When I first decided to write a review of Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You this past September, it was before applying for this “games journalism” position. I wrote a laboriously lengthy and pretentious piece, almost describing just how “right on” I am when it comes to privacy. I used this long piece to propagate a way in the door. I used it as an example of my writing and received a few flattering comments. Recently, I read over it and saw just how poorly constructed it was, with more commas than a list of reason to protect your privacy. I knew I had to go back and rewrite this long piece to make it make sense months later.
So let’s not skirt around what Orwell is. Let’s talk about it. Orwell is a modern interpretation of what George Orwell’s 1949 classic, 1984, would look like in the modern digital age of a faux Brittish-America by German developer Osmotic studios. Alongside being based on a book I was reading, Orwell is one of the best games I’ve played this year. The feeling Orwell gave me while playing propelled it onto my short list of games of the year, or at least that I had played this year, and nothing else came close to how unsettling some sections can get in Orwell.
Orwell is a pure totalitarian nightmare that has been proposed by the incumbent government of the United Kingdom. With suggested Chinese style “deep packet inspection” on all communications outwards of the UK, all your personal information would be under scrutiny. Even back in 2015 as the general election was in the counting process and days after the US made it illegal Theresa May, the incumbent Prime Minister, announced the renewal of “Snooper’s Charter“, an NSA style spying system.
The Snooper’s Charter is a truly horrifying and real prospect, in a terrifying world that no one genuinely desires. Yes, one could say, “It is to stop terrorism.”, though there are few cases where this claim rings true. Instead it often exclusively encroaches on law-abiding citizens rather than genuine criminals.
With that said, Orwell is about a utopian society that has welcomed surveillance to an alarming degree, as I’m sure the last paragraph made abundantly clear. The story starts with an artistic drawing depicting a camera looking down the fictional town square of Bonton, at the daily goings on of the people walking to and fro work and stores. Focusing on a blue-haired woman called Cassandra Watergate, who is the crux of our narrative, is the point where everything hits the fan, including fecal matter.
This is where Orwell, a government surveillance system that can access any personal information on a person, is introduced to you. Orwell has everything, including their phone calls, phone records, criminal record, computer data, social media, dating sites, and many other means of digital records pertaining to an individual. We are also introduced to Symes, your manager in the Orwell system who commands your full cooperation.
Looking through all of this information, I can honestly say I have never felt more uncomfortable than those moments. The hardest moment was reading comments or messages on a dating site, taken directly from messages from men. This felt like one of the most realistic moments in a video game. Reading that, I forgot I was playing a game and felt I was working at my computer, for want of a better term, for an Orwellian government. How persistent and full of conviction this man is, with a profile picture that shows his 80s bowl-like haircut and sexual deviant’s mustache, made the moment even more realistic. Because of this, I would recommend Orwell on its own. After all, what we remember from video games the most are our experiences.
In my first iteration of this review, I said I don’t usually play this type of game, which is referred to as a “visual novel”, something I have previously equated to the likes of manga and my pre-existing notions of Japanese storytelling wasn’t favorable either. Well, I say this as I am quite enjoying a box set of a manga series that I’d go as far to say I relish, along with having mostly favorable things to say about the Capcom series Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney. In short, my assumptions have changed greatly in a brief few months, and I think it is thanks to games like Orwell, Hacknet, and Ace Attorney that require this much reading. Nevertheless, I am not a reviewer of books… I presume for that job you need long words like sesquipedalian.
Assumptions aside, I don’t think the story of Orwell is exceptional. Yes, it does take a more personal note on the story of 1984, though there are tropes I think Orwell presumably has fallen into as a consequence of design constrictions. Symes somewhat acts as a director. You can shirk all the blame for the evil you do off on him as he tells you to wiretap phones or hack into a woman’s computer, and in the end, he has ultimate control. This is what I think Orwell does well, you feel like a small piece in a larger puzzle that is out of your control even when given decisions to make. Yes, while true that they are similar to Telltale’s split narrative, they feel more impactful.
I think if I were to recommend a “visual novel” it would be Orwell, as it is more personal to all of us. We all wear clothes, we all have curtains in our house, and we all have passwords on our mobile phones. Privacy is a basic right and sometimes we need a reminder what that right entails. Entertainment, as it so often does, reminds us who we are and what surrounds us. Giving up a basic human right shouldn’t be the desire of any human, yet we are deviating more and more into allowing others into our personal lives to a frightening degree.
In conclusion, I think Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You is a great experience, though the gameplay lacks the gripping nature of “conventional games” because it is a visual novel. It not a perfect detective game either. The investigation is drilled down to nothing more than reading, with almost every detail spoonfed to you. If you had to ask why I enjoy Orwell so much, it is the world building; the feeling, the sense, that you are someone scratching the surface of a larger and scarier nightmare you can’t wake up from. Another reason I highly recommend it is both “seasons” of Orwell are available now with Twitch Prime along with Bomber Crew, Republique, and Hyper Light Drifter.