George Orwell’s Animal Farm interview — Making a game inspired by totalitarian oppression

George Orwell’s Animal Farm debuts today as a PC and mobile game based on a classic work of literature.

The game was made by small collective of indie developers and they worked with estate of George Orwell, who wrote the classic allegorical book about totalitarian government in 1945. The title is the work of indie developers headed by Imre Jele and Andy Payne, who lead the mini studio The Dairymen. They enlisted indie studio Nerial (creators of Reigns) to help make the game and writing veteran Emily Short wrote the narrative.

They describe it as an overtly political act of game development. It is a labor of love for Jele, who grew up in communist Hungary before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He felt the oppression of the government every day, and he was distressed to see the U.S. fall into the same parallels to living in totalitarian countries. He saw the same tactics of alternative truths, fact manipulation, and populism used, and he felt that Orwell’s allegory — full of gaslighting, hypocrisy, corruption, and greed — has never been more relevant.

August marked 75 years since the novel was published. I read it along with Orwell’s 1984 and a host of other dystopian novels when I was young. And Animal Farm remains relevant today, but perhaps the medium of video games will bring it home better for today’s young people, as games are great for showing . Jele convinced the Orwell estate to support the effort. The resulting narrative game is a choice-based adventure title that puts the player at the center of an allegorical revolution on a farm, where the animals overthrow the humans.

By choosing which of the animals’ wishes they follow – and who is ignored or sidelined – gamers will influence the critical events that define the fate of the farm. The game has six different destinies and eight different endings. The game is narrated by Abubakar Salim, who played Bayek in Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

I interviewed Jele and Short about the making of the game. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Animal Farm co-creator Imre Jele.

GamesBeat: Animal Farm was one of my favorites, and 1984 as well. I was curious how this all got started for you, how you went down this road.

Imre Jele: I was born in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain. I was on the other side of the fence. I grew up in a family that was politically active, what was considered by the government to be the wrong side of politics. I grew up in what they called the “soft regime,” but there was still some nasty stuff going on. I was the last generation that was still clapping for the big leader. A white shirt and a little red tie, and we marched up and down in front of the school.

Animal Farm was read to me when I was a child, next to the Little Prince and Winnie the Pooh. I don’t know how they define me, those three books, but that’s how I started. I remember very early on that I wanted to make a board game out of it, because it was such an important book to me. I could relate to it. I understood the story in a way, because my family was affected by it. I found some notes of mine, actually, that I made when I was an early teenager, about that board game. It’s awful, I can tell you. It took a few decades.

A few years ago I had this moment where–you know how it is when you keep saying to yourself, “I should totally do that!” And then you have this list of hundreds of things and it’s never going to happen. I went through that list and I wrote it all down on little pieces of paper. I made three piles. One was, it must happen. One was, it should happen. One was, it could happen. And then I set the shoulds and coulds on fire. It was very cathartic. In the must-happen pile was Animal Farm.

We started chasing this. I felt that gaming was ready for it. We were always an art, but not always a great art. We grew up. It’s time. The audience is ready. The developers are ready. I said the same thing to the Orwell estate. I reached out to them. That’s a long story in itself, but the short version is that when I first reached out I got back an email that said, “Rights not available.” That was it. I wrote back to them, because I knew the rights were available, and I wanted to continue pursuing them. It took months and months, and ultimately I managed to convince the estate. They did what they were supposed to do. It’s their job to protect the estate. They can’t allow it to be misused, so to speak. But it took a long time, and an even longer time after we convinced them to figure out what the game was going to be.

We had multiple false starts. We built a bunch of prototypes with different strengths and weaknesses, but nothing quite felt right. I remember I kept referencing Nerial and the Reigns game series. At one point Andy, who worked with us on the team, said, “You always keep talking about them, but why aren’t we working with them?” So I reached out, and they were immediately super excited. They wanted to be on board. In fact, that was the story of this whole thing. Anyone we spoke with, when we asked them to suggest someone, the answer was usually, “How about me?”

