In the first of a series of blog posts on Orwell: Ignorance is Strength, we take a look at how things have changed since the release of Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You, and the substantial impact of those changes on the game, our studio, and the world.
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On October 20, 2016, we released Orwell. After almost three years of development, and an unswerving belief in a game concept that had always been perceived as risky, our ‘baby’ was out the door, released as five weekly episodes. But, risky or not, from day one, we knew we had succeeded, attracting players who were looking for a new gaming experience, with a story to match.
A lot has happened since the release of Orwell. We’ve continually received many positive responses from both players and game critics, which has been wonderful. Especially since we felt like we’d been carrying around a huge responsibility: we were not only trying to entertain players, but also spark thoughts about highly topical issues that people may agree or disagree with. We always made a point about not wanting to impose opinions on people but instead give them the freedom to choose their side. Creating a gaming system where this was possible was certainly not easy. So, the messages we got from players about how Orwell had moved them emotionally (no matter which side they were on) were perhaps what fulfilled us most after the release of Season One.
But things not only changed for us as a studio; the world changed, too. The original inspiration for Orwell were the Snowden revelations, leaking facts about how the US government is collecting personal online data on a huge scale. In late 2016 through to early 2017, the US election campaign showed us that social media and the internet in general is not only an important tool to gain data, but also one of the most important forces to drive public opinion.
With that in mind, we felt that since Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You shows how powerful your online data can be, within an investigative context, it’s a logical next step to address what could be done with this data aside from deciding who is innocent or guilty. What if, as a player, you were able to reuse it and even spread new ideas through it? The discussion about fake news, alternative facts and the power of media manipulation inspired this and was the reason why we came up with the first concept for Orwell: Ignorance is Strength.
The central theme of Ignorance is Strength is the power of influence over the masses and the fight over this power. Compared to Season One, Season Two is more an open confrontation over this fight over influence and less about uncovering things. It asks the question, ‘How far can the power of fabricating stories and spreading them via the internet be used as a weapon?’. And, further, whether the ends justify the means. In addition, it questions truth itself and shows how easily it can be bent towards a certain direction, especially in the current digital information age.
Early screenshot of Orwell: Ignorance is Strength.
The story revolves mainly around the character Raban Vhart, who is an immigrant of the Nation's neighbouring country Parges. He owns a blog called The People's Voice that is very anti-government and also criticizes the Pargesian president. Raban does not hesitate to bend the truth towards his own opinion and his main goal is to free his beloved home land from the establishment that caused civil unrest and even war in the shattered country.
The player is once again recruited by the government in order to let justice prevail and ensure the stability of The Nation. After passing an aptitude test, they join ‘The Office’, a top secret government agency within Orwell. The player's job is to fight back against Raban, using the government's own ways of influencing the masses.
Since the player is part of a more secretive government agency than in Season One, they also have more extensive tools that not only allow them to submit information to the profiler, but also reuse this information to search websites, enter passwords, break into a wider range of digital devices, and more. We made these changes because players would then have options for interaction and it fit perfectly into the general concept as well. These additional options make the gameplay a bit more complex, but since our basic game mechanic is rather minimalist, we felt it would be great to build on this and increase the challenge.
Orwell: Ignorance is Strength is set chronologically parallel with events in the first game. Players who have experienced Keeping an Eye On You will know that its story is self-contained and pretty much comes full circle. It would have felt artificial to simply attach a new storyline to that. Additionally, the game had a few quite different outcomes at its end. If we had wanted to continue from there we would have needed to declare one of the specific endings canon, which we felt would have undermined the players’ previous choices. The choice to make the new story play out simultaneously with the previous one opens up the very interesting possibility to give some of the old choices new meanings from a different perspective, while at the same time giving background to some of the events in Parges that were only briefly mentioned in the previous game.
Once again, with Ignorance is Strength, we hope to spark thoughts and move players emotionally. Perhaps it will even make players more sensitive in terms of how they look at the authenticity of online news and data in general. But we still do not want to tell players what to think.
The game is certainly a reflection on what is currently going on in the world and how the tensions of public debates are increasing. Ignorance is Strength has a generally darker tone , which is more confrontational and more intense. The characters all have their own battles to fight with themselves as well. We hope that players will be able to reflect on the central themes outside of the real world and dwell on these ideas.