Privacy and surveillance are growing concerns for us as our lives become more and more accessible and our activities are put on display without much of a thought. Social media presence is a normal part of our lives and ways to spread our information and ideas have expanded to include not just text, but sound, images and video. The growing concern over who has access to what information and for what purpose it is to be used is understandable, as the ramifications of potential overreach by government bodies, law enforcement agencies, and even private businesses with enough resources to do so are indeed dire. If one’s thoughts are shared online and those thoughts are censored by those who deem them to be unacceptable, then what happens to our supposed freedom to practice and profess individual beliefs?
While the subject itself is a very complex one, it’s one that is beyond the scope and ability of my blog. The gravity of its importance, however, I feel is reflected in a surge of video games that deal with the subject of surveillance and authority. It seems that the fear of fascism has brought about a creative reaction akin to (and obviously inspired by) literary classics such as 1984, Brave New World, or Kallocain (admittedly, that one is less well-known, I just like it.) Or perhaps it’s not fear in each case, but curiosity that drives some to convey through story and interaction the processes through which control is maintained. Though the motives may differ, the fact is that game designers feel compelled to create games in which the player is put into the role of the arm of the state. Having noticed this trend, I decided I would do a short series on this sub-genre, looking at several games that feature a dubiously-cast protagonist who holds the power to actualize the efforts to constrain personal privacy for a more security-focused state government. For today I’m going to look at a game that allows the player access to a sophisticated network of information, tasked with tracking down and potentially thwarting would-be terrorists through seemingly mundane clues, such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or chat logs. Today’s game is indie developer Osmotic Studios’ Orwell.
Orwell’s intent is known instantly through its title, the name of the author who wrote 1984. It is also the name of the surveillance network in the game that allows you to dig through people’s personal information and conversations to further investigations of their potential threat to public safety. As an average person who happens to live outside of The Nation, where most events in the game take place, you are handled by an agent who guides you through a one-way feed. In order to gain authorization to gather information on individuals, they must be deemed a potential threat. Once some connection to dangerous activity is established, you may then expand your search, generating a web of potential conspirators and terrorists.
The interface is simple to master. Drag and drop pieces of information highlighted within news stories, websites, chat logs and more to establish a dossier. It is a pretty simple game, but there are some mechanics that ensure the choices you make do matter. First off, as the investigator, you choose what information is put into Orwell. You may choose to grab superfluous information, or omit some entirely, although there are points where omitting information will leave you stuck until you just drag the link over to the left side of the screen and cause the next part of the story to go. In that sense, there isn’t infinite freedom, but Orwell isn’t supposed to be an open world game, so that’s not really an issue. You also will find data that Orwell flags as contradictory. This is where you will use the information you’ve found otherwise to decide which information is correct—or perhaps which will get you to your end goal. Once the day is over, you will have one last chance to update any information, then your authorized access to that information will expire.
The options Orwell gives you are intended to make you think about what should and should not be considered private. Who is worth investigating and what actions are truly dangerous? Are the checks in the Orwell system enough to ensure relative freedom? Does the oversight of a handler and the required authorization to investigate hitherto unrelated persons counteract the fact that Orwell can remotely inspect computers so long as they are on? Furthermore, because you, the investigator, are the only one authorized to sift through the information, it is up to you what exactly your handler is shown. You can leave certain facts out if you feel they are irrelevant, or you wish to guide your adviser down a certain path of reasoning.
I’m not one to belabor realism in games about computer technology or hacking. There are many times where its obvious that the way Orwell and its interface when entering computers and phones to extract data are overly-simplistic. This is fine. Most people aren’t familiar with the technical aspects of their computers, and many of those who are aren’t going to be too bent out of shape by some “Hollywood hacking.” While immersion is definitely important to the game’s creators, verisimilitude is not the chief goal Orwell. Its clear that its message is the main point and the game its vehicle. There are, however, a few times that Orwell could have had a little more thought put into the realism of its design, such as displaying remote PCs as if we are seeing their desktops, but populating folders that link directly to browser history and archived e-mails is a bit too convenient to retain disbelief. In my opinion, it would have been better to forgo the desktop display and just stick to a custom interface. Orwell is already a rather fantastic concept; why not go that one step further and have each aspect of the game be a constructed part of its eponymous software?
But as I said, this game’s heart is its message. The social and political spheres of our world seem to be coming apart at the seams. To many, we are indeed walking towards, or perhaps already living in, the future that author George Orwell had depicted in his books, one of manipulation, surveillance, and cruel fascism hidden behind a face of stern nationalism. The analogy may not be a one-to-one match, but it’s difficult to deny the Orwell the game let’s us explore the notion that our data is our identity, and that our contexts are becoming irrelevant. Rigid adherence to a strict code of law, necessitated by the purported need for stronger national security, could render the hodgepodge of thoughts, opinions and affiliations we make online acts of self-incrimination. Profiling and arresting a group deemed a threat to authority, activities that continue to enjoy historical precedence, could be as simple as a click, drag, or drop. Will you catch the terrorists? Or will you aid the rebels? Are those people one in the same? With the information you compile, what perspective will you have?
While there are elements to Orwell that are perhaps a bit too simplistic and optimistic towards the end—everything kind of falls into place too nicely, the game does let you fiddle with your decisions and toy with what results you will get, opening or closing off lines of dialogue as you go. Unfortunately, it can be all too easy to mess something up and find yourself getting the same result. This is standard fare for the investigative, visual novel-lie game, but you don’t have the option to save at any point. The game auto-saves after you add information. This does give a suspenseful finality to your decision-making, but means that if you want to try for a different outcome, you may be replaying the game from the beginning more than you’d like. Still, it’s an interesting experience that asks you to make decisions that affect the fates of total strangers.
The last thing I will say is that sometimes I worry that I harp too much on the negatives of a game. Truth be told, I have been compelled to go back and play Orwell over again several times. If you are the type who likes a story-heavy game that you can carefully manipulate, then you’re in for a treat—Orwell is definitely worth playing.