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'Orwell' Delivers a Great Story, But Says Nothing About Surveillance

It's good for what it is, but all of the real terror of "big brother" has been erased.

Every day, we are faced with the tensions between safety and privacy, as increasingly complex systems of digital surveillance and computerized security weave through our lives. From "eye in the sky" drones to police body cameras, decisions about visibility are made for us, and (sometimes) by us, every day. For all these reasons, Orwell (a game that casts you as a surveillance software operator) should resonate.


Yet when I played the first chapter weeks ago, I noted that it had some particularly glaring problems if we took it seriously. After playing the entire game and speaking with the devs, I'm still not sure if I think that Orwell hits the mark.

There's a moment late in Orwell where the player has to make some constrained decisions. Do you throw the people fighting for freedom against the State under the bus to save the country while losing your soul? Or do you stick it to The Man by using the tools at your disposal against the oppressive apparatus? Do you void your job entirely, throwing the whole thing off kilter? It's a tight, complex web of interrelated events that had Orwell's narrative and mechanical systems firing on all cylinders. I was in a tight thriller, and it was exciting.

But that's not the experience that I had playing through most of Orwell. It doesn't always feel like you're parsing friend and foe through the 'net while the world burns around you. Mostly it feels like you're doing a job. And a boring one at that. I don't necessarily mean this as an insult, though.

All screenshots courtesy of Osmotic 

It's amazing that the developers at Osmotic Studios were able to put the player in a position of regularized banality while also embroiling them in an interesting story. Like Papers, Please (a game the developers told me they were inspired by), Orwell plays with the dissonance between your actions, our expectations of how we are supposed to play games. But where Papers, Please explored the mundane intricacies of immigration bureaucracy, Orwell tasks players with being citizen-detectives, tracing through faux Facebook pages, newspaper articles, and intellectual blogs to find out the cause of several related domestic terror events.


It's all a little warped though. Orwell's artist Mel Taylor (perhaps) accidentally described the entire game when describing the game's art style: "We wanted it to look like reality," she told me, "but a distorted reality, kind of like when you are looking through a milky glass window and you can see reality in sort of a distorted way." Orwell wants to present us with the world we live in, but skewed a little, like a 19th century fairy tale that replaces trolls with facial recognition software and ginger bread houses with cell phone tracking triangulation.

And, again as in Papers, Please, this game has you making some choices within the limited parameters it sets up. You figure out how much culpability you want to feel responsibility for. To be clear, that doesn't change how much responsibility you actually have. Orwell's fictional surveillance system for the country of The Nation is staffed by internationals who have no relationship to the country, people being surveilled, or conditions of surveillance.

You are someone who is wholly removed, and as such you are the person tasked with invading every inch of privacy you can get your hands on. Everything bad that happens (and many bad things do happen) is at least partially your fault. There are opportunities to reverse some of your choices, but the damage is always permanent. You can only beg for absolution through the same interface that you used to ruin lives, and Taylor explained that this move toward disconnection was purposeful:


This idea of saying the player is someone outside The Nation who is sort of independent and kind of neutral towards the people and that's why he's a good agent, that's a very easy, a very superficial idea actually, it's also easier to go from there and focus on the problems of surveillance in general.

It's the "in general" that still sticks in my craw. If I'm being vague here, or if I'm being too evocative, it's because I can't tell you specifics.  Orwellhas a strong core narrative, but it's precariously balanced: Knowing too much about any one piece might make it all come tumbling down. Like some of the best novels, films, and plays, it's ridiculously vulnerable to spoilers.

That said, the contemporary elements and references you would expect all show up. Writer and designer Daniel Marx told me that the information that Edward Snowden brought to light were operative for the development of the game, as well as historical research about the Red Army Faction and the German Stasi. And, of course, there are a number of references to namesake George Orwell's 1984.

These referents loop back to an issue that I had in my initial piece about Orwell: Where is race? Where is religion? Where is xenophobia at all? It turns out that Osmotic thought about that. Marx explained:

I think we were a bit hesitant to add this as an element because it could be misunderstood too easily. So we decided so that [race] should not be a major point, nor should religion which we completely left out as well, intentionally so because we just felt like it's just too easy to get wrong or be misunderstood.

This is a fair claim, but it isn't one that I agree with. Orwell extracts the social narrative about the benefits and sacrifices of surveillance from the rest of society's concerns, but that only works if you think that our cultural narratives can be parsed away from discussions of race, religion, and nationality.

Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, recently called for a national ban on the burqa, citing civic cohesion as a prime concern for the dismissal of basic religious freedoms. Several cities in France banned the "burkini", a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women, based on a perceived connection to terrorism (some of these bans have largely been lifted after legal rulings). The President-Elect of the United States is still waffling over whether he is going to create a registry of Muslims residing in the country, a violation of privacy and an act of surveillance that is almost unthinkable in scale. Last year, Simone Browne published Dark Matters, a book that clearly argues for how the history of surveillance as a concept has constantly focused on monitoring the lives and bodies of black people.

And so it is hard for me to take all of that knowledge about the world in and think that it's possible to really talk about the balance of surveillance and safety without taking into account who is being surveilled the most and for what reasons.

While Orwell provides an interesting and thrilling tale about the invasion of privacy, the game's mostly-white cast of college professors, former executives, and high-profile defense lawyers are people who merely come into contact with the surveillance state. In our reality, though, the Muslims minding their own business at the beach or black women with afros going through airport security have had surveillance built on top of them. The lack of that reality in Orwell is a gaping hole that only becomes more apparent the longer you think about it.