Video games rarely delve into the realm of political critique. When they do, they’re often explicitly concerned with the present, targeting presidential candidates or recent events. Orwell is notable because it tries to pull off the tricky combo of being timeless and uncomfortably topical, and does so with mixed success. The game casts you as an investigator using Orwell, a nationwide surveillance system that can spy on anyone at any time. It lets you view emails and pictures, and allows you to listen in on intimate conversations and choose what bits of information to give to your supervisor. The supervisor then acts on that information, choosing to call the police on certain suspects or use various details you’ve collected during interrogations. You and your supervisor are investigating a recent terrorist bombing tied to a group of academic bloggers (yes, really).
Orwell plays out simply and repetitively, with you clicking through chat logs and pseudo-Facebook pages to collect information that you add to files. This is the entire game. Full stop. After the first hour, the process lost its novelty, making me feel as though I was just clicking through a never-ending series of menus for snippets of highlighted information on poorly fictionalized blogs instead of the astute, if somewhat apprehensive, investigator the game clearly wants me to be.
Nearly all of Orwell’s appeal rests on its story, which is decently plotted but poorly written when it comes to dialogue and world-building. Orwell wants to say profound and disturbing things about surveillance states, but ends up feeling more like a cursory fan summary of 1984 and Brave New World than a game that turns the themes of those books into something interesting and interactive. Orwell has little innovation to call its own, with several of the groups in the game being explicit references to creative influences. The biggest one is obviously the Orwell system being named after George Orwell, but another group is just called Thought. It’s all very blunt, without subtlety or elegance. However, a few of the characters are well-developed and tragic figures (a veteran who’s a single mother stands out in particular), and when Orwell spends its time focusing on them, it’s where the game shines.
Unfortunately, so much of the gameplay is centered around clicking through poorly-written diatribes. The majority of the characters are superficial stereotypes with no more depth than what you see when you first meet them. The dialogue veers back and forth between highly dramatic and unintentionally hilarious, and I couldn’t muster any sympathy for most of the characters. It’s probably not a great sign that the most memorable bit of writing in a game with a serious political agenda is “oh I will never CHILL until this MADNESS STOPS.” I stopped caring about the terrorist hunt halfway through simply because nearly every character is annoying and the entertainment dividends are measly.
Games should always be engaging – at least for a few moments – but I did not find myself interested in what Orwell had to say about terrorism or totalitarianism. For the bold face it puts it on, Orwell is simply content to repeat what novels and films have more eloquently said about the terrifying intersection of our lives and technology. That’s a shame, because games could tackle those heavy subjects in a thought-provoking manner. Unfortunately, Orwell doesn’t.