything does. You have to choose what is and isn’t important, and sometimes, you may be wrong. Protecting a person’s privacy can be the difference between life and death and it’s all up to the player. This causes Orwell to become one of the tensest games I have ever played.
Aiding this is the game’s sound design. It’s largely atmospheric and subtle, but whenever a key piece of evidence is discovered, the synthesizer hits you like metal baseball bat.Orwell is an absorbing new addition to the gaming world. With a story featuring real characters and relevant subject while simultaneously analyzing the relationship between player and game in a cohesive way, Orwell makes for an unconventional, but gripping experience.