“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded.” — Edward Snowden
You begin by logging into the front-end of the Orwell computer system and start watching people come and go in a public plaza through the lens of a CCTV camera. Data springs up around each passer-by. Names. Addresses. Criminal records. Threat levels. It’s a serene picture of modern urban life made sinister as you watch behind your screen.
And then the bomb detonates.
Over the course of the next few days, you are given the task of tracking down the terrorists that attacked the homeland. Someone had to have planted that bomb, and you are the only one who can find out who. You take the role of the anonymous Operator, working together with a handler to sift through all the data and metadata you can in the name of homeland security. It’s voyeurism with the weight of a state behind it. The paper-thin safeguards are easily disregarded if you choose to go above and beyond the call of duty to pursue the bomber.
Orwell is a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of a modern day burgeoning surveillance state that is a not-all-that-distant mirror of our own society. People post on social networks, email, and text each other, oblivious to the reality that they are being constantly observed. Those who remain wary of the power of the state are few in number, and are ridiculed by those who can’t (or won’t) conceive of state overreach. They may suspect that they’re being watched, but in many cases it remains abstract and doesn’t break them out of their old mode of being — that a private conversation is actually private.
When Orwell is at its best, it shows the consequences of a system designed to deal in black and white, guilt and innocence. Such a system is intrinsically flawed when confronting the shades of grey that define the modern world. Humans in all their messiness do not conform to the strict dichotomy of good and evil that the propaganda wants you to see.
The characters that fall under your scrutiny are believable in that compexity — an academic intending to create a place where people can debate political philosophy freely finds his students becoming more radicalized. A college student that instinctively intertwines her personal and political lives. A layabout that is just beginning to see the contours of society that serve to constrain him.
The crux of your investigation comes when you deal with contradictions, and you are forced to do so mechanically. The game revolves around finding facts, but occasionally two pieces of evidence will be in irreconcilable conflict with each other. It falls upon the Operator to be the sole arbiter of truth to those who hold the authority to deny life and liberty. For example, when your subject says two contradictory things — such as what their political leanings are — it then becomes your choice to determine what their true feelings are without any solid corroboration either way. The words are crafted in such a way that there’s no way to tell what they actually believe, and you must indict them one way or the other. You are judge and jury on the truth of someone else’s statement, and their personal security comes down to your responsibility to make a blind choice. When the locus of power is on a distant, anonymous, and unaccountable individual, liberty can rise and fall on one person’s morality.
The plot, however, fumbles the landing. The conflict of the unseen Operator dissipates when the final act pushes you out into the light. The people you’ve been tracking become aware of your existence and address you directly. And moreover, they offer an path of action that insulates you from taking responsibility for your actions — turn the power of your station against the authority you’ve been serving, and all will be forgiven. Gone is the weight of your complicity. The responsibility for the arrests and interrogations of their friends are no longer of consequence. It does not address the glaring contradiction — if you were committing a wrong by summarily judging civilians, how is it any more acceptable to summarily judge your employer? It’s whiplash as you go from moral ambiguity to hero, one act of absolution effacing the violations you’ve committed on behalf of the state.
The lackluster ending is all the more disappointing because Orwell absolutely excels at giving light to the ethical issues on display. It forces the player to confront the reality that not only is human life complicated, but when you are given barely-checked power, anonymity, and a charge to investigate, there is an unavoidable risk to inflict devastating harm through simple mistakes as well as through self-righteousness. But instead of forcing the player to confront that reality, it trades it in for a simple “happily ever after” ending. Orwell would have benefited from a much more ambiguous ending — leave the player to wonder if what they did was right. Continue the moral ambiguity and have no concrete resolution — only one that you as the Operator must live with, right or wrong.
Despite the flaws, Orwell brings the issue of domestic surveillance into stark focus. It un-abstracts the concept, and forces the player to confront their views. What kind of person are you if you relish the power? Can you hold to doing the right thing in the face of authority? And once you turn off the game, how do you behave now that you may yourself be under the eye of an Operator?