Let's get this out of the way — the only way Orwell could have a less subtle name would if it was literally called "Government Surveillance Simulator 2016". Yes, Orwell is an episodic video game about working for a government that is spying on its people. It's quite the lofty premise, and one that many would assume would be more preachy than engrossing. But to my surprise, not only does the first episode of Orwell do the concept justice, it does so with flying colors.
Orwell is a game all about you, the player. You're an average person who gets recruited to join the new government organization known as Orwell. Now, you may be asking 'What is my job as an agent of Orwell?' Why, spy on the citizens of course! It just so happens that your first day on the force is kicked off by a bombing in the city square, and now it's on you took rifle through the private life of the prime suspect.
Your main form of interaction in Orwell boils down to doing some Internet sleuthing. You start the game presented with a vague idea of what to look for (in this case, any possible motive your suspect would have for bombing a city square) and then go down the proverbial rabbit hole to wherever it takes you. During your search, you'll inevitably stumble across critical information, which you can turn over to your handlers to see how it progresses the plot. See, this is where the main crux of the game presents itself - are you willing to tear apart someone's life and be privy to their most personal moments all based on a hunch?
I can't lie, some of these moments really got to me. While browsing through someone's not-Facebook feed and checking their employer's website is one thing, I couldn't help but free extremely guilty when rifling through the shaken and vulnerable suspect's instant messages in real time, being presented with mountains of emotionally charged messages which, if taken out of context, could destroy every relationship they've ever built an instant.
You're given a lot of choices in Orwell, and deciding courses of action proved to be the most exciting part of the game. While some key lines and clusters of information must be sent to your handler, others can be left by the wayside if you so desire. While it was occasionally frustrating to find what messages were critical and what weren't, I do enjoy the freedom it gives players and the implications it presents. Implying your choices can affect the greater plot is one thing, actually making them matter is something else entirely.
I realize that I haven't written much of the gameplay yet, and believe me, this is no mistake. There really isn't a lot to say, just a lot of scrolling through pages and clicking on highlighted objects. While some may be understandably turned off by the lack of gameplay, I personally didn't mind all that much - it's really all the interactivity needed for a game like this. Anything more would honestly just feel out of place, considering the themes and setting of the game.
I ended the first episode of Orwell with mixed emotions - but none of them on the quality of the game. Rather, they were about the choices I made during the first episode, how my actions may have condemned an innocent citizen. Yes, Orwell may not be a very pleasant game to play, but it's impossible to deny that Episode 1 has taken Orwell's chilling concept and applied it in a fantastic way. But for the moment, all we can do is wait and see if the next six episodes live up to the debut's high bar.
Orwell was previewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.