It was 73 years ago today, the 17th August 1945, that George Orwell’s masterpiece, Animal Farm, was first published. After six years of total global war, peace had finally just been restored after the world had witnessed two final monumental acts of mass murder had been inflicted on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and learned of the evil that was The Holocaust. The peace that ensued was going to prove to be fragile and the new world orders of the Soviet Union and NATO led by the United States of America, were diametrically opposed in their ideologies around communism and capitalism. The sun was finally rising and yet it was like there was a massive eclipse, blocking that light out and the Cold War was about to begin,
For me, and some of my friends who I am working with now, Animal Farm was and still is one of the most important and influential books we have ever read. Furthermore, unlike many seminal works of literature, we all read it when we were children, I think I was about 10 years old, as it was presented as a child’s fairy story. Animal Farm is a fable and an allegory and for me and some of my friends, rather than being a polemic about the reality if communism, we feel it is actually about the dangers of oppression. George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) had fought alongside the International Brigades against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War and had seen first hand how the different factions of the socialist left had been far from united and actually at war with itself. He suffered the oppression of the Stalinist backed forces whilst fighting what he had assumed was the common enemy, Franco. The rest as they say is history.
73 years on, and the world has entered a very dark place again. Animal Farm is as relevant today as it was on the very first day it was published. The western world is ‘led’ by a character who seems to espouse a spirit of revolution, whilst seemingly coming from an incredibly privileged background. This character tweets propaganda, with a healthy helping of downright lies, in bite sized chunks, designed to provoke outrage and division with his randomly capitalised words to spark even more outrage amongst the ‘liberal intellectual elite’ that he blames for everything. Simplistic slogans are thrown around regularly in order to fuel this division and forge support from ‘his core’. Slogans like, ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Fake News’, ‘Lock Her Up’ seem to draw on ‘Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad’ and ‘All Animals Are Equal’ for inspiration. Surely its only a matter of time before those slogans get altered in the style of Animal Farm, maybe we will see ‘Make America Great Again, at the expense of everyone else’, ‘Drain their Swamp’, or maybe just ‘Your News is Fake News’. Over in the east, there is another ‘strong man’ who rules with an iron fist and wants to conform to the old Cold War battle lines. In the Middle East we have more ‘strong’ rulers in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Zealous nationalists are trying to tear Europe apart and we see the rise of religious fundamentalist turbulence is everywhere. Many people believe ‘free speech’ is being shut down by this same ‘liberal intellectual [left wing] elite’ and yet are so confused that they seem to want to not only blame ‘the other’, whoever that may be (usually an immigrant) and actually ban what others want to wear, say and even think.
When I read first Animal Farm, I remember really liking the idealism of the farm and all it stood for. The characters of Old Major, Boxer, Mollie and Snowball were great and I connected with them and even Napoleon’s approach showed some sense. But I will never forget ending up as I closed the book, thinking to myself, ‘Is that it? Is that really it? Surely there must have been a better way, a better outcome for all? Surely the oppression shown by the pigs and their attack dogs ends up being no different from Mr Jones the farmer, the very man they overthrew at the start?
And that is why, 73 years on, my friends Imre, Georg, Rachel, Matt and a few others have decided to make a videogame of Animal Farm. We have received the permission and the official licence from the estate of Eric Blair and we will ensure that we respect the original ideas and motives of Orwell himself. We will definitely not mess around with the characters or the narrative, and as Imre often says, ‘we are not going to do Animal Farm in space!’. But where games can and do differ from literature and film, is that it will give players real choice and agency. We have embarked on that journey together and have already had plenty of creative challenges. We will definitely avoid being preachy, so player choice is everything. The world is complicated and the problems we all face are not solved by simplistic and ultimately untrue slogans. What we hope to do is to allow players plenty of options which will then effect their journey and experience delivering outcomes and consequences which may please or disappoint them, or just leaving them scratching their heads, just like I did as a 10 year old!
I will leave you with this Orwell quote, ‘No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?’. Remind you of anyone?