Make Animal Farm Great Again
January 6th’s Siege on the U.S. Capitol and the immediate aftermath has lead to furious discussion online, with one misapplied word being thrown around almost ironically: Orwellian. Apparently, some people seem to think that removing certain accounts from social media channels is akin to Orwell’s 1984; those same people seem to not realize that, for the past four years, we’ve lived a life closer to that of Orwell’s Animal Farm. And since it’s probably been since high school that the majority of Americans have read either book (or not at all), it’s a fair assumption to make that one could do with a refresher on the material. Orwell’s Animal Farm by Nerial does the trick well, providing an interactive insight on the sadly relevant allegorical novella given the gaming treatment.
(I understand people are getting real tired of politics and often don’t want to see it in their video games — let alone a video game review — but I figure that, if you’re here reading a review about the incredibly political game/book Orwell’s Animal Farm, you should know what you’re getting into.)
Developed by Nerial (Reigns, Reigns Her Majesty) and published by the two-person publishing team The Dairymen (formerly of Just Flight and Surgeon Simulator’s Bossa Studios), Orwell’s Animal Farm also features narration by Abubakar Salim (Bayek in Assassin’s Creed: Origins) with direction by Kate Saxon (Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Alien: Isolation). The Dairymen’s Imre Jele saw parallels to the literary classic having grown up in totalitarian Hungary and had long wanted to explore how gaming could capture Orwell’s vision. The timing couldn’t be any better, as Jele believes that “Orwell’s classic has become a painfully relevant warning as some Western democracies started using tools and language eerily similar to those of oppressive regimes of the past.” Available on Steam and mobile for $9.99 and $3.99, respectively, Orwell’s Animal Farm not only serves as a gamified version of the chilling novella but a reminder how easily the dreams of Utopian equality can turn into the nightmares of a totalitarian dictatorship.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegorical retelling of Russian history starting with the fall of the tsars in the early 20th century to WWII, with different animals representing different organizations, nations, people, and/or ideals. At first glance, it’s tempting to think the novella warns against the so-called eternal dangers of Communism when, in actuality, it would be more accurate to describe Orwell’s intent to depict the slow, systematic descent of utopian idealism into totalitarianism. This fundamental understanding of the material is critical, as Orwell, a self-described Democratic Socialist, and his words tend to be misconstrued in modern Western discussion, where Communism and Socialism have oddly been treated as interchangeable synonyms. Orwell saw Communism as but one potential flavor of totalitarianism, and viewed Capitalism and any other form of government as having the capacity to be equally oppressive.
Orwell’s Animal Farm is very simple to control, as it’s all point and click. The aesthetics are lovely, with beautifully illustrated scenes that are bright and colorful. In fact, the storybook illustrations have the power to lull players into a false sense of lightheartedness, hiding the far more sinister tone of the original work underneath. The gameplay is similar to that of Reigns — balance several competing factors, including Animalism, defenses, supplies, and the health of individual animals against each other and hope to survive on the farm without humans as long as possible. Will you stick to the book and play out the pages on screen, or will you take a new route, different than what Orwell put on paper decades ago?
As players progress through Orwell’s Animal Farm, they’ll be presented with lines of text followed by choices to make that will more often than not have consequences down the line. Will you work Boxer to the bone for the greater good at a terrible cost, or try to keep him around as long as possible and potentially starve out the whole farm? Is it worth it to heavily indoctrinate the animals into Animalism, or is some skepticism okay? And then there’s the matter of the pigs — how will you resolve their infighting, or will you even address it at all? Can you hang on to Animal Farm for seven years and get one of the multiple endings available at the finish line? Or will you meet a dreadful fate before your intended time?
When it comes to capturing the essence of the text, I feel like Orwell’s Animal Farm did a stellar job overall. Some of the sentences were word-for-word passages from the original work, a very literal translation from book to game. The additional endings were written in the spirit of the novella, perhaps not driving home the initial point as clearly as the true ending but were impactful nonetheless. What’s most important is how certain events are handled in the game, and I admit that, despite knowing how the story was supposed to go, I was just as shocked coming across these parts now as I had been when reading Animal Farm all those years ago. In the same vein of Frostpunk, I went from trying to make a settlement work despite all the odds stacked against me to losing heart nearing the end, all hope of a fruitful conclusion evaporating when I realized that, no matter what, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
If I have one complaint, it’s that the mechanics of Orwell’s Animal Farm aren’t as cleanly laid out as some of Nerial’s other games. If I understand correctly, the circular background containing the animals’ portrait changes color depending on their health and happiness (I think?), with green meaning good and red meaning bad. Some animals will be present as options to choose for story-progression, only to come and go seemingly at random which threw me off in terms of planning ahead. It feels like a trial run is needed to best understand the mechanics of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but that’s not too big of a deal considering the multiple endings force several replays anyway. The pros absolutely outweigh the cons here, a fantastic retelling of a cautionary tale that seems just as relevant now as it did a century ago.
After playing Orwell’s Animal Farm, I found myself gobbling up every analysis I could find on the original work and ultimately settling into bed with a copy of the book found online. From the subversion of politics through the subversion of language and logic to reducing complex ideals to meaningless catchphrases, it was truly eye-opening just how Orwellian the past few years have been — although not the way in which the word has been thrown around after January 6th. The team’s unique history with totalitarianism made them competent candidates for the game version of this compelling allegorical tale, and I find myself still trying to wrap my head around the experience with these additional layers of context. If you’re looking for an incredibly memorable and surprisingly emotional refresher on this all-too important story, look no further than Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Mobile, PC (reviewed); Publisher: The Dairymen; Developer: Nerial; Players: 1; Released: December 10, 2020; MSRP: $9.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm provided by the publisher.