Interview: Orwell’s Melanie Taylor (featuring Daniel Marx)

For anyone familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four, Osmotic Studios‘ 2016 release of Orwell provides a welcome experience in narrative exploration. Players take the role of a state operative monitoring citizens in an effort to uncover national security threats. And, beyond that, the game is beautiful. NerdQ’s Erik Meyer corresponded with Melanie Taylor (with Daniel Marx answering the final question) regarding the project’s development and Zeitgeist nature.

Erik Meyer: Players become agents of Big Brother by way of the cameras and social media in the game world; this creates an interesting fly-on-the-wall perspective, unlike a first-person shooter or a top-down strategy game. What challenges came with balancing the UI and the visual/audio elements to create Orwell’s authentic feel?

Melanie Taylor: It was important to us that Orwell feels like an actual operating system. So we wanted the UI, visuals and audio to support this. The very first thing the player hears when starting the game is the “boot sound” of Orwell. The layout of the main menu is heavily inspired by the Windows XP login screen. In spite of the fact that the visuals of the characters in the Orwell world are non-realistic, we wanted them to appear slightly photographic, so that it was similar to seeing the real world through frosted glass. Orwell is tagged as “simulation” on Steam – although it is probably not what first pops into your mind when you hear the term “simulation game”. But it certainly reflects the feeling of many players, that this just might be more than “just a game”.

EM: The game’s art makes it distinctive regardless of the subject matter; the geometric look of models combines with a unique color palette to catch the eye. Why did you go this route with game assets (rather than hyperrealistic, cartoony, etc.), and how do you feel the assets reinforce the overall message?

MT: We did want the images in Orwell to feel a bit like photos that people might post online, since we are depicting the real world, viewed through a “social-media-self-portrayal-lens”. The perspectives, postures and faces were meant to look like they might have been captured by a camera. But on the other hand, we decided not to use actual realistic footage, since this quickly takes away the immersion if they are not consistent enough. Also, using the polygon style and “building” our own faces meant that we had more control over the character design and it was easier to change things afterwards. Regarding the overall message: I suppose the “frosted glass” metaphor fits well here, too. It is a kind of reality, but distorted and unclear, just as the data we are going through in Orwell. It might be true and we quickly assume it is, but who knows?

EM: Everyone I’ve talked about Orwell with finds the game concept compelling and topical yet unsettling. As an optimist, I note that games create safe spaces in which to explore larger ideas. Conversely, American headlines frequently discuss NSA data collection, wiretaps, and problems with social media. What is it that makes people both interested yet worried about Big Brother?

MT: I suppose I can only guess the answer to this myself. It might be the intriguing dissonance of being able to surveil others on the one hand, but on the other hand, being afraid of becoming a victim of surveillance yourself. Responding to an article about Orwell that referred to data privacy in the real world, many readers claimed they did not really care about their own data and whether anyone would search through it. But on the other hand, most people would probably still get an unsettling feeling if they actually witnessed somebody going through their private data.

EM: Describe the influence of Nineteen Eighty-Four on the game; certainly, you nod to the text throughout the world you’re creating. How much do you want the game and the book to be connected?

MT: We have a lot of references and quotes from Nineteen Eighty-Four in the game. Though even the name “Orwell” evokes images of a dystopian surveillance state, it is not nearly as dystopian as George Orwell’s classic. You could even argue that the Orwell system is actually nothing to be worried about at all and be convinced throughout the game that you are doing the right thing. I would not call the game dystopian, especially since it plays in 2017. Orwell much rather asks questions about our current situation, living our online lives and whether we should give more thought to judging people by their online data.

EM: Social media accounts can become odd artifacts. Sometimes, whole networks, like MySpace, cease to be used, and once-living pages become static. Sometimes, a user becomes sick or has some kind of crisis or even dies, and the posts from that time carry a great deal of weight. How do you see the datachunks with respect to this idea, and what do you see as the pitfalls of lives documented electronically?

MT: This is a very interesting question. There are already “Facebook graveyards” of people who passed away and whose profiles are not active any more. This is a subject that our society has not really dealt with that much yet and which will become more and more apparent, the older Facebook and other social networks get. Documents from the deceased can be very special and important to us. It seems only natural to want to preserve online documents just as well as the offline ones. But it is indeed odd that those people having passed away is so unclear in the digital world and that their presence seems to continue. Social networks where we keep private memories of our own lives can be pitfalls too, of course. After we grow out of certain phases, these documents might just as well remind us of our flaws from these times and we might not ever be able to get completely rid of them. So definitely an ambivalent topic and actually a very likely pitfall, I would say. Orwell plays with these ideas – though I am not going to spoil anything from the story.

EM: Describe your process at Osmotic and the formation of the studio; as a team, what leads the creative push? How have have storylines and content come together? Do you intensely plan audio and social media snippets, or do you pretend to be the characters and let things come organically?

MT: We are a core team of three: Michael, our programmer, who takes care of the technical design of the game and our technical infrastructure, Daniel, our game designer, who also does the writing, and myself being responsible for the arts and graphics of the game. We met studying “Games” at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg.

For Orwell, the Snowden leaks in 2013 and Papers, Please were both a big inspiration. The original idea came from our game designer Daniel. It took us over a year to figure out and settle on the core mechanics, so it was quite a process at the beginning. At that time, Orwell had a much bigger scope, being composed of 13 chapters in total. I think the fact that we ended up shortening it so much did the story a lot of good. It was much more to the point, and the really exciting things happened much earlier. Regarding the content: We did plan this in advance, since the question when the player encounters which pieces of data under which circumstances is largely responsible for how the story is perceived. So planning this out was pretty important in order to create impact.

EM: The responses to the episodes has been extremely positive; as you look ahead, where do you see Orwell leading you as a studio?

Daniel Marx: We’ve been overwhelmed by the great reception of our game, especially when players started asking for a second season. We never thought of structuring Orwell in (multiple) seasons! At any point during development, it was just this one story for us that was complete in itself. But since players have been asking for a sequel (or at least more content), we have been giving the idea some thought… We cannot go into any details yet, but rest assured, Orwell is still keeping us busy.

Beyond Orwell, there’s nothing set in stone yet. Having developed a text-and-UI-heavy game for quite some time, it would be great to move into a slightly more visual direction (we’ll see how that works out), and we have been sketching up some rough concepts. Whatever we end up working on, it will most definitely be a highly narrative game with a resonating topic that is told in some unconventional way and involving tough decisions, because this is where we see our strengths as a studio.

Here’s the trailer, in case you missed it:

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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