Developer: Osmotic Studios
Rating: M for Mature
Price: $9.99 (PC and Mac); $4.99 (iOS)
Indie developer Osmotic Studios have, to this date anyway, only two titles to their name, both under the Orwell franchise. Both deal with the titular Orwell: an omniscient surveillance system with access to just about everything the citizens of the Nation do and say, whether online or off.
The PC and Mac version of the first game came out in 2016, but the iOS port was just released on March 31. I’d never even heard of the franchise before this, but it immediately caught my eye, resembling something akin to a futuristic Papers, Please. And I have to say: I was surprised by quite a lot of what Orwell had to offer.
Strong Language: The game is filled to the brim with strong language. We are reading the Internet, after all. F***, s***, d*** (often paired with God’s name), b****, c***, and misuses of “hell,” as well as the names of God and Jesus, pepper the game’s dialogue relentlessly.
Violence: The game is text-based, so nothing is shown, but the story centers around various bombings of public sites. We hear news reports of deaths and injuries.
A character is shot and killed in an encounter with the police.
Sexual Content: There are a few veiled references to characters having sex. One character mentions making out.
Drug and Alcohol Use: The game contains various references to drinking and being drunk.
Other Negative Themes: At one point a character is “doxxed” (their personal information and address is given online) and readers are encouraged to visit the character’s home and vandalize it.
Positive Themes: Several characters express both remorse for past violence and a willingness to change in the future. One character specficially condemns violence in protests and activism.
Dystopian governments aren’t exactly a new concept to popular entertainment. But Osmotic Studios made a bold move by giving their game the moniker of the man who (arguably) brought the idea of totalitarian future governments to the limelight: George Orwell himself. Thankfully, instead of merely recreating Orwell’s world from 1984, Osmotic has crafted their own world, featuring a digital Big Brother, and handed you the keys.
In Orwell, you are an investigator for the titular surveillance system. As such, you are tasked with finding evidence against target persons accused of crimes against the Nation and the Party, the ruling government. You find this evidence by scanning web pages, tapping phone calls, intercepting texts and emails, and even accessing private computers and cell phones.
The story of this episode centers around a small group of students at Stelligan University. A Stelligan professor has started a debate-club-turned-activist-group called Thought. The group has organized several demonstrations on and off campus to protest the Party’s ever-growing grip on private information and conversations. But when a bomb goes off at Freedom Plaza in Bonton, one of the sites of the group’s demonstrations, Orwell, and by extension you, is put to its first real-world application: investigating the members of Thought to determine their role, if any, in the Bonton Bombings.
The game’s art style is striking. All images and videos are composed in a polygonal style, giving everything a sharp, angular nature that fits the tense and futuristic tone of the game really well. Facial features in portraits pop out even more with this simplified texture, making every face memorable. The presentation puts the game just enough inside the uncanny valley to keep you feeling on edge the whole time.
The colorful portraits also offer a wonderful contrast with the GUI’s color scheme of slate blue and grey. Every website you visit, PC you open, or blog post you read has its own identity and character, but they’re all surrounded by Orwell’s ever-present frame.
The music meshes with the presentation seamlessly. Synth pads float in the background most of the time, lending the feeling of a soulless computerized society. When you encounter a major plot point, dramatic stabs of percussion let you know that you should really perk up and pay attention. The music doesn’t move much, but you’d best pay attention when it gets going.
Overall, I loved the art direction of the game. It struck a balance of feeling futuristic without feeling campy or overblown. It’s got character, like the rebels of our little activist group. Speaking of which…
I won’t go too far into this for spoilers’ sake, but suffice it to say that the story is about what you’d expect: A plucky group of young idealists are put up against a relentless corporate machine bent on their destruction. The only catch is, you’re a cog in said machine. You’re working for the proverbial “Man.”
Framing the story in the context of governmental surveillance works surprisingly well. You pick up on bits of the story as you come across them organically. Uploading certain pieces of info, called Datachunks, will either unlock a new webpage, document, or device into which you can plunge your grubby little digital fingers, or trigger a conversation between your target persons. Every device and conversation is littered with Datachunks ranging from the mundane (this person MIGHT like muffins) to the life-threatening (this person MIGHT have a homemade bomb in their basement.)
I will say that the slightly nonlinear method of storytelling led to some confusing bits later on. Near the end of the game, I found myself increasingly confused by accusations and confessions that kept popping up on my screen that I was apparently supposed to already know. Upon a second playthrough of the episode in question, I went about things slightly differently and found that information. Apparently I was supposed to do that first?
The story had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged for the 5 episodes, even if I wasn’t exactly blown away by the message of “Be careful of trading privacy for security.” It’s not exactly a new sentiment. But then again, Orwell made that same statement back in 1949, and we haven’t exactly taken his advice, so maybe the mantra bears repetition. In either case, the game tells a story that is engrossing enough on its own that the message comes through naturally, with no preaching necessary, thank goodness.
There is some form of a branching storyline, with a few major events hinging on whether or not you find and upload the correct information in time. At the end of the game, you’re presented with a choice that leads to one of four possible endings. In my play, I got two of the four, both polar opposites of each other.
