Who among us hasn’t felt like we are living inside some sort of Orwellian nightmare at times? The author’s name has become synonymous with overbearing, claustrophobic control, inspiring an entire catalogue of games from Observer to the bluntly named Orwell series. The combination of paranoid futurism and the very real technology available to us today makes for a pretty devastating sci-fi dialogue, one which is hard to get wrong. 1984 gets the credit for a lot of these games, but Orwell’s Animal Farm takes its inspiration directly from the source of another classic Orwell tale, without the safety net of science fiction.
Assessing, probably quite rightly, that the majority of players are already familiar with the story of Animal Farm, the game promises a more inventive approach to its narrative. Instead of mindlessly walking you through a well-worn story, there’s a branching storyline in which you can improve on the original fate of the animals, with specific objectives along the way. Whether or not you are well-versed in the contents of the book really doesn’t dictate how much you can understand – but to be able to anticipate certain events may prove a useful bonus.
At one of the earliest points in the game, after running Mr. Jones out of the farm, you’ll be able to pick up a ledger with the objectives and possible endings inside. It is your job to explore as many of these avenues as possible, taking on the role of all the farm animals, in turn, to ensure that Animal Farm thrives without its human leaders. This element swiftly tries to separate Animal Farm from the obvious Visual Novel categorisation, promising multiple endings and considerably varied playthroughs.
Unfortunately, other than the inclusion of this book, there is little to actually encourage multiple playthroughs. The game struggles with simplicity, at times making it a useful feature, and at others feeling cold and dull. The plot almost takes second place to the soft management sim that consumes most of the play time. The better you play, the less actually happens, as you can circumvent most of the negative events in the book, causing the game to become repetitive and tragically unrewarding.
Initially, there are regular meetings that allow you to voice concerns or support the pig-led government. Some animals will be resistant from the start, voicing their anxieties during these meetings and thus giving you the choice to allow them to speak or (in some cases) ban them from even participating. This element dwindles as the game progresses, with the animals meeting on a far less regular basis. Clearly, this is meant to represent the removal of democracy from the farm, but from a gameplay standpoint, it removes a lot of potential variation from the dialogue.
Other than these meetings, the rest of the game feels like a soft management sim. You’re given some basic tasks – not all of which can be completed – and asked to prioritise the workload between members of your community. Some of the animals will work harder, but to their own detriment, while some take the slow and steady approach. Having such a familiar story as the background for the game does mean the player is more likely to protect certain individuals, which leads to some interesting reimaginings of the work at hand.
The element of choice does mean that much of what happens is not written by Orwell himself, but to their credit, the team manages to create a congruent storyline. The slow pace may turn some players off, but the audio narration works really well alongside some attractive graphics to create that tone of sinister oppression.
Animal Farm outdoes itself with audio-visual performance, in what is possibly the strongest elements of the game. Characters are easily distinguished and illustrated with expression and personality. The backdrop and changing face of the farm is easy to read, with a minimalist overlay that does the job quite efficiently. The music is appropriately ominous, with all animals voiced by a booming and authoritative voice actor. Stirring tones of nationalism and warfare, the quality of these elements is enough to redeem the game quite significantly.
Played at its most simplistic, with these attractive visuals and immersive soundtrack, Animal Farm is almost instructive. A useful teaching tool about the book. It seems almost as though it could be used as a student’s companion, which would perhaps excuse its less engaging elements.
There is a sense that the game perhaps misses its target on occasion, that it doesn’t always address the opportunities in the narrative is achingly apparent. There’s a frequent gap where the story has the potential to be witty, or genuinely challenging – and it just falls a bit flat. The randomly generated yearly tasks are unrewarding and the mechanics are never justified. Raising Animalism always seems like an afterthought, leaving you with very little energy to do anything else on the farm. I can’t say the game railroads players in any one direction, as it clearly strives to provide the varied endings, but you do feel a little hemmed in.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that people unfamiliar with the book will have much to engage with here. The book’s contents are stretched thin over the frame of a weak resource management game, a slow-moving experience with frustrating elements. For fans of the book, and particularly students, it may prove a more fulfilling journey, but the branching narrative seems a little forced at times. For a game where choices matter, it is surprising how little your choices do matter and how dull the game becomes if you make all the ‘right’ decisions. I suppose in this way, maybe unintentionally, the game provides us with an unusual reading of authoritarian literature, diminishing your actual decisions whilst everything on the surface looks great.