Game Review | Orwell
Game summary: Assume the role of a state operative and monitor surveillance sources to find national security threats. (Wikipedia)
Orwell is a game that, having now completed twice, I thoroughly recommend you only play once. Honestly, playing through a second time completely shatters the illusion of choice that a first trip through the story might suggest and will almost certainly lower your opinion of the game as it did mine.
The main thing that Orwell has going for it is the intriguing concept for the player viewpoint and the highly questionable actions you can undertake. Other titles may feature surveillance or government invasions of privacy and media manipulation, but here you are responsible for those things happening - well, acting as an instigator of those things anyway.
The story starts with an explosion in a public place that leads to you being tasked with tracking down those responsible and it all snowballs from there. The first time through, it is all fairly impressive how much it feels like you get to do, but a second time through ultimately reveals how restrictive it all is. The choices here are limited to moments rather than anything long-lasting.
Then again, the lack of choice isn't really the thing that bugs me - there are far more linear games than non-linear and this is just another of the former after all. However, there are points when the game asks the player if they missed anything or could've done anything different to change certain outcomes and that does feel a little insulting as a player.
But this seems to be the design philosophy of Orwell as a whole: show the player one thing while claiming it's another. You could frame this as being Orwellian: "The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command" after all. That fits this game to a tee.
Opening the game to a slick UI makes you hope that the entire game will look like that, but it proves static and lifeless, with little thought to matching the in-game system the player-as-Investigator uses with how you initially start the game. Is it too much to ask for a little flair or some smooth animations transitioning from screen to screen?
Then there's the audio, what little there is of it. You get some ambient background music that is pleasant enough if nothing special, with the occasional burst of something little more dramatic when another incident happens. You 'listen' to phone calls by reading the dialogue while a sound waveform appears to indicate audio being recorded.
This just makes you ask why though, as message conversations are depicted in almost the exact same fashion and making the separate areas seem redundant - why not combine them into one location if the player is just going to see the same thing? Or even just get members of the team to record audio for the dialogue and muffle/distort it a little if you're worried about the quality?
To really enjoy Orwell, wait for it to go on sale and then play it just the once. It's only a few hours long to play to completion, so treat it like a one-off and you'll probably leave the game happy with what you played through. I really wish I hadn't played through it a second time, because this could have been so, so good with just an extra layer of polish.
Orwell is a fun little game, but I'm also glad that I picked it up in a sale and not on release. The entire story is a few hours long, with barely any animation, ambient background music with no spoken dialogue very little influence on what actually happens. There's so much potential here that is unfortunately squandered.