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Digging through Facebook or Twitter to discover a friend's birthday is not something you normally think about twice. Even if you're not especially close, it's quite normal. But in Orwell: watching this daily activity acquires a more sinister tone. The game asks you to find information not for you, but for a fictitious foreign government. The context suddenly changes this harmless act into a much more challenging and uncomfortable situation, depending on your feelings about surveillance, privacy and security.
Orwell is structured as a visual novel, but the whole experience is developed through the interface of a fictitious research / surveillance program called Orwell. The game consists of five episodes, which were released over the course of five weeks from the end of October 2016. The game assigns you the use of Orwell to help solve the mysterious bombardment of a public square in a fictional country called The Nation At the same time, try to avoid further attacks by tracking websites and publicly available documents for clues as to who might be involved.
The Orwell program is a kind of better ethical scenario of how a powerful surveillance program could work, since there are many rules that dictate not only how it can be used, but also who can use it. You play as a new researcher supervised by an advisor. The researcher's job is to analyze the sources that Orwell presents to find information that may be relevant to the case and add those bits of data to the profiles on topics of interest in the case.
Find these data sheets (as the game calls them) on different websites. You can find someone's birthday from the fictitious social network of the game, the address of your home outside of your medical records, or your feelings about government based on a blog post. Although Orwell can access all types of data, it only presents new sources when it considers it relevant. For example, you do not automatically have access to someone's medical records, even if they are suspects. But if you find your medical identification number, then you can access that information. The data chips that you can add to the profiles are highlighted by Orwell, but it is up to you, as a researcher, to decide whether that data is relevant, whether it is false or not.
The consultant's job is to interpret the data he adds to the profiles and make decisions about what to do based on that, as well as to advise the researcher on certain prospects to follow. Initially, this configuration between the researcher and the advisor seems designed to make it appear that you, as a researcher, do not have a real agency about the choices made by the advisor. It seems like a nonsense job where you are simply moving data from one place to another. It's a bit like you're in a train putting coal in the engine, while the assessor drives.
But as things progress, it becomes clear that you actually have much more control than even the advisor, since you can only make decisions based on the data you provide them. Therefore, although certain elements of information, such as the place where the subject lives, are obviously relevant, others are critical judgments. What happens when you find a 10-year blog post where the subject is cursing the government? Does that reflect your feelings today? Or maybe they were losing control in a place they never expected anyone to read? Including them will make them look potentially more suspicious, even though much of their current behavior does not reflect that outburst.
These decisions became so uncomfortable that I often considered stopping myself. This act of systematically seeking personal information to find fragments of seemingly circumstantial evidence was felt as a great invasion of privacy without any real benefit. I could not help but think of the Boston bomber's online witch hunt (in part because the bombing in the game happens in a city called Bonton) and how that only led to innocent people being accused.
It feels a little contradictory to express how unpleasant something was like a sales pitch, but it is rare that a game puts you in such a morally compromised position. In addition to that, Orwell, similar to games like Papers, puts you in a position where there is no good or correct answer to the choices presented to you. Each decision offers compensation, both in terms of repercussions in the game and how you can rationalize your choice out of. At the end of the game, the decisions I made did not reflect my feelings or the result I wanted. But I agree with the way the story ended, even though the last option still did not seem bad to me, or that could be the commitment I made to myself to be able to sleep at night.
Orwell: Vigilante was created by Osmotic Studios. You can get it on Steam for $ 9.99 (Windows, Mac OS and Linux). It takes approximately four or five hours to complete.