We’re watching you. That’s the message our political and corporate overlords send us every day, whether it’s here in the UK with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Snooper’s Charter, increased sharing of personal information by the National Security Agency in the US, or governments in general demanding to know exactly how many kitten videos you liked on Facebook. Even video games are embracing the murky world of the totalitarian surveillance state.
These games may prove to be an unexpected boon. We may as well use them as practice, training for the not-so-distant day when total surveillance becomes our everyday reality; at least this way, we’ll be well placed to earn a whole bunch of citizen points once the new regime really kicks in.
Orwell – Osmotic Studios
You are an outsourced, non-native contractor for The Nation, tasked with using their brand-new Orwell system to spy on the country’s citizens and keep them safe from terrorism, by any means necessary. You will navigate web pages, intercept texts, eavesdrop on phone calls, and hack into PCs and mobiles phones, in your quest to stop a terrorist bomb plot.
Orwell starts with you checking the background of a single suspect, looking for “datachunks” to pass on to your handlers. It quickly ramps up; by the end of the fifth and final episode you will be knee-deep in a tangled web of possible bombers, counter-spies, lies, and misinformation. Seeing how easy it is for your handlers to misinterpret innocent comments and innocuous information from social media, desperate as they are to pin the crimes on someone, serves as a very modern warning: be careful what you share online.
Orwell is a primarily story-driven experience, and that story was good enough to glue me to my desk for an entire afternoon when I should have been doing anything else. I had to know what happened next and who was responsible for the atrocities, and why they had committed them. The game takes aim at poor healthcare provision, student debt, mistreatment of veterans, political corruption, and media moral panics along the way, and builds an atmosphere of dread with its hints that you, too, might be being watched. Its final moral choice, presented in the last episode, asks you to consider this: is the Orwell system itself, a perfect tool for spying on a whole population, a necessary evil, or an evil in and of itself? I’m still pondering that question a week later.
Beholder – Warm Lamp Games
Uncle Ben was right: with great power comes great responsibility. Beholder, a point-and-click adventure-cum-strategy game, gives you the power of life and death over a group of citizens in a 1980s totalitarian state, and asks you how far you’re willing to go for your nation, your family, and your fellow citizens.
You play Carl Stein, recently promoted to the role of landlord of a block of run-down apartments. Your real job, though, is that of a Beholder – you are to investigate your tenants, reporting all and any details of their lives to the powers that be, all while trying to keep your wife, your student son, and young daughter safe, fed, and happy. The game’s unique visual design makes every character recognisable only by their unique silhouette, their eyes the only detail. These caricatures are wonderfully stylised and beautifully expressive, and really suit the game’s murky, dehumanising morality.
Beholder is not just a spying game, although installing cameras to watch your tenants and breaking into their apartments when they’re at work to rifle through their drawers are key gameplay elements. Instead, you are offered moral choices – will you report the illegal books a tenant has under their bed and get them arrested, knowing that their family has nowhere to go and nothing to survive on? Or will you risk the anger of the powers-that-be and only evict them after making sure they can flee the country to safety? Are you willing to blackmail your tenants, or even plant false evidence, in order to raise the money to help a sick family member? Or will you stand by and watch them die in the name of ideological purity? Rarely has a game made me feel the weight of my decisions like Beholder.
Replica – Somi
Secret arrests and secret trials are the hallmark of any totalitarian state worthy of the name, and Replica throws you into a cell with a mobile phone and a simple mission: find out if the phone’s previous owner was a terrorist, and if you don’t, face execution.
Like Orwell, Replica asks us to consider how much information we share online, as we desperately look for evidence that can prove another’s guilt and set us free. And like Beholder, there are moral choices aplenty. As the plot unravels we find that nothing is as simple as it appears, and you are forced to take sides.
Replica is a quick game, playable in less than an hour, although the game has multiple endings and rewards multiple play-throughs by throwing in unexpected twists and turns. Its satire and message can be a little heavy-handed in places but it is great value if you want a quick, easily-digestible peek at our bleak, privacy-free future.