Developed by Osmotic Studios. Published by Surprise Attack. Released in episodic format, October 27, 2016 through November 17, 2016. Available on PC. Review Code provided by publisher.
The first thing I see is surveillance camera footage. This is the Freedom Plaza, a park in the fictional city of Bonton. The cameras flip between different angles, randomly scanning the faces of people who are congregating in the area. Most of them return with the notification: No record found - save for one blue haired woman. The camera watches her climb onto the bus, and the bus pulls away. A few moments later, a bomb explodes.
At its core, Orwell is a game about the ethics of data mining, government surveillance, and the neverending struggle to determine an appropriate balance between freedom, privacy, and security. Orwell is comprised of five episodes, with each reflecting a single day's work. You are the investigator, part of a team of people who monitor the public and private activities of "potential threats" - rather, civilians who have not yet been proven to have broken the law. You're working remotely for the government of a foreign country, The Nation, which recently passed the Safety Bill - a "collection of safety-centered laws and statutes," including "the simplified, sped-up process of taking investigative measures against criminal suspects and their prosecution." The scope of this surveillance, however, appears to remain an obscurity to most civilians.
The system that you use to do your research, Orwell, is new - you are one of the first people selected to try it under real circumstances. Your adviser in The Nation's government is Symes, who is tasked with evaluating the information you provide and recommending action, as well as giving you the greenlight to investigate a specific target. When this is done, a profile will be created for them. It is up to you to determine what information makes it into their profile. While investigating, potentially important information will be highlighted. The highlighted elements are "Datachunks," extractable data that can be added to the profile of the suspect. Only at that time can anyone else view this information. Often, you will find two related Datachunks that directly conflict with one another, and must determine, based on context, which one to add to the profile. It is up to you to determine what is and is not relevant. Adding sarcastic or heat-of-the-moment outbursts could result in the arrest of someone who is otherwise innocent. Ignoring information could result in a guilty party escaping.
The blue haired woman is Cassandra Watergate, the daughter of pharmaceutical entrepreneurs who recently had a run in with the law. The first pieces of information are what you'd expect to have access to - arrest records, newspaper clippings, and public social media accounts, offering nuggets of information for you to add to her profile. Before long, however, you are monitoring chats between her and her boyfriend as they take place. The rest of the day, and the others that follow, are an immersive whirlwind of remotely accessing personal computers, eavesdropping on phone calls between a growing web of interconnected "potential threats," and questioning how far you're willing to go to take down a murderer and prevent future terror attacks.
The most immediate impression that I had of Orwell was that it at no time felt like a game, but not in a bad way. The menus mimic the appearance of legitimate software that one would use if they were tasked with investigating people. The main menus are divided into three categories: Reader, Listener, and Insider. The Reader tab is where the website-related searches occur, be it scanning user profiles, browsing social media timelines, or reading news articles. The Listener tab is reserved for eavesdropping on private conversations - email, chat, and phone calls are all accessible once you add the necessary information to the target's profile. The Insider tab is where you will remotely access the target's computer. While juggling these three areas becomes a bit difficult once you have a larger web of potential suspect profiles, there isn't any real time sensitivity - if the Listener tab notifies you of an ongoing communication, it will hold patiently until you access it.
The mystery itself is borderline intoxicating, becoming more intense with each episode, as you work to discover how these people's live are entwined and who, if any of them, are responsible for the terrorism you are investigating. Most interesting is that, while I consciously knew that I was playing a game, and investigating fictional characters who would in no way be impacted if my curiosity took hold, I found myself actively attempting to maintain some sort of just, ethical code. It was bad enough that I was peering into their lives, did I also have to share this information with others? How many people could potentially be harmed if I don't tell Symes where Nina is going? Is it appropriate that I know what anti-depressant Nina is taking? And was I willing to let a small group of potentially innocent people be arrested in order to possibly save a country?
I couldn't rip myself away from the game, playing all five episodes in one shot - unfortunately, that equated to just a few short hours. I played through a second time, making different decisions - particularly towards the end - in order to see how different choices would impact the conclusion of the story. While the changes were minor in many instances, enough changed that justified the multiple playthroughs, although I do wish more was available, with more dramatic blows to the progression of the narrative.
Orwell's greatest strength is the mood that it sets. It manages to be politically thrilling, holding a mirror up to our own world and letting you, the player and investigator, determine what it means to be a hero. The game isn't perfect - I often had to close out of tabs and re-enter them because certain Datachunks wanted to be difficult - but overall, Orwell is an enjoyable and thought provoking game that, while it may not meet one's traditional idea of "fun," is more than worthwhile.
Bottom Line: Orwell is a thought-provoking interactive debate about the politics of privacy and security. It's the kind of game that never actually feels like a game, and it manages to do it well.
Recommendation: If you're a fan of suspenseful political games, and don't mind gameplay that is similar to browsing websites on your own computer, Orwell is definitely worth picking up.