Orwell – Keeping an Eye on You: Review

Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You is a hybrid visual novel, detective game and point and click adventure. It puts you in the position of spying on people in an attempt to battle terrorism. The game presents an interesting mechanic while it tries to critique government mass surveillance.

The government of a fictional nation is rolling out a new system of surveillance, called Orwell. In its first real world application, your job is to use the internet, CCTV cameras, mobile phone recordings, and chat logs to collect information to find the bomber. The way the system works is you upload data chunks to Orwell to complete profiles on people. These chunks are photos, personal information such as medical history, birth date, and anything else which might be relevant. This information is then passed on to your adviser, Symes. This is outlined in the Orwell Ethical Codex, where investigators (you) have access to the data and decide what pieces of data are relevant. Advisers then take that data and analyze it before deciding on a course of action. There is no two way communication between you and your adviser, so Symes will speak to you, but you may never speak to him.

In the game’s world, this structure is supposed to limit bias by investigators by providing “just the facts” which fails spectacularly as the game goes on. Somehow whoever designed the system didn’t take into account personal biases, assumptions, prejudice, or context when devising it. Another feature of this system is that you are not a citizen of the fictional nation on whose citizens you are spying on. The justification is that since you are not a citizen, you will be more objective in judging the information you find. The assumption is that you will be able to provide better information than someone who is closer to home, so to speak. Once again, the designer of this system didn’t take into account personal biases and context. The game does not explore this particular feature too much, I suppose it provides a narrative reason for the player’s unfamiliarity with the locations and events of the world.

So the premise is a bit silly and unrealistic, but like many games, it is there to provide a backdrop to the gameplay. Let your beliefs be suspended, and its fine.

The game starts with a bomb going off and you begin your investigation by searching through the news articles and police files trying to find the people involved. There are some limitations to what you can actually use to spy on people with. For example, phones can’t be tapped unless you have the phone number, computers cant be hacked unless you have the serial code. These limitations are more to set up obstacles to the player rather than making a comment on limiting state surveillance. In a real world application, as we have already seen, such limitations would hardly be considered necessary. Therefore, much of your early Internet sleuthing is to find the targets’ contact information by creeping their social media profiles and websites until more potential information about them is revealed. For example, their social media profile may have a link to the character’s blog, which then will give you a new website to visit and new datachunks to find.

You can choose to ignore data chunks, but Symes tells us early that some data chunks are necessary to further the case. In other words, some data chunks must be submitted for the game to progress. Sometimes there will be multiple datachunks with conflicting information. With these, you can only choose one to upload which will make the other chunks invalid. These are often “forks” in the narrative that will set part of the investigation down one path and close off the other.

Like many narrative games, there is a clear path to follow and despite the game wanting to give agency to the player, there are some actions which must be done. In Orwell, this resulted in a few situations unfolding in ways that really soured me. There are a few decisions where I wished there were more options to choose from, or that they were not required for the story to progress. In these moments, the game felt constrained in such a way that it made me a little frustrated.

The story is a bit fluid, with the choices you make being dependent on on what information you provide to Symes. Since you and him can’t communicate, Symes will only be able to see what information you want him to see. This means that you can’t influence or add context to any of the pieces of information you give. Upload a datachunk about someone buying beer, and Symes might believe they are an alcoholic. To guide the investigation in the way you want to, you have to consider what assumptions Symes will make. Orwell challenges the (shitty) belief that “facts, not feelings” matter. The facts you serve up often put innocent people at risk, because facts are never enough when dealing with human lives. However, I felt that this was more incidental than intentional, and is a point that I expect to be missed or interpreted differently by a large number of players.

Where Orwell succeeds is in the mechanics and presentation, which is pretty unique and unsettling. As I was looking over news clippings and social media profiles, I knew I was being complicit in an intrusive state surveillance apparatus. I was telling myself that I was going to see how to tear it down from the inside. I do not agree with this kind of surveillance, yet playing this game felt familiar. I knew that I had done this before, in real life. Today, it is not unusual for people to scout out individuals they meet online, whether it be for professional reasons, out of curiosity, or for nefarious deeds. We have all (almost?) even Googled ourselves to see what we can find.

While there are ample opportunities to empathize with your targets, the premise feels less intrusive to citizens than what actually exists today. The message could be stronger if it was more alike to today’s realities of Internet surveillance.

Sometimes I felt the game was better at demonstrating the consequences communication breakdowns than the perils of state surveillance. When Symes interprets a piece of data in a way that you yourself didn’t, it is usually because there is no context, and sometimes because he is a bit of an asshole.

If a quick romp through a narrative story that tries to compromise your values on privacy sounds good to you, Orwell is sure to satisfy.

Unless you are looking for a real critique.

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