Politics is a complicated topic.
It’s difficult enough to get all the details right with or without the complication of subtle (and not so subtle) symbolism. That’s why George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm was, and continues to be, such a triumph of literature. And why it’s still taught in schools.
Take that story and turn it into something interactable and playable, and you just might have found the perfect way to teach it. That’s what developer Nerial and publisher The Dairymen have attempted to do with Orwell’s Animal Farm, an adventure game out now on PC. It might not be as “fun” as a shooter or a high-octane adventure game, but it remains a successful way to delve into such a complex topic.
Animal Farm’s story takes place on Jones’s Farm where a group of animals have grown tired of being neglected and abused by their owner. They decide to work together and rebel against their master and take over the farm for themselves. They’re the ones that do all the work anyway; how hard can it be? Unfortunately, as you can imagine, managing a farm isn’t simple, and hungry workers are angry workers. Despite putting together a group of rules for the animals to follow, it isn’t long before those living on the farm begin to break those rules out of desperation. And, in all of that desperation, it grows more and more difficult to decide who to trust.
For George Orwell in 1945, Animal Farm was an allegorical tale of satire reflective of Stalin’s Russian revolution. Every little thing that happens in the story is in direct relation to events that happened in real life. Knowing this going into the story now isn’t essential, but having that knowledge does help players to feel the true impact of these events and understand them better. In the beginning, all of the animals work together flawlessly. But as members of the group begin to taste even the slightest amount of power, things change. And in this interactive version of the story it’s up to you to balance all of the farm’s issues as best you can.
The gameplay elements for Orwell’s Animal Farm are pretty simple. The majority of the game plays like a visual novel. You’ll be clicking through lines of dialogue and choosing some dialogue options for characters. You’ll also often be in charge of who speaks, though this doesn’t seem to have much impact on the game’s final ending, of which there are multiple. What does affect the ending you’ll see are the choices you make in the animals’ meetings. You’re essentially in charge of deciding what your animals agree and disagree with. At one point, just like in Orwell’s novel, the pigs begin taking the apples for themselves and lying about the reason why. You can choose to turn a blind eye or be suspicious, which plants the seed of suspicion against them for the remainder of the game.
The other important thing that players do is make decisions for the entire farm. Orwell’s Animal Farm takes place over multiple years, and each year you’re going to have to decide what you want your farm to focus on. For my first year I had my animals focus on the military so that, when the humans came to attack, they’d be prepared to defend themselves. Unfortunately, that meant sending out my strongest and hardest-working animal to fight so I lost him my first year and felt the effects of that for the remaining years. The animals seem genuinely affected by each and every death on the farm; every animal is essential to the farm’s success and thus, you begin to feel that effect as you continue.
Perhaps the most disappointing element of Orwell’s Animal Farm is that many scenarios repeat themselves. There are a few scenes that you can get multiple times during your playthrough. You’ll tire of the sheep saying “four legs good” over and over long before you’ve finished your first playthrough. Another small issue is that some of the choices you’re given are a bit vague and don’t result in exactly what you’d expect. A bit more than just one word, like “attack”, would help the player know what choice they’re making before it’s happened.
While it isn’t necessarily categorised as such, Orwell’s Animal Farm leans heavily into the strategy genre. It has all the elements of a visual novel or a point-and-click adventure, but the choices you make along the way have immediate effects on where the story goes. Oftentimes, in stories similar to this one, you don’t see the consequences of the choices you make until the end of the game. Just as Orwell wanted readers to feel the impact of each of the animals’ choices during his novella, every choice you make will have immediate benefits or immediate consequences. Some scenes are even wholly unique to the game that weren’t part of the novel, which is a nice touch.
Animal Farm – the novella is still a triumph some 75 years later, and adapting it into an moving, interactive story is also quite an accomplishment. It plays smoothly and the art style is colourful and perfectly toned to match the story. However, the biggest issue that Orwell’s Animal Farm faces is that it’s not particularly fun to play. While it may be intriguing and educational, it’s not enjoyable as a game if you have no interest in Orwell’s novel. I feel it’s an excellent teaching tool, and anyone studying Animal Farm would benefit from accompanying the book with the game. But would I recommend this title as a game if it didn’t have George Orwell’s name attached to it? Probably not.
Orwell’s Animal Farm is a pleasant retelling of the 1945 novella, and revisiting the story again after reading it in high school has been lovely. As a lover of literature as well as video games, I couldn’t help but smile seeing the story come to life. Not everyone will feel the same way though, and as an adventure game or even a visual novel, Orwell’s Animal Farm is unlikely to grab players that don’t already have a vested interest in the original story. Still, it’s a valiant effort in bringing a classic novella to new audiences, and might just be a valuable tool for students.