We’ve had a few months to digest one of last year’s premiere story experiences now. It was a pretty weak year for AAA gaming in terms of pushing the envelope, but with indie hits like the affable Oxenfree, mind-meltingly creative Pony Island, and artistic Inside it was far from a total loss. Among the indie class of 2016 was Osmotic Studios’ “Big Brother simulator” Orwell, which thrust the player into the role of a government agent whose job it is to spy on people online.
While lacking in other games’ style, presentation, and gameplay, Orwell’s bare bones approach of turning your own PC into the protagonist’s PC and pushing the immersion factor that way as if you literally were the character as well as the game’s extremely nuanced and realistic approach to the morality involved with invading peoples’ privacy for the always-nebulous “greater good” offered up more food for thought than anything else I played last year to the point of questioning its own legendary source material. And that is a very special thing.
Orwell’s greatest strength is its inspiration, George Orwell’s novel 1984. To understand how bold the game it inspired is, you really need to have read this work. And quite frankly, if you want to pretend to understand governmental or social politics on any level, 1984 and Animal Farm are possibly the most important works of fiction ever committed to print. When you title a game after their author, you are already burdening yourself with a lot of expectation, and combined with tackling such a hot and current topic, this game put a lot of pressure on itself.
But the game was not content with reproducing the well known dystopian masterpiece and its rather black and white morality. Instead, it chose to flip the script and make you the “villain” of the piece -or at least a cog in its machinery- and put you in a situation that governments likely find itself in all too often these days. Terrorists are bombing public places and killing people and it’s your job to find them and stop them using a new program that allows you to create profiles on individuals based on the information you find about them online. Should you succeed, the program will become part of the government’s standard operating procedure and we will all be subject to being monitored. Should you fail, the terrorists win. Choose wisely.
Conventional morality suggests that of course you have to save lives and catch the bad guys. And the question of the game’s success becomes whether Orwell does a strong enough job of explaining the central philosophical conflict to the player. On one hand, a lot of gamers are going to come away from the experience feeling like enacting mass surveillance was a victory while others will be upset that this wasn’t portrayed as a demonic evil. But on the other hand, the game by its very nature is inviting the player to think for him or herself, which is always the more effective artistic approach, even if it leads to the majority of the population misunderstanding it (see also: Bioshock: Infinite).
Corporate-advertisement-vehicle-masquerading-as-gaming-magazine Game Informer gave Orwell a vapid two sentence review and a meager rating after months of ignoring it altogether in yet another entire issue spent endlessly pimping the likes of Overwatch, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, and Uncharted. But that’s why you have us, dear reader. Surely some of you understand the irony of criticizing a work for retreading a different story’s ground in a publication that writes the same articles every month, yes? The brief criticism was that the story has already been told better. But has it really?
The fact that Orwell chooses to ask the gamer the questions rather than handing them the answers it wants you to have is part of what makes it so fascinating. As you surf the web putting together pieces of peoples’ lives in an attempt to determine who is responsible for the terrorist acts and try to determine which characters represent an actual threat and which are just ranting online, the wheels start turning. Could somebody do this to me? Are they doing it right now? If a stranger read all of my Twitter and Facebook rants and message board arguments, how would I look to them? The answer to that last one for at least some of us is likely “like a complete goddamn psychopath”.
George Orwell foresaw a lot of the conflicts currently arising in our society, from the degradation of language leading to rigid and impotent thought processes (for example, when you hear words like “conservative” or “feminist”, do you think about their objective meaning within the context or is your initial reaction automatically a positive or negative emotion? If it’s the latter, congrats: you’re part of the problem), endless warfare as a tool to distract the population, and of course governmental surveillance.
While 1984 clearly missed the mark in terms of time frame, the fact remains that on some level, most of it has come to fruition, albeit in a much more subtle manner. And these subtle mannerisms of morality and manipulation, rather than the broad sinister strokes of the original work, are where Orwell the game challenges both Orwell the author and the player. The surface of hunting terrorists and uncovering the pasts of the potential suspects by tracing their online history is an interactive way of stimulating the thought process rather than a typical one-sided morality tale.
That is to say that rather than using the story to state that all surveillance is bad just because it’s bad, and here are bad things to prove it’s bad, the story relies on the unspoken threats to make its point. In reality, things are seldom as starkly contrasted as they are in fiction. Lines are blurred and shades blend together, making morality a confusing, subjective, and fluid thing more often than not. But what could be bad about something that can catch terrorists before they kill people? Orwell isn’t telling. At least, not outright. The best you’ll get is multiple characters expressing differing opinions that all seem to make sense although they say opposite things.
One conclusion you may arrive at is that while surveillance certainly has its practical uses for stopping bad people from doing bad things, nobody can be trusted with that kind of power over others’ lives. The capacity for everyday abuse is nearly infinite; far beyond the rare catastrophes it could theoretically avert. And those in charge of surveilling and judging us based on our past as it’s presented online? Who judges them? And who judges those who judge them? And who holds those judgements accountable? And if anybody is held accountable for any online wrongdoing, shouldn’t everybody? Even the ones doing the judging? Is anybody entirely innocent? Shall we turn the entire country into one big airport where every joke or aggressively exaggerated opinion is taken as fact and literal threat? Perhaps all mass surveillance really amounts to is a tool for those in charge to pick and choose who they want to prosecute and subjugate.
And all of that is still not taking into account the general unreliability of online information. How hard is it to make an account as another person? Not hard. You could be looking at somebody’s face and name and the words could be somebody else’s entirely and you’d never know. This is one aspect I really wish Orwell had brought into play more as false flagging is pretty much standard procedure in online trolling and when you take that into account, the concept of online surveillance becomes even more untenable, leaving only the open and honest as potential victims.
Orwell may stop short of the mind-blowing prophecy of the literary masterpiece that inspired it, but as a more practical and nuanced alternative, it’s pretty exceptional in itself. The titular author wrote “being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad”. And the game clings tenaciously to its own principles of truth, which are not necessarily those of its inspiration. Like i said before, Orwell the author wanted to teach you his truth. Orwell the game wants you to teach yourself and find your own truth. And like in real life, there’s no real way to win. Just various ways of accounting for yourself as you inevitably lose, whether you realise it or not.
In many ways, it feels like Orwell could have pushed its story to further extremes and done much more to illustrate the potential evils of government surveillance, but instead of beating us over the head with the axe-grinding fiction we’re used to, it chose to take a more nuanced approach that mirrors the potential real life situations that could arise and, in fact, may very well have already arisen. After all, this is no longer a dystopian science fiction dilemma. It is here and now.
Unlike 1984, Orwell isn’t a dark look at the future, it’s a look at the present. And if anything, it’s in-game internet is a brighter place then the cyberspace we’re living in right now. And that, friends, is a thought as scary as a rat eating through your face. It’s also why a lot of people may overlook the thoughtful indie game as a missed opportunity rather than one of the most unique and interesting experiences of 2016 in any medium. But being misunderstood is all part of being in a minority of one, and that is exactly what Orwell is. There simply isn’t anything else like it and that is always reason to celebrate.