Orwell Review (Game, 2016)

Orwell is a point and click adventure game about the future of government surveillance. In the near future (2017, to be exact), The Nation has instituted a series of policies to reduce criminal activity. Surveillance cameras cover every inch of public space and potential offenders are treated as aggressively as actual criminals. The Nation also has a secret surveillance system, Orwell, that you have been hired to investigate for. You play a literal outsider. The Nation actively recruits hackers from outside of the country to keep Orwell a secret as long as possible. You communicate exclusively with a government agent tasked with granting access to personal intelligence for potential suspects. In this case, you are trying to find the perpetrator behind a deadly bombing in a public square and are immediately granted access to all personal files on a previous offender involved in a protest.

Orwell EvidenceI will give the team at Osmotic Studios a lot of credit. Orwell is a stylish, thrilling narrative filled with hours of extra content. You uncover facts relevant to the case and persons of interest by reading articles, websites, transcripts of phone conversations, emails, and text messages. These artifacts exist to build the world, not necessarily to provide direct answers to the case in question. Potentially relevant evidence is underlined and clickable, but entire artifacts exist in the game that never provide more than flavor text.

The result is an incredibly immersive world you'll want to read about throughout all five episodes of the game. The story of The Nation in turmoil over the direction of national security is immediate enough to feel relevant without clearly preaching for or against the necessity of such technology. Obviously, you don't tackle the subject of Orwell without criticizing those methods, but the game is nowhere near as proselytizing as Papers, Please (which worked beautifully in that context).

Like last year's Her Story, there is a clear, linear narrative to open up here. Also like Her Story, you are not given a lot of guidance on what to look for. You eventually start to parse through the artifacts in an anticipatory way, scanning past irrelevant or blatantly false details in profiles and text to get to evidence that proves your case. Then you hit a dead end where nothing else opens up and have to go back through dozens of files to find the scrap of evidence that opens up the next treasure trove of surveillance. It's a fever dream of minutia that works as well as it does because of the incredible writing in the game.

The game has a simple, artistic style that doesn't distract from the story. You view everything through your computer system in a familiar series of browser and PC file folder controls. A web develops in the bottom left of the screen, showing you the myriad of connections between activists, terrorists, professors, businesses, and the government itself. Each name is linked to a detailed profile that breakdowns everything from name and location to interests, complaints, and relationship statuses.

Orwell Web

The challenge of Orwell comes from learning more than you can use at a given time. There are chunks of clickable evidence in early episodes that are not relevant to case files until later in the game; unfortunately, if you cannot assign "data chunks" to a profile during an investigation day, you cannot assign them at a later date. Relevant information is lost because you cannot meet the threshold of labeling a dot in the web a person of interest to the case. Only select profiles can receive information beyond name and connections in the web; the rest cannot be updated. You start to obsess so much about the people who can't impact your investigation directly that you lose sight of clues that help you best focus your energy in the final chapter.

The difficulty curve perhaps ramps up too late in the game. It is not until the final chapter that you have a physical limit on how much data you can upload to Orwell. The prior four chapters let you upload every possible combination of evidence provided without a consequence worse than a snarky comment from your government agent. The limitation, justified by the sudden necessity of in-game time, is jarring and frustrating. This does enhance the narrative, but adds extraneous "win" conditions to a game that is otherwise so open to exploration and interpretation.

Orwell is a must play for indie game fans and anyone who loves a good mystery/thriller. Osmotic Studios developed one of the best modern text-based adventure games. The commitment to world building above all makes this as rich an experience as you are willing to make it.

Orwell is available on Steam, with a demo of the first complete chapter available on Steam or IndieDB.