Note: This article includes minor spoilers for Episode One: The Clocks Were Striking 13 and Episode Two: A Place Where There is No Darkness.
Two detonated bombs have already torn The Nation’s façade of security to shreds, ending the lives of many innocent people. A third bomb is imminent, but conflicting evidence gained by morally-grey methods casts doubt over its location. Following one set of evidence will save lives. Choosing another set of evidence will tear The Nation asunder. The investigator entrusted with making this decision is you.
Welcome to Orwell, a game about online surveillance and the implications that come with a government-owned omniscient technology.
The stalk ‘em up PC title – spawned from a partnership with Melbourne-based indie publishers Surprise Attack Games and German development studio Osmotic Studios – enlists the player as an investigator for the security program known as Orwell, tasked with defending the fictional country The Nation.
Episode One, currently available as a free download, serves as an extended tutorial explaining how to navigate the Orwell system. It explains how players can store information known as “datachunks” for use in investigations, which can be done by clicking the datachunk and dragging it into the profile section for storage. Doing this builds a database of information on suspected individuals, ranging from their hobbies, where they live, and even the activity of their private bank accounts. These datachunks are highlighted in blue and can be found on webpages, emails, phone calls, and any other form of electronic communication – no one is free from the all-seeing Orwell. Clicking is about the extent of control the player has in Orwell; aside from the nifty intro allowing the player to input a name and accept a series of faux terms and conditions before commencing their investigative post, which helped to create an immediate sense of in-game authenticity.
Occasionally datachunks will be highlighted in yellow to signify they are in conflict with one or more datachunks. These represent important decisions the player has to make. Choosing to store one of these pieces of information will instantly disable the conflicting evidence, which is an irreversible act. It is in these moments where the plot kicks in and emphasises the often dire situations that hinge upon them. Rebellious activist groups, cryptic threatening letters, and complex motivations are revealed; making the correct choices will uncover the truth, while a poorly-chosen datachunk could put The Nation at further risk of danger. In the event where incorrect information is provided to the government, there is no game over. You have to live with the consequences.
Obtaining the information required for the investigation in such an invasive manner is unsettling. In my first playthrough of Episode One, I was determined to pin the blame of a bombing on one suspect in particular. They had a motive, a history of unsociable behaviour, and the opportunity to commit the act. However, after eavesdropping on an emotionally-charged series of messages, I seriously questioned my resolve. There are a number moments similar to this in the first two episodes of Orwell. What if I was about to wrongfully cause their arrest? Does my choice actually matter?
In many narrative-based games, players are often baited with the illusion of choice; seemingly-important decisions are offered, but they usually funnel back to the same or similar conclusion. To test this, I played through both episodes twice, making vastly different choices each time. One minor frustration I had was that I could not choose to omit every datachunk I didn’t want The Nation to know about, as some were required to progress further. There were some datachunks I was keen to leave out to see if I could depict suspects in a wildly different light, but my options were limited in this regard. I understand why this is the case – it would be illogical to further the investigation without certain information. Episode One ended in almost the exact same way both times, but it was Episode Two where my choices started to take shape. I had two drastically alternate endings to Orwell’s second stanza, which gives me hope this will expand further in the remaining three episodes. I will reserve judgement on the linearity of the game until it is entirely released, but although the two different endings were different, it did feel like it was the result of one or two binary choices, as opposed to the sum of all my decisions causing nuanced deviations to the story.
There are a small handful of minor bugs I encountered, including some brief soundtrack drop-outs, some conflicting datachunks not linking correctly, and a few typos and spelling errors which stick out in such a text-heavy game. A patch or two would clean these up easily – they didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game, but I did notice them clearly at times, which I believe is more of a testament to the Orwell system’s high level of authenticity that I noticed them more than I normally would in other games.
The minimalist polygonal art-style is well suited to Orwell, as is the sterile blue of the Orwell system; reflective of the cold, callous nature of its dubious datamining themes. Everything within the system felt responsive and satisfying to interact with. It felt like I was navigating an actual web browser. I recommend checking out the Orwell Twitter account – it portrays a government-like shtick reflective of the game and remains entirely in-character at all times. They won’t be happy I referred to the game as a stalk ‘em up. If you don’t hear from me in a week’s time, you’ll know they’ve got me.
@AprilRaygun Orwell employees are encouraged to use the word 'investigate' and adhere to the ethics codex. Orwell values your appreciation.