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Indie game ‘Orwell’ explores privacy invasion

Text-based video games aren’t much of a thing anymore. Sure, the odd visual novel makes an appearance on handheld consoles, but as a genre it’s definitely been nothing to look at recently.

No matter how well the interfaces are designed and how well the story is put together, text-based video games usually get shuttled into the indie game corner to languish among the other also-rans, to be picked up by a hipster gamer or raved on about by a mainstream entertainment source about how fringe the game is. Enter “Orwell.”

Developed by Osmotic Studios and published by Surprise Attack, “Orwell” is as quintessential an indie game as you could find on the market. Self-categorized as a

Self-categorized as a “privacy invasion thriller” by the developer, “Orwell” takes you into the background of information-gathering and online security.

In the video game, you play an investigator who’s just been recruited into Orwell, an online information gathering system belonging to the government. As an investigator at Orwell, your sole responsibility is to sit behind the computer and pass on information about various people to the government.

You have access to health records, police arrest reports, social media profiles, private chat rooms, emails and even phone lines. You’re free to listen in to whatever you want and you’re free to turn in whatever information you feel like.

From the title of the game to the very storyline and narrative here, “Orwell” isn’t subtle about the subject of the game. Privacy versus national security is the main issue here and you’re caught in the crosshairs between the two issues from the moment your in-game supervisor asks you to turn in your first piece of information.

But desensitization is the name of the game.

There’s a cool, positive feedback reinforcement loop in the game that gives the whole spying-on-your-fellow-citizens mechanic a good feeling. A sense of accomplishment, if you will, when you turn in a clue that makes it very hard to take a minute and think about whether your online spying is actually right or wrong.

You’ll find yourself turning in private details of the game’s other characters pretty easily and even when things start to go haywire, it’ll still be very easy to keep trusting the system and keep feeding in information into Orwell.

Released at a time of great focus on international security, digital privacy as well terrorist threats in today’s world, “Orwell” is part of a growing number of politically focused games that seek to ask questions of their players rather than simply entertain or educate.

There are two sides to every argument and we’re reminded of that constantly throughout the entire narrative.

But “Orwell” is anything but subtle and this lack of subtlety works against its intentions. It bombards the player pretty liberally with heavy issues and events right from the start and while it does keep the player grounded in the game’s event-heavy plot, it overloads the senses.

It makes it easier for us to remember that this is just a game and at the end of the day, we can shut off our computers and everything will go back to normal.

The gameplay is also pretty interesting. Traversing its well-designed interface and clicking through newspaper headlines and listening in on phone conversation forms a whole, cohesive experience that immerses anyone in the game very well.

But there’s only so much data-mining and drag-and-drop gameplay mechanics one can take before descending into boredom. “Orwell” does have a good story but it’s not nearly good enough to keep players from rushing ahead and playing the game just for the sake of finishing it. Don’t be surprised if you lose interest halfway.

“Orwell” is certainly a unique game — text-based but unlike any other text-based game you’ve seen. An investigative thriller but again, unlike any other you’ve seen. There’s no action, no puzzle solving but its simple game mechanics are captivating and intriguing.

As for the story, well, it’s an Orwellian tale of a totalitarian government against a group of freethinkers — need I say more?