Emily, who I’d known for a few years, was the same. I came to her and asked, “Who would you suggest to write this?” And she said, “I know some people, but what about me?” It was amazing. That’s how this whole indie collective came together. A lot of people with different companies and different allegiances were excited about this. They felt that it’s more than just a game project. It’s something where we feel we have a responsibility to do it.

Above: Emily Short led the narrative for Animal Farm.

GamesBeat: How long has it taken to get to this point?

Jele: For the longest time, I never said this out loud, but I was told that I should. We originally wanted to release this alongside the 2016 election. I’ll leave it at that. I felt that certain figures around the world, not just in America, emerged over the last decade in particular, who started to use these tools that were eerily similar to what I lived through. I recognized the language. You might replace some words. Instead of “capitalist spies” it’s “immigrants” or whatever. But it’s the same language.

The actual development, though, we only started very late last year. It was December, maybe. We properly got started in January.

Emily Short: We were doing some narrative design pitch docs in November, but I wasn’t really writing until December.

GamesBeat: Was there a challenge in getting it funded? What led to that long gestation?

Jele: That’s one of the reasons. It’s a modest indie project. We’re not raising millions. But still, one dollar is one dollar. It was a tricky effort. We got some offers, but we had to be cautious. We have certain allegiances that we have to stay clear of because of the implications and what they mean to the community. Ultimately we had an individual benefactor who chose to privately fund the entire enterprise, which was an amazing opportunity. We don’t have to respond to a big corporate entity. We still have the relationship with the estate and with this investor, but they’ve largely left us alone through the entire process. We’ve only gotten support from them.

GamesBeat: How big an effort did it become as far as team size?

Jele: Overall, it’s just five or six people.

Short: Some people have come on and off. We swapped out engineers at Nerial at one point. But yeah, it’s usually been me, an artist, an engineer, and a couple of other people who’ve been involved in art direction or additional support of various kinds.

Jele: We also had the audio, the composer, Morgan, who I’ve worked with a few times. We recorded the voice-over with Abubakar Salim, who was Bayak in Assassin’s Creed Origins. Kate Saxon was our director. Her CV is quite impressive. All these people were excited to come on board. But the core team was fairly small.

GamesBeat: The book is fairly short. I don’t know how long the game is, but how did you deal with adapting that narrative?

Short: The way we approached that, we wanted to definitely be a game. At the same time, we wanted to be very much faithful to what the book was, and not insert a lot of other material or other angles on things. The first stage of that for me–I have to say, this was easier because of the kind of book it is. Animal Farm is a particularly good book to make into a game because it’s so much about systems and processes and how people affect each other. How the farm is doing, how the politics work. And each of the animals on the farm, obviously they have a character and a personality, but they’re also tied to a particular style of political engagement. It’s a very systemic book to start with, which made it a lot easier.

Looking at that as a first step, thinking about–okay, well, what are the systems in this book? How do we bring those into game systems? Let’s make it about–you’re looking after this farm. It has certain qualities, things you might recognize. Think of a farm sim type of situation. Have we planted crops? How are the farm animals feeling? Those kinds of things come into it. You also have the storyline trajectory of who’s in power and how they’re using that power. And then we associated each of the animals or animal groups with a particular type of verb or interaction. Boxer gets lots of work done, but he’s not very critical of the political leadership. Different animals on the farm have different strategies for dealing with things.

That first step was just building out and mapping the book’s systems onto gameplay systems. And then the next thing was to take the text of the book and put it in a spreadsheet and break it into pieces. What are the beats here? Where do those map in terms of game states that could arise? This character is dead, so this beat becomes available, and so on. I added a few other things, which were just about–things I think Orwell would have taken for granted that his audience already knew about. Harvesting and planting stuff. But basically it was those beats.

