Review in Progress: Orwell: Ignorance is Strength

You’ll never find us, but victim or perpertrator, if your number’s up, we’ll find you

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Orwell‘s first season was an unexpected nail-biter and a personal GOTY on release. It wasn’t much to look at, but for all the data input and web browsing, it ended up being a fascinating conspiracy thriller, where the line between surveillance and stalking was easily blurred.

Even with the high stakes involved, Orwell worked because of its intimacy as your agency picked apart the lives of a small but fully realised cast in order to expose a terrorist cell. Orwell‘s second season, Ignorance is Strength, attempts to expand the series not only with new surveillance mechanics but also a new plot on a global scale. But in doing so, does it lose some of the intensive voyeurism that made the original so special?

Orwell: Ignorance is Strength (PC)
Developers: Osmotic Studios
Publisher: Surprise Attack
Released: February 22, 2018
MSRP: $9.99

Unlike the first season, Ignorance is Strength doesn’t start with a bang, but with an ominous phone call. A refugee-turned-outspoken-blogger makes contact with an old friend, now a spy for The Nation, threatening to blow his cover and reveal some ugly truths about a civil war in their home country, Prages. As a new Agent to The Nation’s intrusive Orwell program, it’s up to you and your handler to stop the leak.

How you do that is simple: build suspect profiles using relevant information called “datachunks.” All you have to do is drag-and-drop these photos and highlighted texts into the right profiles. Though where you find all this information is a little more sinister. It could be freely distributed on the internet or someone’s phone, their laptop, or a confidential database. Orwell is all about following the threads and using collected data to cut through the red tape (even when it belongs to your own government).

The work is administrative and menial, but then that’s the subtle charm of Orwell‘s gameplay as you start to detatch yourself from everything to get the job done. Much like the first season (later renamed Keeping an Eye On You), your handler will reprimand you for blindly dropping useless information into a suspect’s profile. In game, it makes sense because it gives the pacing a sense of urgency, but less obvious is that the developers want you to critically think about the information being consumed. The reason for this is that sometimes you have to track down your own leads or decide between two conflicting datachunks.

Conflicts are always highlighted in orange and usually change the course of the investigation, so it’s up to the player to pick the right “truth” or catalogue enough information to prove a point. Of course, there are times when there’s not enough evidence, forcing you to go on gut instinct and leading to some guilty consequences down the line. As of now, Ignorance is Strength is keeping these consequences close to its chest.

Though there’s talk of new mechanics, Episode One: Thesis merely hints at their use in future episodes and so Ignorance is Strength rarely strays from the established formula. It’s more about reacclimatising seasoned players and softly rebooting the series for anyone who skipped Keeping an Eye On You. In that regard, Ignorance is Strength gets off to a weak start. It treads water for the experienced player, while the world building of The Nation (a  US/UK allegory which isn’t inherently evil, just hyper-realised) gets replaced by a CliffsNotes version for a new audience.

What ends up being introduced does give the game a tighter pace, with phone calls and hidden WordPress drafts happening in “real time.” Every datachunk takes 10 in-game minutes to process, so you have to be more decisive about what goes into the profiles in order to be ready for any surprises. For now, it’s a simple introduction to what will inevitably be more restrictive as time goes on.

Despite the obvious reference, Orwell‘s first season was indebted to the likes of The Conversation, The Anderson Tapes, The Lives of Others, Person of Interest, and even the hapless CIA analysts of Jason Bourne. With the focus expanded to proxy wars and double agents, Ignorance is Strength tonally plays out like a series of Homeland, complete with a cliffhanger straight out of 24. The question is whether or not that’s a bad thing.

Keeping an Eye On You was criticised for not asking the deeper questions, but with the answers being so obvious, it made more sense to follow through with a more exciting and cinematic narrative. Ignorance is Strength‘s bigger plotline does seem like a reaction to such criticism, embracing its inner Tom Clancy by the end of Episode One: Thesis. As slight as it might be for some, it’s still a game meant to be enthralling and enjoyed by all.

That said, the personal vendetta between two former friends doesn’t quite capture the imagination as it did when you spied on rich-kid-turned-activist Cassandra Watergate in Keeping an Eye On You. Maybe that’s the point, that spying on people from another country seems more cut-and-dry than spying on your own citizens. More likely, I’m just overthinking Ignorance is Strength‘s message. Either way, the fact it’s got me thinking at all is a success in itself.

Despite my high expectations, Orwell continues to be a solid thriller and a very different gaming experience. Those who own and completed Keeping an Eye On You will be happy to know that you can load up your original Agent, and that their actions might tie into the concurrent events of Ignorance is Strength. How it all plays out is still a mystery, but if Episode One: Thesis‘ sleight-of-hand ending is anything to go by, this season promises to be anything but predictable.

[This review-in-progress is based on an Early Access build of the game provided by the publisher.]

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Stephen Turner
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