Orwell’s Animal Farm

In 1945, ‘Animal Farm’ used the story of farm animals revolting against their human owners to satirise Stalin’s leadership. Now Orwell’s Animal Farm looks at the growing authoritarian influence in today’s leaders and brings ‘Animal Farm’s message to games.

Orwell’s Animal Farm follows the rebellion of the animal inhabitants of Manor Farm against the farmers who own and profit from their labour. After expelling Mr and Mrs Jones, they establish the seven tenets of Animalism. These prohibit human-like behaviours, and establish the equality of all animals. In summary: Four legs good, two legs bad.

Get outta here human

As soon as you expel the Jones’ (and rename the farm Animal Farm), you gain access to a handbook. This handbook immediately tells you about the game’s approach to the original text. There are eight potential destinies that match the original ‘Animal Farm’, including the use of spies, and brutal show trials. At the same time, pages of achievements show you can deviate from the book in multiple (and contradicting) ways. ‘Death of Napoleon’ was one that stood out to me immediately.

The book’s presence continues into gameplay. Each scene is narrated, with the text neatly slotted in the farm’s horizon, and accompanied by a solemn performance from actor Abubakar Salim. Much of the narration and dialogue is closely adapted from the original text, but nothing feels out of place. Even if you’ve never read ‘Animal Farm’, the feeling of Orwell’s Animal Farm is of transformation, not inspiration.

What a character

After expelling the Jones’ in the initial prologue, you follow the animals across the seasons and try to maintain Animal Farm. As the year progresses, you manage the harvest, maintain the farm, and try to tend to the animals’ needs. Meanwhile, Napoleon tries to increase his militant authoritarian grip, Snowball invests in ambitious but impractical plans, and Squealer manipulates and propagandises to maintain morale – and the pigs’ hierarchy.

The other characters on the farm establish strong personalities with only short pieces of information. Benjamin the ornery donkey consistently has the option to complain. Mollie, the vain horse, appeals for ribbons and sugar lumps whenever there’s a surplus of supplies. The dialogue and narration are simple, and it does a lot with very little.

The resource management elements are also simple, with only a few states of change for each resource. Much of the interest comes from the unpredictable behaviours of the pig leaders, as you only have control over their choices some of the time.

Be good to dogs

In a similar way to time-looping ‘Hamlet’ adaptation Elsinore, significant knock-on effects come from the farm being part of a system. If, in a harsh winter, you choose to let the dogs leave to find sustenance somewhere else…? Napoleon can’t use his dogs to threaten or chase off enemies. Equally, though, they won’t be there to protect the lambs from the wolves.

However, even though small choices can be deeply effective, the moment to moment play can feel repetitive. Some scenes replayed very close together, and when gameplay can be seven in-game years, the details of managing the harvest become a bit rote.

Additionally, the game suffers at times from a confusing perspective. Choices are presented with actions attached to characters. Sometimes you’re making choices for those characters, and other times the characters are making those choices for somebody else. Sheep, for instance, are often a symbol of “work” for other animals, so a sheep that says “work” could either mean “work, sheep” or “work, chickens”. Context clues obviously help, but choices like “subvert” or “milk?” can be incredibly ambiguous. It makes it harder to intentionally play with its systems, to purposefully lead or protest, because it’s not always clear who your choices are for.

Not an ant farm

This ambiguity was especially troublesome as a bug caused the game to incorrectly flag characters as dead (or alive), and two endings didn’t trigger correctly. I was left feeling frustrated with the parts of the game that felt obscure, but the developers have said they hope to fix these bugs by the time of release.

The greatest strength of Orwell’s Animal Farm is in its depiction of the text. Squealer’s justification of the pigs’ hoarding of milk and apples in the early days of the farm is closely adapted from Orwell’s original words, but his twisting of words is painfully familiar today. “Many pigs do not like milk and apples. We eat them only to preserve our health. We pigs are brain workers. Day and night, we are watching over your welfare. If we fail in our duty, Jones will come back! Do you want that?

Orwell’s Animal Farm is clearly a respectful adaptation. From the closely adapted text onscreen to the demarcated destinies and potential outcomes, it interacts thoughtfully with Orwell’s ideas of dictatorship and manipulation. But, in the mechanics of gameplay, some of its intentions get lost.

[Reviewed on PC]