I looked through that to see where there were alternate game states that are clearly implied by choices in the book. This animal dies instead of that animal. Something goes differently in a key battle sequence. Those kinds of things. That’s where I needed to augment and create material that wasn’t in the book. But I tried to be quite disciplined about not adding things that weren’t at least implied by that structure.

The most notable area where we needed to fill out a fair amount of content was around Snowball. If you play the game naively, or if we run through an auto-test and let it make choices automatically, most of the time you’ll end up with something close to the canonical structure of the book, where Napoleon winds up in charge. If you actually choose to push back on that and try to set up a situation where Napoleon is killed and Snowball takes charge, something like that–we wanted to answer that question as well.

For things like that, I looked at other historical examples, especially from communist regimes, but also authoritarian regimes in general. What are alternate historical examples that, if they had happened before the writing of Animal Farm, might have inspired it as well? There are some elements of Snowball’s regime that draw more from Maoist China — attempts to industrialize in a way that aren’t particularly good for the inhabitants, to say the least — so we’d have something that felt like it was constructed with the same themes and the same thinking, even if it wasn’t part of the original text.

Above: Animal Farm has a longer narrative than the book.

Jele: The book is short. Depending on how fast you read it might take an afternoon. But it’s one of those books where I’ve handed it to several people to read again, after they read it when they were much younger. They pick it up and say, “This is it? I remember it being a lot longer.” Everyone remembers more to the story because there’s so much implied, and because of the historical context. With our knowledge of oppressive regimes–we imagine that what we’ve heard about should have been covered in Animal Farm. There’s a reason why “Orwellian” is a word now. People tie a lot of things together under that. Because of that, there are elements that people, when they play–they’ll think Orwell obviously wrote it. And I think Emily did a splendid job of matching the language and the phrasing and the wording used to the original book.

What I always say, though, we didn’t want to make Animal Farm in space. We just wanted to make Animal Farm. This book has, unfortunately, remained relevant for 75 years. It’s 75 years old this summer.

We worked with the Orwell estate, but not just because of the licensing. They gave us insight early on, and a lot of feedback, which was very helpful. No one understands Orwell better. We also worked with the Orwell Society, which manages the Orwell Prize, and other organizations to make sure that we got it right. The estate wanted to make sure that we understood the work and had the right motivations.

Short: I didn’t feel like they were constraining us at all. They were interested to know how we were approaching it thematically. We had quite a long conversation about other elements in Orwell’s work outside of Animal Farm. Essays, 1984, other things that might shed additional light. Some of that material I also read. But it was nice to have further background and further conversations around it. It was a useful process, also, to explain to them how the narrative design process did not change the story. They were interested in what we were doing to the story by making it playable, but that was a productive conversation in both directions.

GamesBeat: The book exists in everyone’s head. We all have our own imagination of what it would look like. How did you try to make something that would look right to people?

Jele: We had some art styles that we hope to release after the game comes out, because we had some crazy ideas. We had one that was based on Soviet brutalist propaganda posters. It’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. But the reality was that–again, we wanted to bear in mind that legacy of 75 years. We wanted to make sure we created an art style that isn’t just a quick punch and then walk away, but something we believed could have that same legacy, that longevity.

We went back to book illustrations. You can see a couple here. My absolute favorite is Ralph Steadman’s version. It’s beautifully illustrated. There’s also a graphic novel version. There are some great versions. That was another source of inspiration. We kept going back to the old book illustrations, the woodcut look. What would that look like? Not trying to create something with the latest and shiniest effects we could put in, but something we felt would feel at home in a book.

Short: We were conscious throughout of the way that the book–it doesn’t present itself exactly as a children’s book, but there’s that quality of a fable. It’s timeless. It’s something that you could have read to you. The narrative voice in the book is very much the voice of an omniscient person who understands everything, even if he’s not saying everything he knows. We tried to carry both of those things over in the art style, and also in our choice of who was voicing it and how the narration was done. We wanted to create that sense of being told the story.

GamesBeat: What is the age range you’re targeting, if there is one?

