Developed by Osmotic, Orwell is a spin on George Orwell's classic 1984, a cautionary tale of the dangers that an excessive prioritisation of safety over privacy can lead to. In this case however, you are the prying eye delving into the secrets of the unknowing public.
Based in a fictional country known as The Nation, you are an investigator for the Orwell project. It is your responsibility to trawl through the personal information of suspected terrorist plotters, building up detailed files which you can then use to incriminate them. As the scope of your investigation broadens, so too does the ethical complexity of the choices you will make.
Orwell can be purchased on Steam for £6.99.
Ever since an authoritarian political group known as The Party took control of The Nation, the country has steadily become obsessed with surveillance. The release of The Safety Bill gave even more power to the government, allowing them to spy on their citizens in the name of cutting down crime, something that it has done with incredible effectiveness. Orwell is the ultimate weapon in the government's arsenal – a secret system designed to breach all levels of privacy in order to arrest suspected terrorists. You are part of a two-man team; as an investigator it is your responsibility to rummage through suspect's private lives and to pass on information to an advisor. The advisor can then use the information to make arrests and to request even more freedom to investigate other potential wrongdoers. Over the course of your roughly eight hour investigation, you are tasked with uncovering the perpetrator of a vicious bombing attack. Both your detective skills and your ethics will be challenged in the process.
Because the Orwell system first requires the player to pass on information, you have the power to influence the outcome of an investigation by cherry picking which details should be processed. A suspect angrily denounced the government one day, on another they sang its praises. Do you add 'anti-government' or 'pro-government' to their dossier? It's up to you, and its repercussions will be felt throughout the game. Though there aren't a huge number of moral choices throughout Orwell, they will likely force you to pause as you come to a decision. Your character already inhabits an ethically grey area and the understandable motives of your targets make judgement calls even harder.
There were certainly times where I had to question my own motivations as I was making decisions. There were characters that I wanted to be guilty and that resulted in a willingness to provide incriminating evidence. Each and every time you question yourself and your choices, you strengthen the impact that Orwell is trying to make. The messier and more difficult the decision, the more effective the game's central themes are. The process makes you just as much of a figure in the story as the people that you are employed to snoop on. Osmotic has done a fantastic job of making its characters engaging and multi-faceted. Despite frequently disliking them, they don't feel like two-dimensional characters but, rather, real people with real lives that I could easily destroy with the pressing of a few buttons. It's directly because of this that you are able to feel tension and the consequences of your actions merely through the cold light of chat windows and phone logs. You can't help but feel seedy as your targets becoming increasingly paranoid about being watched as you sit at your desk leering over their personal information. But then, isn't it all worth it if you can save lives? You'll probably ask yourself that question more than once.
For all the great things to be said about the story and the difficulty of the decisions that you make, there is still room for improvement. For one, there could be far more available decisions over the course of the game's five episodes. You will only ever make a handful of meaningful ones and, as hard as those choices are, you will spend most of your playtime progressing though a linear list of discoveries before the story can expand. Also, there is currently no chapter select feature which means that you will need to replay the entire game to see how events can unfold differently. This is made more problematic by the fact that chat and phone logs cannot be skipped, so you will burn a lot of time rereading conversations that you already know the outcome of.
The actual gameplay elements of Orwell are fairly sparse. Acquiring datachunks, the pieces if information required to update dossiers and continue the investigation, is as simple as navigating through pages in search of highlighted text and then dragging them into the appropriate casefile. The various web pages you move through have plenty of world-building titbits within them which do well to give more meaning to the decisions you make but there isn't enough to really sink your teeth into. There will be a few rare moments where quick reaction times during a live chat can have an impact on how the game plays out, but for the most part you will be leisurely browsing the hours away.
Though you are provided with all the information that you will need to find and detain the correct people, it can be very difficult to do so at times. You have to be constantly aware that the suspects could be lying at any time. Letting your guard down can easily lead to missing a vital clue. For this reason, anyone who isn't immediately sold by the investigative concept should steer clear of Orwell because your full attention will be required throughout its length.
Graphics and sound
Aside from a single choppy cutscene at the start of the game, the entirety of your playtime will be spent within the Orwell browser. You're never going to be wowed by glitzy graphics, but each of the many websites, systems, and networks you survey are convincingly designed. Probing through a suspect's home computer is made all the more sinister by the background photo – a snapshot of her infant son. The low-poly character designs also have a certain charm about them and line up nicely with the game's theme of dehumanising surveillance.
There aren't a whole lot of sound effects in Orwell other than the beeps of electronics, but the music is on point. It's exactly the sort of music you might expect to here in an investigative montage – designed specifically to focus your mind and ready you for the long haul required to find answers. The occasional dramatic drum sequence kicks you in the head whenever something particularly shocking comes about, doing a lot to keep you grounded in the moment.
Orwell is a smart, original game with a strong message that becomes more and more relevant with each passing year. Giving the player the right to be judge is an eye-opening experience that highlights the danger of absolute power, even when you think it's for a good cause. Though there are perhaps less meaningful choices than I would like in a game of this length, the choices you do make are impactful and expect more from you than the typical good vs evil binary decisions. If you don't mind turning in your guns/swords for a little bit, Orwell is a brilliant, slower-paced story that generously rewards thought.
|+ Intelligent, compelling story||– Not enough choices|
|+ Tough decisions||– Linearity, no chapter select, and unskippable dialogue harms replayability|
|+ Mood-setting music|
|+ Complex characters|