Any attempt to make George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” more relevant should feel redundant. Even 75 years after its initial publication, the novella’s allegory about political corruption and totalitarianism in the Soviet Union is still depressingly familiar.
However, the point-and-click game from Reigns developer Nerial Limited and publisher The Dairymen, titled Orwell’s Animal Farm, manages to offer a fresh expression of Orwell’s message about the corrupting influence of power.
Orwell’s Animal Farm initially follows the source material’s narrative exactly: When Mr. Jones, the owner of Manor Farm, fails to properly care for the animals he depends on, the revered pig Old Major sets the stage for a rebellion. Once Old Major dies, the animals overthrow Jones and take control of the farm, changing its human name. From this point on, the game broadens the story’s scope, providing various branches that depend on player choice.
The gameplay is fairly simple. As the narrative progresses, players are asked to solve problems that arise in the development of an animal society by choosing the best character to carry out any given task. The workhorse, Boxer, for example, is the most efficient at plowing the fields, while the dogs are the most useful in defending against human invasions. Players must also remember, however, to spread responsibilities among the population — overworking a character can deplete their well-being, leaving them unable to contribute and ultimately spelling disaster for the community.
These choices are made increasingly morally ambiguous due to the added pressures layered throughout the game. Players must constantly weigh whether to spend resources on projects, such as a windmill or barn repairs, or instead stockpile for the harsh winter. And furthermore, underlying all decisions is a community morale meter, measured in the strength of the farm’s belief in the tenets of “Animalism,” summed up as “Four legs good, two legs bad.” If Animalism dips too low, some characters may abandon the cause, and the project of Animal Farm may fail entirely.
Unlike many big-budget role-playing games, player choices have a massive impact on the trajectory of the narrative. Though many key events from Orwell’s novella still occur, there are now eight possible endings, and important characters — such as the two central political leaders, pigs Snowball and Napoleon — can end the game in various states: dead, in power or alive but impotent.
These divergent scenarios are where Orwell’s Animal Farm shines — such episodes convey the novella’s themes through surprising, subversive storytelling that goes beyond simple retreading. However, the impact of these storylines is dampened by some confusing design choices: It’s sometimes unclear how many moves players can make in a round, and though the outcomes are evident, the paths to arrive at them are obscured behind nonintuitive mechanics.
Furthermore, though each of the eight endings remains faithful to Orwell’s bleak vision, the game does not take full advantage of its medium’s allowances. Ultimately, players can only choose how Animal Farm fails, not whether it does so at all. As a result, Orwell’s Animal Farm isn’t as relevant as it could have been if it allowed players to explore the possibility of a successful economic system other than capitalism.
Though its gameplay isn’t very deep, the storybook art style of Orwell’s Animal Farm will charm players into exploring its narrative further. The hand-drawn animals and quaint farm environments provide the same innocent, childlike atmosphere that makes Orwell’s novella so eerie. The aesthetic of a choose-your-own-adventure game gone wrong is perfectly enhanced by a soundtrack that begins almost painfully pleasant, making its darker moments all the more effective. Abubakar Salim’s narration is also instrumental in crafting the game’s atmosphere, introducing the same soothing, semidisturbing quality that characterized his performance as Father in “Raised by Wolves.”
Orwell’s Animal Farm is by no means a substitute for the original work — but it doesn’t aim to be. The game is a fresh riff on a familiar story, and by using its branching storylines to explore Orwell’s political commentary, it provides a new way to look at “Animal Farm.”
This review is based on the PC version of Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Neil Haeems is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].