Big Brother is watching you—it’s a phrase that’s immediately recognizable, even to those who haven’t read George Orwell’s 1949 dystopic science fiction classic Nineteen Eighty-Four about a surveillance state whose citizens are always reminded that their leader is watching them.
Art has always been used as a prophetic voice against social and political ills, and the United States is currently facing volatile concerns about the security of information. Edward Snowden is still enjoying the protection of Russia and its dictator Vladimir Putin after delivering his warnings of NSA overreach and the potential for security leaks—unpardoned by outgoing President Obama, which has led Russia to extend his asylum until 2020.
Meanwhile a CNN video feed of Rep. Maxine Waters arguing for the Securities and Exchange Commission was interrupted in the online broadcast by the state-run Russian network RT, and though early CNN internal analysis suggested internal error, Waters herself found the coincidence troubling.
It’s into this climate of bizarre uncertainty surrounding who is watching us when and who has access to that data that the game Orwell arrived in October of 2016. Created by Osmiotic Studios, Orwell is a clever investigation game that places you in the position of an ordinary citizen who has been chosen to help investigate crimes against the state using surveillance tools (the Orwell database that connects all the various methods of spying) to ferret out secrets about “persons of interest.”
You have discretion in what details you upload to Orwell, and indeed, the idea is that you as a citizen will provide the eyes, ears and human brain to select which facts about a person of interest are relevant. Of course, if anyone noticed you were suppressing information in the course of an investigation…
But you wouldn’t do something foolish like that, would you? Big Brother is watching you.
It’s the kind of tense, choices-matter type gameplay that featured heavily in Lucas Pope’s award-winning 2013 Papers Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller. Papers Please, considered a prime example of gameplay used to develop empathy, is a simulation game in which you play as a border guard in the dystopic Eastern-bloc facsimile Arstozka circa 1982.
In their review, Polygon called it a “meaningful exercise in misery,” and that pretty much sums up the experience of Papers Please. As a border guard inspecting passports, entry tickets, and other documents at the border, you’re laboring under a Kafkaesque burdern of regulations and motivations—which is to say it’s a fairly accurate representation of low-level bureaucracy—but in a very high stakes system, where enough money to buy food, heat and medicine are far from guaranteed by your long days of hard work.
Navid Khonsari created a similar exercise in empathy in 2016 with his wonderful blend of cinematic and documentary approach in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. The game uses action adventure mechanics drawn from games like Telltale’s Walking Dead series in order to simulate the panicky actions of a photographer navigating a riot in the early days of the Iranian Revolution.
But it also incorporates audio recordings and art used to recreate famous photographs from the events of Iran’s history. It educates Western players about peaceful Islamic idealists who felt betrayed by the rise of a militant and repressive Ayatollah Khomeini after the Revolution and documents the many different ideologies that created common cause in the chaotic days leading up to the Shah’s removal.
The game itself was officially banned in its imaginal birthplace Iran, and Khonsari was decried as having improper intentions in his depiction of the Revolution. But the game has been translated into Farsi, and is illegally reaching people within the country.
“Nobody’s actually talking about the experience of the people during those times,” Khonsari said in an interview with Wired. “The moral decisions: who do you protect, who don’t you protect?”
Or maybe the smaller decisions: how deeply do you breathe? In Mike Ren’s Hazy Days, you have to help young Xiao Feng navigate the smog-filled Shanghai streets for a week without getting sick so she can go stay with her grandmother for the Chinese New Year.
You have to maintain a delicate balance between getting in enough oxygen without inhaling too much smog—you might be able to cough some of it out, but the air is yellow by Saturday, and the gameplay is nervewracking and sobering. The game is available as a free download on itch.io and on the App Store.
But in Detention, released January 12, 2017, Red Candle Games looks to Taiwan’s culture, religion and history under martial law during the 1960s as inspiration for an atmospheric horror point-and-click adventure game.
The timing of the game’s release and creator Coffee Yao’s decision to create a game based on specifically Taiwanese cultural heritage seems prophetic now as incoming President Donald Trump has indicated he will not necessarily honor the “One China” policy that has historically recognized Taiwan as officially belonging to China.
Self-governing Taiwan has sent a delegation to the U.S. Inauguration and dismissed China’s demands that their delegation not be recognized as petty, expressing hopes for an era of future peace with China.
And from Cuba, creators Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Armenteros have crowd-funded Savior, the island’s first independent video game. It’s an animated 2-D platformer “where you try at any cost to find the Creator of the Universe, “The Great God,” with the sole purpose of saving your home.”
Coming from the tremendous technological and ideological isolation that has been imposed on Cuba for decades, Savior promises to be an artful, ambitious game—and a reminder of how precious speech is to artists who seek to express their vision, their memories, their fears and critiques in any time and place.