Orwell Designer Daniel Marx on the Dark Side of Dystopia

George Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984 remains relevant even today, seventy years after its publication. We still use terms like “Big Brother” and “Thought Police” to refer to the threat of invasive government surveillance. But video game developer Osmotic Studios has turned these anxieties upside down with two installments of the game Orwell. In the first, you play a government agent investigating the lives of citizens to find those responsible for a series of terrorist attacks. In the second, you use surveillance tools to look for clues to an international political crisis. In the following interview, Osmotic CEO and Game Director Daniel Marx shares the motivations behind creating Orwell and the reactions from players.

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Greg: Most protagonists in games and other stories are set up to fight against authority, corruption and restrictions on freedom. What was the inspiration behind giving the player the ability to control coercive government agents in Orwell?

Daniel: One reason was because having more power than you’d usually possess is certainly a more appealing fantasy to play around with than taking on a powerless role. But on top of being more “fun”, a strong suit of games is to let their audiences come to their own conclusions through interaction with the system we as developers give them, just as we interact with our environment and learn from that on a daily basis. To that end, it’s crucial to hand players power so that their actions could have tangible consequences in the game’s world, prompting them to make up their minds on the topic and questioning their own stance towards it, hopefully getting affected by what they choose in the process.

Surveillance in general is a controversial topic. It can certainly be beneficial—after all, we all long for safety, and the need for more surveillance is voiced by citizens and politicians alike whenever a terrorist attack occurs. But it can just as easily become a dangerous, suppressive and exploitative device. With our games we wanted to confront players with exactly that conflict. Thus, we found the best way to do just that was in letting them do the surveillance themselves, and even start off doing it for a good cause like crime or terrorism prevention.

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Greg: What is the overall objective of the game? What does it mean to win? Stopping a terrorist attack? Successfully surveilling everyone in the nation? What happens if the player doesn’t want to continue with his/her assignment? Or is the concept of winning more fluid in Orwell than in other games?

Daniel: The superficial objective is to prevent the terrorist attacks and find the perpetrators, and it is possible to achieve this. However, the objective kind of changes halfway into the game when the perpetrator is seemingly found, but there is more to the terrorist plot than first met the eye. The game then actually turns more into a question whether the degree of surveillance portrayed in the game is justified or not, putting the game government’s surveillance system and its ethics at the core of the story.

The game offers players multiple opportunities to mislead and hinder the investigation and sabotage the system if they want to, e.g. by intentionally uploading wrong data, with the story reacting to that. In the end, players are confronted in a direct matter with the question whether they want to keep supporting the system or not, and their behavior throughout the game and their final decision determines the outcome, which range from a shutdown to an expansion of the system.

Screenshot from the video game Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength
Experience the dark side of dystopia with Orwell

Greg: What have been some of the reactions from players? Are they surprised by how far they are willing to extend misinformation and surveillance? Do they enjoy having this kind of power? Do they try to circumvent their government assignment?

Daniel: Players seem to be initially intrigued by the potential to surveil and spy on the target persons. As far as I’m aware, most players fulfill their duties and stay loyal to the government and the system throughout the largest portion of the game, but feel increasingly “dirty” about what they do (we hear that a lot in feedback), especially after a person dies because of it.

The wish to clarify the circumstances and find the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks stays strong throughout the game. Players still wish to fulfill their original task, while being more aware they should be careful of what they give away. As for the final decision, I believe basically equal parts stay loyal to the government versus try to overthrow the system. Players tend to be a bit skeptical towards the overthrowing part because there are also a lot of questionable actions performed by the person who suggests to follow this course of action.