Orwell’s Animal Farm review: keeping politics in video games

If I was asked to come up with a list of books which would make good video games, I don’t think George Orwell’s Animal Farm would have been on it. This famous and scathing satire of the Soviet Union’s Stalin-era regime does not immediately leap out as an obvious candidate for gamification. Maybe if the animals wore shades and sneakers, and could jump really far? Then there’d be a whole franchise’s worth of material. Regardless, there is indeed a game version of Animal Farm, from developers Nerial and publishers The Dairymen.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Animal Farm tells the story of a group of farmyard animals who rebel against their drunken, incompetent owner and claim the farm for themselves. All goes well at first, with fair laws set down and equitable work and education planned for all the animals. Things start to turn sour, however, when Snowball the pig is driven off by a rival swine, Napoleon.

Napoleon begins to change the laws to suit himself. His rule is enforced by the dogs, and dissenting animals are executed or exiled. Over time, the laws are reduced to the simple maxim, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. In the end, the other animals realise they can no longer tell the pigs and the humans apart from one another. The farm is back to where it started.

Made in collaboration with the Orwell Estate, the game puts you in charge of making decisions for the farm. You’re presented with a series of randomly generated events, with options as to what to do. The options are framed in terms of different animals on the farm taking actions or expressing opinions. For example, if the harvest needs bringing in, you decide which animals participate. Every animal has a morale/health meter, which can increase or decrease depending on what you choose to do.

Should an animal’s condition drop too low, then they are at risk of being killed during the occasional attacks from neighbouring human farmers. Animals dying means you have fewer options for managing the farm. Animals can also be forced to leave the farm, either by other characters or in response to food shortages. In theory, this should lead to some difficult decisions, but in practice, it doesn’t usually make a great deal of difference.

Although the smaller decisions occur at random, other, larger events can occur when certain conditions are met. For instance, Napoleon can drive Snowball into exile, but only if they’re both alive. This event can therefore be avoided entirely by, for example, getting one or both of them killed. However, it doesn’t actually affect how the story ultimately ends up. No matter which pig is in charge, they will always come to resemble the humans and dominate the other animals.

You can change some of the stops along the way, but the destination is always the same. That’s unless all the animals are killed, of course. For a game that appears to have been designed with multiple play-throughs in mind, it’s a bit of a handicap. In fairness though, you can’t really have the story of Animal Farm end in a socialist utopia either. The story will always end badly for most of the protagonists.

This is the core conflict for Orwell’s Animal Farm. It’s trying to convert what was a quite short, very focused narrative into a branching story. However, it needs to do that in a way that doesn’t completely undermine the book’s original message, and make a fun game in the process. I’m genuinely not sure if that’s possible. For example, avoiding the death of Boxer, the honest and industrious workhorse, is an interesting point from a game perspective, but it’s a key part of Orwell’s novella. Taking it out doesn’t do the narrative any favours.

In short, the game’s creators have taken on a big task, conceptually speaking. They do a decent job in its presentation though. The art is relatively simplistic, but it’s pleasant enough. Narration is provided by Abubakar Salim (Assassin’s Creed: Origins), and lends a bit of gravitas to proceedings. As well as ‘proper’ achievements to unlock, there’s a separate tracker which highlights which story beats you have ticked off on each play-through. Again, this seems intended to encourage multiple run-throughs.

It doesn’t take long to complete each run, either. It’s easily possible to complete a story, start to finish, in an hour or less. Animal Farm is not a long book and, even with original content added by the developers, there aren’t loads of unique story points. In fact, that’s the biggest handicap to replayability – the smaller events can quickly become repetitive. It can get to the point where they feel more like a hindrance than an experience.

In short, I can’t say I enjoyed my time with Orwell’s Animal Farm. It doesn’t work as critical satire as well as the book, and its necessary adherence to the source material means it doesn’t really fly as a true choose-your-own-adventure experience either. However, I do applaud its attempt to have a real political dialogue via a video game. In a time when many developers bend over backwards to play down the political aspects of their narratives, Nerial and The Dairymen (good band name?) make their intent clear. It’s something that should happen more often.

Orwell’s Animal Farm was developed by Nerial, and it’s available on Switch, PC, Mac, Android and iOS. We played the PC version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Orwell’s Animal Farm was provided by Renaissance PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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