Big Brother is watching. Always watching.
Orwell was a game that snuck into my morning gaming news feed (by which I mean I stay in bed and check the news and the gaming news sites), introduced by Kotaku by way of a trailer on Youtube. Its premise is simple when you take away the nice graphics and calming voiceover; you are a person hired by The Nation to ‘spy’ on it’s people and keep the land safe. But not in an action or adventure or stealth game. Oh no. You can access the game’s versions of Facebook, news sites and more to piece together backgrounds and goings on of suspects. The trailer had me hooked.
And so it sat in my Steam Wishlist for a while. I heard nothing more from any news sites, and didn’t see a lot of action on the Steam store page for the game. Then I got a Steam alert saying one of the games in my wishlist was on sale. It was Orwell. I didn’t even know it had been released. What it actually was was indeed a sale, but a promotional sale to mark the demo release and the imminent arrival of the game.
Since the initial trailers, the guys and girls behind Orwell have chosen to turn it into a five part game with each part coming out weekly. Part one, The Clocks Were Striking Thirteen, has been released for free as the demo for the rest of the game. I dove straight in.
When you load up Orwell, it presents itself as a computer desktop, asking you to log in or create a profile if it’s a new game or you want to start again. I diligently created a profile, though skipped on the (optional) section for an email address. You never know, right? And with that, we are introduced to the world of The Nation and our position working for them.
During the intro cutscene we see a seemingly pleasant place, buses and people and generally niceness. However, the CCTV through which we are looking is zooming in and scanning people’s faces, comparing them to a database somewhere. One person pings back with a police record. We track them getting on a bus and a short time later the plaza we are focused on is no more.
With the cutscenes and world building done, we are welcomed to our first time using Orwell, by our tutor for this episode. He walks you through the basics, how to move around the system and pull out those clues we need, and some we don’t, to establish whether our suspect is the right one, and their network. We start with a police record and some news bulletins, leading you to info about the suspect that allows us access to her conversations and blog accounts, and establishes her relationships with her parents, her ex-best friend and her partner, who happens to be the lawyer involved in the police case from before.
You are a dataminer, being trained to pull all this info out from various sources to compile a report for the guy who’s training you, in order to find the right (or wrong, you can play evil too) suspect. Data can be correlated by other data, or conflict with later information, which you have ultimate decision over. Send the wrong info and the wrong person (or right person) could be in a lot of trouble.
Everything is controlled with your mouse, other than the initial profile creation. It’s nice not to have to be poised ready to use the WASD keys for something. The graphics are a style I haven’t seen – think geometrics and watercolours – and the sound is suitably melodramatic and oppressive. Despite a few janky blips in the beginning cutscenes, which may or may not be my PC, it runs smoothly and is easy enough to pick up.
As much as I adored the half hour or so I spent with the demo, it felt a little short, considering it is actually the full Episode 1. The developers, to their credit, have responded to the many queries about this on the Steam forums, reassuring players that the second episode and onwards are at least double the length, suggesting the £5 or so sale price/£7 or so full price won’t be put to waste. I left Orwell with strange mix of emotions. On the surface, i was pleasantly surprised that it seemed to work as an ‘episodic’ game, that the demo gave me exactly what I need in a demo – a good feel of the game and how it works – and yet disturbed and unsettled me deep down.
A nation spying on and ‘securing’ it’s people through datamining and bugging seems more real when you play through Orwell. Perhaps a reflection of my internet-based free time, or of the world more generally, I certainly get the feeling that someone is watching me.
Khinjarsi would like to clarify to all parties that she is not a member of The Nation, and is now super duper aware that they are watching. All images except for the meme of Roz are taken from Orwell’s store Steam page, whilst Roz was taken from a Buzzfeed article, which itself seems to have taken it from memegenerator.net.