While not a masterpiece, Orwell achieves its goal by making you think critically about mass surveillance

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Orwell is an independently-developed simulation game about government mass surveillance. You play in a dystopian (read: frighteningly realistic) future where virtually no private communication is beyond the reach of intelligence services, in the name of national security.

Screenshot from Orwell, location of The Nation

The Nation is a landlocked, apparently Western European country, neighbouring Gentria, Parges, and Ustvakia.

You play as an investigator for The Nation, which appears to represent the United States or the United Kingdom. Your job, as someone living outside The Nation, is to collect information on persons of interest and submit it to domestic intelligence services.

The game starts with you investigating Casandra Watergate of Bonton in connection to a terrorist attack in the heart of the city. Over the course of the game, you discover a network of young dissidents whose political activism group has become increasingly extreme, and your objective is to find who’s coordinating these attacks and stop them.

The premise of Orwell – named after the famous British author Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell – has an uncanny similarity to a video released by Tom Scott in 2013.

Orwell’s gameplay mostly revolves around ‘datachunks’ which are collected by rifling through your subjects’ social media activities, emails, phone calls, computer hard drives, and other sources like news articles. These datachunks are then uploaded to The Nation’s intelligence services. There’s a lot of information asymmetry since it’s up to you to decide what information law information has available to them.

Orwell screenshot, conflicting datachunks.

This is an example of a conflicting datachunk in the game. As these two snippets of information contradict each other, you can only submit one to the intelligence services; either saying he’s angry at what his activist group has become, or saying he feel he’s to blame for its current state.

This information asymmetry is punctuated by an example early in the game when you’re reading through Casandra’s messages. In a conversation with a friend, Ms Watergate says she ‘tortured’ someone – but she’s obviously using a figure of speech. Still, you can submit this to intelligence, where it’s then brought up in a Police interrogation. “Your file here says you tortured someone,” says an interrogator to their shocked Casandra.

Call me petty, but I struggle to understand the reason for including something this unrealistic. If Orwell intends to prompt a discussion about mass surveillance, surely one should try to keep the suspension of disbelief going on for the whole game.

For a game that lasts just over four hours, and where your only interaction with any of the characters is by reading small pieces of information they’ve left online, the characters in Orwell are quite well-developed.

Overall, Orwell has very good writing, however, the plot became a little difficult to follow in the final act due to the rapid change in pacing. Still, if you like a good mystery, this game is for you.

Mild spoilers ahead

Unfortunately, Orwell suffers from a case of Mass Effect 3 Syndrome, where throughout the game you’re given the impression that your choices will have a great impact on the end of the game. The game has four endings, and this left me feeling unsatisfied as the credits rolled.

End of mild spoilers

The best thing about Orwell is that it forces you to think about the pros and cons of mass surveillance. While playing the game, you see first-hand how useful the information you’re hoovering up is to preventing terrorism. But then it dawns upon you just how intrusive you’re being, especially given that you haven’t been given a warrant, there’s no one looking over your shoulder – you have virtually limitless power.

Orwell screenshot, news article

The inclusion of these sorts of news articles in the game is a nice touch.

Orwell also does a great job at showing how small pieces of information you leave online, sometimes without knowing, can be joined together to create a surprisingly comprehensive profile on someone.

I played Orwell on my laptop, and I’m happy to report that it passed the MacBook Air test, running without a hitch with only 4GB of memory and no dedicated graphics card. Not surprising given that it’s a point-and-click title, but still good to know if you haven’t bought a $10,000 nuclear-powered custom PC.

Government surveillance is a complicated and controversial topic, there are certainly no easy answers, and Orwell doesn’t purport to have any; what it does do, however, is force you to think about where the line should be drawn between national security and privacy – before realising that those lines were drawn for them years and years ago.

Orwell screenshot, "The only reason to not support [the Safety Bill] is if you have a dirty past"

Quite on the nose, Symes.

I wouldn’t say that Orwell is one of the best, most profound games I’ve ever played in my life, but it was worth the US$10 and is one of those games that really made me think, which is rare these days. Plus, you’re supporting the Australian games industry, which is good news for the roughly 700 people who work in it, according to the latest census.

Orwell is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. It can be purchased from Steam, GOG and The Humble Store.