Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You
By: Fellow Traveller / Osmotic Studios
Visitors of this site might know by now that I’m a big fan of “found phone” games that ask you to pore through data on a person’s device to solve a mystery. They’re a nice modern take on the detective genre and, if done right, can make you feel like a super sleuth. Osmotic Studios’ and Fellow Traveller’s Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You isn’t quite a “found phone” game, but the idea is similar. It takes place in a fictional world not unlike our own, where the government is testing out a new surveillance program called Orwell. You play as an investigator with the task of identifying and collecting evidence on suspected terrorists. The game released on PC back in 2016 but just made its way over to mobile and is a perfect fit for the platform. In fact, aside from a couple of missing features, I would argue that this is the best way to play the game, as you’re not chained to a desk while reading through a lot of text. Unless you hate reading, the mobile version of Orwell is an easy recommendation and especially relevant to current events, as we question just how much freedom we should give up during a global pandemic.
The game starts with an explosion, and a camera in the area identifies a woman leaving the scene who has a criminal record. This makes her a suspected terrorist, and it is your job to find information that either clears her or condemns her. As you comb through her police report, news stories about her, blog posts, and even social media accounts, you come across bits of information highlighted in blue. These are called Datachunks, and you can drag them into her profile to fill in the data. This could be a name, birth place, job, boyfriend, favorite vacation spot and more. If you uncover an email address or phone number, it could give you access to private emails and phone calls. That will lead to more suspects, who in turn lead to even more. Just being in contact with a suspect could be enough to make someone a person of interest. For the most part, you can scan for these Datachunks, but it’s not quite the same experience as actually reading through everything so you can properly follow the story and fill in all the world-building information. So I highly recommend taking your time with it and truly absorbing everything.
The game is broken up into five episodes, each taking place on a single work day. On your first day on the job, you’re introduced to your advisor and explained how they can’t see the information you’re reading through. They can only see the Datachunks you upload. They also ask that you don’t waste their time uploading information that isn’t relevant. Early on, there’s not much consequence for this, but the deeper you get into the game, the more these choices affect the outcome. So you can’t grab every Datachunk and call it a day. You need to be careful, because a joke or figure of speech can be taken out of context and make you look silly for taking it seriously. It can also lead to a suspect getting away or missing the opportunity to stop another attack. From what I can tell, none of these choices can cause the game to end prematurely, so you can still have fun with it and see what happens if you’re not concerned with doing everything exactly as you’re told.
Like I said, early on it’s harder to mess up. But there seems to be a lot of different paths you can take by choosing to leave out certain Datachunks. I’m not sure to what extent you can refuse to do your job and sabotage Orwell to help the terrorists every step of the way. The ending implies that you can, but I would have to replay the game and try to make different choices in order to see if it’s possible. Still, there are multiple endings and even within those endings, there are a number of smaller events that you have control over. It’s impressive that so many branching paths can be determined through a simple system of uploading pieces of information. And as you get deeper into the game, these choices really feel like they matter.
Now, let’s talk about the port itself. What makes it such a perfect port is that you can play in either portrait or landscape mode. This means you can comfortably play with one hand on an iPhone and scroll through articles and social media the same way you would every day you use your phone. If you instead choose to play on iPad, everything is much bigger and spread out. Words are big enough to leave your iPad in your lap, a good distance from your face. I stress this because a number of games have come to iOS recently that made me pull my oversized iPad up to my face to read text that was too small. The iPad version is missing the split-screen view from desktop, but I don’t think it’s a huge loss. It’s clear a lot of effort went into making sure the game feels great on whatever device you’re using.
Now, as much as I enjoyed this game, there are a few features missing from the mobile version that I hope we might see one day. Like I said, there are multiple endings and branching storylines. Thankfully, the game lets you restart a chapter if you want to try to get a different outcome (though it wipes any progress you’ve made since that chapter, understandably). But since the Steam achievements didn’t make it over to the mobile version, it’s hard to know what you’re even trying for. With a game like this, achievements help you determine whether you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, and it also helps guide you to finding alternate paths. But without those goals or guidelines, it’s hard to justify replaying the game. Besides that, iCloud sync is missing, which is especially disappointing because of how well the game plays on both devices. I would have liked to play on my iPad on my couch but on my iPhone in bed or away from home. Still, these features would improve on the game but don’t much away from it. I still highly recommend playing it this way, as it’s far more comfortable that staring at a PC for hours reading text.
Surveillance has been a hot topic for a long time now, as witnessed by George Orwell’s classic, 1984. Taking some inspiration from the novel, Osmotic Studios crafted a game that updates the concerns of Big Brother watching us and expands it to modern day technology like Facebook and Google. It’s not the first game to do so, especially on mobile, but it does it in a believable way while streamlining the experience to prevent frustration. And with questions in the air right now over how much our privacy is worth when battling a highly contagious virus, it’s perhaps even more timely than ever. I’m glad to see Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You make its way to mobile devices, and I hope the sequel follows suit. What we got is a near-perfect port and and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a deep narrative experience with choices that matter. If you’re willing to spy on your fellow citizens, download Orwell here and begin your job as an investigator.