I often speak of ‘good’ science fiction. We live in an era where the Star Trek of ’66 holds provocative and insightful questions about the nature of humanity but has to get by with wigs for alien monsters while 2016 has brought us CGI wonder and amazement in the realm of science fiction but with none of the Asimov questions about what it means to exist in this modern world. That’s why when games like Event or Orwell tickle my fancy: they aren’t complicated mechanically but by the end of them I feel catharsis.
So what is Orwell? You’re playing the part of an Investigator, someone assigned to use the Orwell system to spy on people by digging through their data. Find their facebook, look for aliases, comb forums looking for their aliases. It’s all very 1990’s movie of what a hacker looks like, except here the data chunks that are relevant highlight themselves blue or yellow. Blue highlights are used for evidence and facts, while yellow ones conflict with other yellow ones and you have to decide which to enter into the system. Because the ‘tools’ you’re using only allow one of the two data chunks to be inserted, the choices you make have end-of-game consequences for the people you investigate.
Over the course of a few days, while investigating a bombing, you’ll uncover a web of people and their relationships with each other. By the end of the game, you’ve affected their lives a thousand times over without even having met them and because your decisions are executed through a giant Orwellian system, the ethical questions present themselves immediately. Are you doing the right thing? How do you know the information you chose was the correct information? How can a large organization claim to know what’s best for the individual? All very compelling questions that are surprisingly relevant in our current digital age.
I would have liked a little more limit as to the information that could be inserted into Orwell. Near the end of the game, they make a big deal about how long data chunks take to enter into the system so you only have enough time for 20 chunks. That mechanic would have applied pressure on a day to day basis, even when the threat level wasn’t high and I feel that would have made for a more enjoyable game. As it is, you can simply and safely click almost any blue highlighted information and add it without worry. Also while the game is short (<5 hours), it has enough replayability that a limitation on this data would have made replays more interesting.
Overall I highly recommend Orwell if you're the sort that wants to read a 'Big Brother' story that tries to tell both sides of a not-so-black-and-white story. Or if you just really like creeping Facebook.