Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You was one of 2016's gaming surprises, because the political element was more than skin-deep. It focused on the issue of modern-day surveillance but, as well as pontificating about it, put players in the role of an agent operating the government's hyper-intelligent security programme – named Orwell.
Developers Osmotic Studios has been working on the next chapter, which takes its title from one of 1984's government slogans. Orwell: Ignorance is Strength moves further into the murky swamp of online data and intelligence but, this time, is looking to tackle the rise of fake news and what many describe as our post-truth society.
Being Big Brother
Stepping up to Orwell's stand in the indie dev space at Gamescom, you immediately feel the change in atmosphere. Surrounded by colourful games with bright-faced character mascots, here was a screen broadcasting a blue-hued video loop of global politicians and thought leaders coldly discussing journalism, social media and the role of truth in today's society.
"We started making the first game shortly after the Snowden revelations,"says Melanie Taylor, art director at Osmotic Studios, "and it was very much inspired by this topic of data surveillance and how we as consumers put our data up there on the internet every day and how we judge others by their data."
The team was worried whether anyone would be interested in the subject matter by the time the game was ready for release: by then, the Snowden revelations were relatively old news. But when Orwell was released in October 2016, it certainly worked in their favour.
A criticism of the first game was that, if anything, it didn't go far enough into controversial territory. It posed questions, but was perhaps more interested in the theories behind them than pushing the envelope.
"After we released Orwell we decided to make a second part. We wanted to make something that's also very political and about the whole internet and data scene," says Taylor. "We thought it'd be interesting to make it about fake news and media manipulation because data is so ambiguous anyway on the internet and, now that we're in this 'post-truth' era, it's more and more questionable what is true and what isn't. Everyone has their own social media bubble."
"I would say now with the second game it's definitely more direct, and its more this really open conflict. It's more like we are actually saying, 'watch out what you believe'. In the first game we didn't really want to tell the player what to think, we wanted the player to think about the subject but what they make of it is their decision."
Of course, there's always the risk that once you dive deep into these questions and themes that you end up just preaching. "We don't want to just put our opinion out there and tell people we want them to think the same," says Taylor. "But we want to put the player into a role where they are able to interact with these very controversial subject matters. It is all fictional, so we don't take individuals from the real world, or scenarios from the real world, but on the other hand its obviously inspired by many real-life events."
Orwell's system upgrade
Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You was simple to play. You scroll through the interface of the Orwell system, finding relevant information from such online sources as news stories and social media profiles to build up files on relevant persons. More complicated and more controversial options open up as you play, such as looking at private online conversations and phone tapping.
Taylor says that in Ignorance is Strength "we want to make it a bit more dramatic and interesting for the player by introducing new mechanics. You are able to re-use data now, so it's not only deciding the data you want to pass on to the government, it's also what data might I need in order to gain access to certain systems."
Part of the pitch is also that players will be given the power to fabricate their own truths based on the information presented to them. You decide whether truth is sacred or ignorance is strength. Whether that's borne-out, or just fake news, remains to be seen.
Another new system is the time-based events. "This time the interface has a clock that tells you what time it is," says Taylor. "We want to have events at certain points of the game that you can either keep from happening, or perhaps delay by putting in certain data. Its certainly more challenging, and from the tonality its darker and more aggressive."
Keeping an Eye on You was a weekly serial when it was first released, appearing in five instalments on Steam. You can now play the full game as a whole, but at the time the move encouraged discussion and theory-crafting among the more devout fans.
"It felt like it used to be with TV shows, where you have one episode coming out every week, and you have a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode, making you really want to know what's happening next," says Taylor.
Ignorance is Strength will be returning to this model, but only for three episodes rather than five. The episodes themselves will be longer with much more content, but the entire game will be shorter as a whole. Taylor says the team are hoping to encourage replayability, giving players more to experiment with per episode.
What will make or break Ignorance is Strength is whether Osmotic Studios has something coherent to say about modern phenomena that, frankly, baffles most of us. There are different ideas about what Fake News is, and different styles of it. There are different ideas about whose responsibility it is to deal with the problem. 1984 may well be the perfect lens through which to look at the industrialisation of misinformation, but let's hope it has something to say about 2017 too.