A minor gripe I have is with the pacing of the text. When reading text messages or phone call transcripts, the conversation takes place in real time. This means that, if you’re a fast reader like I am, you’ll be stuck waiting for several seconds each and every time a message is sent. I understand that the developers were going for realism, but it slowed the game to a crawl when I was most engaged. I would have appreciated the option to skip ahead.
One final note on the story, and this is in regards to the writing: it fits the medium of the Internet perfectly, for all the pros and cons that that brings. Internet humor litters conversations, lending an odd and almost inappropriate sense of glee to a story that is otherwise rather dark. But I’ve seen that same sense of macabre glee on the Internet today, and it felt real.
Characters would make amusing spelling mistakes as they got worked up, spammers left obvious malware links as comments on blog posts, and, most egregiously, everyone swore. Like a lot. Again, this is perfectly understandable given the medium. But imagine reading a YouTube comment section for an hour straight, and you’ll understand why anyone that is at all bothered by language could get weary of the writing very quickly. I’m somewhat used to reading strong language (I had a Reddit account for a hot second,) but I’m still somewhat miffed by what I perceive to be an overuse of profanity.
Another note is that, especially near the end of the game, some of the writing felt a bit stiff. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but as the stakes ramped up, the dialogue felt increasingly melodramatic. It never got to the point of being ridiculous, but it was noticeable.
Honestly, the first comparison that comes to mind when I think of Orwell’s gameplay is something like the Ace Attorney series. Similar to searching for contradictions in a testimony, you’ll have to sort through entire documents worth of information, keeping an eye out for the telltale blue blocks that Orwell uses to highlight potentially useful Datachunks.
You can’t just blindly upload every Datachunk you find, though. Since your adviser sees only what you upload, you’ve got to look at the context surrounding the information before you upload. It’s an amusing simulation of real-life AI’s misunderstanding of human sarcasm and idioms. At one point, a character referred to going out on the town as “torture by my best friend,” and Orwell suggested that I upload a useful little Datachunk that claimed that said friend was simply “engaged in torture.”
Of course, that out-of-context Datachunk mechanic quickly moves from amusing to troubling. Did this person really say that they wanted to incite a violent riot, or is there a bigger conversation going on here that we can’t see? Be careful what you upload; everything you find will be used to either prosecute or exonerate your target person, and once it’s in Orwell, it can’t be removed.
Occasionally, you’ll come across pairs of Datachunks that contradict each other, highlighted in yellow. Again, it’s up to you, judging from the context, to determine which is true, and at some points, lives may literally hang in the balance. The story can change with the click of a button.
Sorting through Datachunks starts out simple, but ramps up in difficulty pretty quickly. Context isn’t just found on the same page as the information; you may have to sort through several web pages and devices before you’re fully confident that you’re uploading the truth. However, there were times where I felt like there was no reasonable way to tell which Datachunk was true. I failed majorly on the second episode of the game, and upon a second playthrough, I only succeeded because I knew the correct Datachunk from the first go around. I’m still not sure how I was supposed to figure it out on my own, and I don’t feel like the game gave me enough information to make that call reliably.
The layout of menus obviously had a lot of thought put into it, but it still falls short in some major ways. On iOS, the game is playable in both portrait and landscape mode, but I do not recommend playing in landscape mode. For one thing, the immersion of portrait mode is MUCH better; I really felt like I was using a real app made for browsing, rather than just playing a game. For another, in the landscape layout, the UI takes up so much space that there’s little space left for the actual text, and that text is shrunk down past the point of comfortable reading.
The biggest issue I had, however, is with the glitchiness of the iOS port. Most of these glitches were minor, but the number of them was surprising for a five dollar game. Taps sometimes took a few moments to register, leading to me tapping multiple times and ending up several screens away from where I wanted to be. At other times, menus would simply fail to load at all, requiring a hard reset of the game. These are all minor complaints, but it happened often enough to be fairly frustrating.
Overall, Orwell is an intriguing experience. It tells a compelling, if somewhat confusing, story, and in a way that lets its core message shine through without shoving it down the player’s throat. The gameplay, while simplistic in concept, adds enough depth and difficulty to keep it engaging. While the profanity got old very quickly and the writing veered toward the melodramatic, that didn’t negate the overall immersion into this oppressive world.
Orwell grabs your interest by holding you responsible for what happens in game, and I found myself directly defying orders sometimes in order to lessen at least some of the impact I was having on these people. It’s one thing to claim that it’s dangerous to sacrifice privacy for security; it’s another thing entirely to force your audience to intrude upon that privacy themselves. It’s visceral, and feels a little too real.
I don’t know that I personally will play the second chapter, Ignorance is Strength. I feel that I got just enough of the story and world in this installment to tide me over, and I did find my interest waning just a bit as I finished up. But the game knew not to overstay its welcome, and I applaud that.
I know I griped a bit about the iOS port, but I would still recommend it. The gameplay of Orwell fits the pick-up-and-play nature of mobile gaming very well, and the five dollar price tag is perfect for the scope of the game. Still, if you don’t have an iPhone, the atmosphere, art, and overall feel make it worth picking up for ten dollars on Steam, if only to be on the other side of the evil government computer screen for once.
Review copy generously provided by Evolve.
The Bottom Line
Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You takes a concept that has been done to death and adds a level of engagement and gravitas that brings it closer to home than ever.