Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength Review – Staunch Surveillance
2016’s Orwell tapped into our collective fears about online surveillance, the manipulation of information, and our fast-eroding sense of personal privacy in the digital age. In 2018, these problems are more pronounced and have manifested in new ways. Orwell: Ignorance is Strength has launched upon a world where the term “fake news” carries very specific connotations, and where political divisiveness is, in many parts of the world, leading to mass-protests and widespread unease, a lot of which is being channelled through the internet. The Orwell games are very much a product of their time, but unfortunately Ignorance is Strength does not resonate as hard as its predecessor did.
The events of Ignorance is Strength occur concurrently with the first three episodes of the original game, but while there’s some occasional overlap you’re primarily focused on an entirely separate case. Barring one new element, the gameplay is mostly identical to the first game, which you should play first if you have any interest in this follow-up–some knowledge about the “The Nation” (the fictional country the game is set in) and the technology you’re in charge of is assumed. You play as an investigator, charged with digging through the internet for information that will serve the interests of the country’s corrupt government.
Initially you’re searching for details about Oleg Bakay, a missing military officer from neighboring country Parges. Soon–and for the remainder of the game–your focus shifts to Raban Vhart, a blogger whose anti-government sentiments and campaign against the leadership of The Nation (which is, yes, run by a man who looks a bit like Trump) must be thwarted. You are, essentially, the bad guy, running surveillance for a dictatorship that demands absolute fealty from the citizens it so closely monitors, but Ignorance is Strength is less explicit about the meaning behind all of this than the first game was. While Orwell stretched across five episodic instalments, Ignorance is Strength runs for just three, which winds up being too little time to build upon the previously established mythology of the game’s world. The broader political climate of The Nation, the appropriately Orwellian setting for both games, isn’t expanded upon much by Raban’s war against it, and while a conflict with Parges is discussed it’s never quite explored enough to feel like a proper plot point.
Your job is to find chunks of data online using the computer interface of the Orwell surveillance system, then throw as much dirt as you can at Raban. If a piece of information on a page can be collected, it will be highlighted, and you can drag it to their profile on your screen. You find this information by scouring websites (although annoyingly you can’t “search” for sites; you either find links on sites you have already accessed or gain a new site for your database after grabbing a data chunk), and when you manage to find someone’s phone or computer details you can snoop through their private screens too. Pages that haven’t been fully explored, or which have data chunks you haven’t lifted, are highlighted on your list of pages visited. Each piece of information you collect will eat up ten minutes on your in-game clock, and in each of the game’s three episodes you’re working towards a specific time limit, so you want to focus on the important information and skip over any data that does not add to the case you’re building.
Sometimes data will contradict with other chunks, and as the Investigator it’s up to you to choose which one to submit. The “Ethical Codex” mandate means that your supervisor is only privy to information you submit, and will make informed decisions based on that. The way the plot progresses will be influenced by which statements you decide are more valid, as you can’t submit two contradictory pieces. It’s an implausible system, but from a game design perspective it’s a clever one, forcing you into regular moral dilemmas.
The stakes feel muted this time, though. In episode 2, for example, if you gather too much useless information without finding a specific important detail, Raban will publish an anti-government blog post before you can stop him. Raban isn’t a talented writer, and while he has a following, his posts largely read as hysterical, which is a strange tone to hit. He drops a genuine revelation in the first episode, but for the remainder of the game Raban seems like someone who is fast unravelling, and who the leaders of The Nation could probably comfortably ignore, having successfully implemented a surveillance state and perfected the dissemination of propaganda in ways that make Raban’s stand largely ineffective. It also doesn’t help that the game, which is so text-heavy, has several issues with grammar, punctuation and sentence syntax, at least some of which seem unintentional. They’re minor problems, but over time they become distracting.
It’s up to you to discredit Raban by investigating his personal life and past, which becomes the driving force of the second and third episodes. You’re essentially asked to destroy a man’s life, and it can be distressingly satisfying when you dig up the appropriate dirt on him. The human drama at the game’s heart is the most compelling aspect of its plot, especially once you start to investigate Raban’s wife and brother. A few twists in the story are telegraphed too heavily to have an impact, but the experience of taking available information about a man’s life and using it to destroy him–by any means necessary–is just the right level of disturbing.
The third and final episode introduces a new wrinkle: the Influencer Tool, which lets you gather information and broadcast to the world, obscuring the truth by cherry-picking certain information to reach conclusions that ignore specific inconvenient details. The Influencer Tool taps into our worst fears–our secrets and our private conversations being exposed against our will, and our moments of weakness being read as our true selves coming out. The balance between your personal satisfaction over achieving in-game goals and the horror of what you’re doing, coupled with the plausibility of these tools being used against someone, can lead to serious self-reflection, even if the man you’re taking apart isn’t the most compelling figure. It’s a shame that these moments are fairly fleeting–Ignorance is Strength would have benefited greatly from a few extra chapters to really emphasize the tragedy of what is happening.
Orwell: Ignorance is Strength does not leave as strong an impression as the first game did, even if the central mechanics are still inherently compelling. There’s not quite enough space for the game to breathe, and the interesting ideas, like the Influencer Tool, could be taken further. As a series, Orwell is brimming with potential, but it feels like the sequel was rushed to ensure that it could comment on the state of the world in early 2018. But extensive private data collection, political turmoil, and pervasive surveillance aren’t going anywhere, which is why the game’s namesake, George Orwell, has remained so perpetually relevant. If there’s a third Orwell game, hopefully Osmotic Studios will find more to say about it.
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