“im in the middle of buying all of bonton with that platinum card i lifted from your desk….”
It’s clearly a joke between lovers. She isn’t really a thief, and all she wants to do is buy some wine for a romantic meal later that evening. The affection is obvious – these two clearly mean a lot to each other.
The words are underlined.
“Cassandra Watergate – stole a credit card from Josef Langley”.
I dutifully copy the information into my target’s profile.
“Good job,” says Symes, my handler. “That information can be used to put a freeze on his card.”
I feel sick to my stomach. On their own, robbed of context, the words are indeed a confession of guilt. Without the rest of the conversation, they mean nothing. Nothing, except an illegal act. The card will now be cancelled by the government, and put this couple’s romantic evening in jeopardy – and likely worse. Because of my actions.
Why am I watching this woman? Because she has a history of political protest, and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She happened to walk past a monument just before was blown up by a terrorist attack. But in The Nation, under the near-total rule of The Party, those two coincidences together are enough to justify the type of invasive, relentless surveillance driven by people like me.
Welcome to Orwell.
Everything about this experience is wrong. The cold, impersonal console, with access to all facets of my target’s life. The half-built profile of my target, with details stolen from her entire life. If she’s entered it into her social media accounts, or spoken about it on a messenger app or in a call, I know about it. If I get more information, I might even be able to access her computer remotely, and rifle through her files.
And yet, everything about this operation seeks to justify its existence. Symes speaks with compassion for the targets, and has a genuine dedication to his duty. Despite the fascist implications of the program, he clearly feels that he’s doing the right thing. The only thing that can keep The Nation safe. The nods to George Orwell’s 1984 are many – Symes’ codename (is it even a codename?), and the title of the game are two obvious ones. The title of the first chapter, “The Clocks Were Striking Thirteen”, echo the first lines of the novel. The name of the ruling elite, “The Party”. These are all references to Orwell’s thriller, and hint that this is the precursor to the society we see in 1984.
Language is used in a typically deceptive manner – the laws that make this program possible are called “The Safety Bill”. The message is brute force in its clarity – safety comes with the sacrifice of personal liberty, and privacy. I’m a government-licensed snooper – and the power that gives me is unreal.
Realisation of the power I hold dawns on me slowly. Snippets of information seem to contradict – which should I insert into the target’s profile? The choice is mine, based on my understanding of someone else’s life. Symes has made it clear that he can’t see the information itself; only the snippets that I insert into the target’s profile. In this case, there are two pieces of information – one is a tacit admission of guilt in a prior, minor case; the other adds context to the situation, and makes her guilt less obvious.
I drag the second option into her file. Symes is glad to see the evidence for the prior minor crime, but is disappointed that it may allow the suspect off on a technicality.
I went easy on her. But I didn’t have to. And a niggling voice in my head says that maybe I shouldn’t? She’s a target for a reason, and lives are at stake. If she is a terrorist, then keeping her locked away is better for The Nation’s safety. And while it’s not clear yet whether she is guilty or not – should I have played it safe, and gone for the confession of guilt? After all, it’s not really lying – it just lacks a few… details.
Orwell works best in these little moments. A tense and short narrative drives a cunningly personal journey. As the Orwell operative, you’re in charge of investigating the most intimate moments of various target’s lives – whether that’s the little things they message to their partner, or being supported through small emotional breakdowns by their friends. I see it all, and wonder whether my actions will lead to more issues down the line.
And that’s where Orwell gets really scary. Watching these people is uncomfortable and upsetting – as true voyeurism often is. But the horror comes from realising that my actions in Orwell act as a sort of quantum. The actions I take, and the information I gather will likely lead to my target’s arrest; an arrest that would not have been possible without the extreme and invasive snooping that Orwell provides. But my target doesn’t exist within a vacuum – she has friends, partners, and colleagues. They will notice her disappearance, and they will realise that she has done nothing overtly wrong. Everything points to the existence of extreme surveillance – which in turn breeds more societal discontent.
My actions will lead to worse outcomes, even if I do the best I possibly can. Through viewing these people’s lives, their relationships, and everything about them, I’ve come to care about them. And yet, one or more of them may have terrorist links. Can I identify them and spare the rest? My mere action of watching has already changed the situation irrevocably. Escalated it.This will doubtless lead to blood on my hands. Blood on my keyboard.
I don’t know if I can keep this up forever. The power I have at my virtual fingertips terrifies me. And what scares me the most – outside of the game – is that some day, some shadowy anonymous person will hold that same power over me. Will view my most intimate of conversations. Will have me arrested over a stupid, context-less joke. And there’s nothing I could do to stop it.
The console beeps. My target’s sending a new message.
“your card’s not working here, can’t buy anything”
I watch as her life slowly starts to falls apart under my investigation.