Orwell’s Animal Farm – Vive La Révolution
I have never read the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell. Like many I suspect, cultural osmosis plays a large part in my collective understanding of the famed author’s works. But even here, that knowledge is pretty thin. The story revolves around an uprising of animals, right? Something about pigs, and communism? I feel like it doesn’t end well.
Orwell’s Animal Farm, a new choice-based visual novel built off the seminal 1945 novel, wants to bring this story to a modern audience through interactivity. It’s trying to balance communicating the messages of its namesake, while also offering a player-driven experience. I’m not entirely sure it works fully as a game, but produce thoughts and feelings akin to its inspiration? It sure does.
After a whirlwind introduction that a little too subtly sets up the mechanics behind your play, you begin your journey tending to Animal Farm. Life appears simple at first blush, but immediately “events” occur to strain the possibilities. Three major pillars must be managed – food, faith in Animalism, and each animal’s individual wellbeing.
Choices are made at each event, typically moving one or two of these tracked resources up or down based on a particular animal’s point of view. These choices affect things differently. It’s difficult to tell, even after several playthroughs, how or if these events are triggered to occur – are they random, or are they set? Is it a mixture of the two? Is there a way to trigger certain ones over others? It’s obscure at best.
For example, a scenario might be pitched as thus: the chickens have awoken this morning, clucking in a huff. What should they do? The chickens themselves think resting is a good idea – this boosts their well-being, but accomplishes little else. The sheep on the other hand say they should work – bringing in more feed, but making the chickens feel even worse. The dogs want the properties’ defences built up to help repel human attackers – costing a bundle of feed due to the hard labour. Comrade Snowball offers them books, teaching them to read, but tiring them in the process.
While it sounds straightforward, in practice, this is somewhat messy. How many events occur and which ones crop up seems entirely random, except when they aren’t. It’s impossible to feel any semblance of control – unless you are deliberately trying to sabotage the outcomes, at least.
Before knowing who any of the characters were, my playthrough was upended by Napoleon the pig, much as he does in the novel. The only control I could wrest from this greedy hog was to forcibly destroy his morale and then sacrifice him in a fight against invading humans.
My second playthrough, I knew what treachery to expect, so I pushed Napoleon out immediately. It did not help, however – After five years, all of my animals starved to death. Napoleon’s co-leader, Snowball, wasn’t all that much better.
This starvation felt totally out of my control – the animals would go several years without planting seeds for harvest. The event just wouldn’t occur, leaving the farm with nothing to eat. With the systems behind the events and with the ever so critical resources being so obtuse, frustration was the result. But maybe that’s the point.
Orwell’s Animal Farm wants you to role-play your way through the story, which is ideal for avoiding gamification of resources. While the bleak writing and crushing events are well done, they repeat much too often. Several times on both playthroughs, the same few sentences would repeat, sometimes year on year, other times again immediately after they had just been delivered.
The frustration from the unending hardship on Animal Farm compounds with that of the systems seemingly falling apart. Each year I would be second-guessing if the game is actually functioning correctly; if it was deliberately being frustrating, or if it was simply buggy. Either way, it’s impossible to know what you are doing “wrong”. But, again, maybe that’s the point.
For a property built on having a specific political message, it’s difficult to read what Orwell’s Animal Farm is trying to write. Is Communism just a tool in a fascist dictator’s toolbox? Is leadership as a concept warped, with those leading others doomed to failure? Is the cycle of tyranny and revolution just that – a circle of pain we can never escape from?
These and more are the questions I was left with after my first time through playing Orwell’s Animal Farm. It felt pessimistic in the face of human nature. Hollow in its belief that people can work together to build something better than the sum of its parts; that ideology, no matter the form, would crush us all.
That makes sense of course; as far as I knew at this point, these stories have always been famous for being dire warnings. George Orwell seemingly was not one for happy endings.
So after this first time through, I sat down with one of humanity’s greatest and most terrible inventions: Google. With the power of unending knowledge at my fingertips, I researched George Orwell’s infamous novel, and what it had to say about the life of an English farm in 1945.
When discussing the ideas behind the novel with a religious workmate of mine, a particular quote stood out to me. “Most people think of humanity as inherently good with a few that are bad – whereas my faith sees people as inherently bad who must then work to be good.”
This strikes me as extremely cynical, but also incredibly in line with this game’s beliefs. Animal Farm sees life under revolution as inevitably more of the same – the instigators of the new order wind up indistinguishable from those that came before, in both their tyranny and their inflated sense of self-importance. George Orwell, a socialist atheist, seemingly has this in common with Christian conservative faith.
As far as the game is concerned, this is the destiny of humanity. I was shocked upon my post-play research of the novel that my virgin playthrough mirrored the novel quite closely, despite my best intentions of having the farm survive and thrive. Upon my second attempt, even while aiming to avoid all the known pitfalls and use my knowledge to avoid such a grim future, everything still fell apart.
Even with the power of choice, Orwell’s Animal Farm seems disinterested in providing a better outcome. I don’t know if there is a “good” ending hidden amongst the twists and turns of Orwell’s Animal Farm. I suspect this is likely. But even if there is, based on the hours I spent here, it is likely to come at great cost.
With where we are at right now, at the tail end of 2020, I find it hard to reconcile this. Even in the face of… everything, one thing that is more important as ever is hope. Irrespective of all the people that choose to turn their backs on humanity for greed and power, I still have hope that we as a people can make tomorrow brighter.
Games do not need to bring joy to succeed. Orwell’s Animal Farm certainly doesn’t. I don’t know how much it succeeds as a game regardless of this. Giving the player agency in determining various outcomes of this specific story should be ripe for experimentation toward finding a better solution. Instead, the systems clash with player agency, driving wedges into every edifice. But once more – maybe that’s the point.
Where it does succeed is in its original intention – to bring this story to a new, modern audience. I finally understand George Orwell’s Animal Farm a bit more, even having still not read it. Despite my frustrations, I still spent yet more hours outside the game thinking about the ramifications and meanings of this Orwellian tale. In that at least, Orwell’s Animal Farm realizes its potential.
Animal Farm was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by the publisher.