Jele: There’s no target age as such. I think it’s going to be enjoyable for anyone who’d enjoy the book. The book is usually taught in eighth or ninth grade in the states, but I read it when I was younger. I didn’t understand everything in it, of course. But I don’t think it calls for a specific age.

Short: A really young kid isn’t necessarily going to follow the language. But we tried to keep the language itself simple enough that kids in that middle school age range would be able to follow it. It’s the same with the gameplay. There are things you can try to pursue that would be more challenging. But if you’re not playing with a great deal of tactical awareness, you should still be able to get an interesting story out of it.

It’s meant to be something where you could sit down with it as a kid and get something interesting out of it, while as an adult–you can essentially ask it questions. It’s a version of the story in which you can explore, well, what would happen in this story if Boxer died earlier or later, or we had a different person in power at this point? Which remains interesting even into later years.

Jele: I was talking to someone who’s in education, and we were discussing what type of reading level we should go for in the game. He checked it and told me that, funny enough, it very closely matches an eighth or ninth grade curriculum in terms of the vocabulary. Later on he said he suspects that the curriculum was actually using Animal Farm as one of the books to establish what was readable at that age.

Short: In terms of what I did with the language, often I’d have a piece of text that I’d pulled into the spreadsheet, and usually I’d need to edit it down to be a bit shorter and simpler. Usually you end up with a sentence structure that’s using a similar cadence to Orwell, but maybe fewer clauses, something like that.

Above: Animal Farm was co-created by Imre Jele, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain.

GamesBeat: How do you preserve or extend the satirical elements of the story as you try to expand it and make it interactive?

Short: There’s a couple of directions with that. None of the endings are what you would call a joyous, happy ending where all is well. Orwell didn’t believe that was a viable outcome for this kind of government, and that made sense to us as well. But there are different ways that things can go badly.

You can get the canonical ending, or a variation on the canonical ending with Snowball. But then there are some other endings you can get if your farm management goes awry. Things like they wind up losing the farm in battle to the humans, or everyone goes hungry. The farm is depopulated for some reason like that. There, again, I was going back to historical examples to pull. When one of these regimes goes down, what are the people in power doing to save themselves? Things like that.

There’s one ending where, if you’ve leaned into having a surveillance state, you get the birds, who are your surveillance characters, announcing that they now run things. It’s a bit KGB, that kind of stuff. Every time we had one of those things emerge–what’s a good mapping here? What’s something that feels like it would have felt right to Orwell?

Another place was the characterization of the individual animals. The core gameplay is often about choosing–you’re constantly selecting the animals themselves that you want to have react to a particular dilemma or situation. A lot of the choice mechanics are about–the hen will respond to this, the dog will respond to this, the cow will respond to this. Naturally that meant writing a lot of dialogue for all those characters, and not all of that dialogue exists in the book. But that was another opportunity to lean into different characters. What’s a funny thing they would say right now?

Jele: A great example–pretty much everyone thinks they know all the commandments of Animalism. That every single one of them, you can read both versions, both the original and the tainted version. And actually you can’t. The book doesn’t cover all the tainted versions. Emily had this wonderful opportunity to complete Orwell’s work where he didn’t finish it.

Short: [laughs] It just wasn’t necessary for him. But yeah, we had to come up with answers to all those questions.

Jele: The birds are a great example of how to meaningfully extend something. It’s always tricky. You can’t even read something without putting yourself into it. Adapting is a big challenge, how you adapt. The surveillance state thing is a good example. In the book they specifically talk about the birds being used to spy on neighboring farms. Of course, logically, they would also use the birds to spy on their own animals. We don’t have to worry too much about whether Orwell would agree with that, because in 1984, he explores exactly that. We know that he understood the idea of the surveillance state, and wrote about it. Incorporating that into Animal Farm isn’t that big of a stretch. It helped to look at his other work as well.

Short: That specifically is something–it’s not pulling in the exact incidents of 1984. But it’s absolutely drawing on it.

GamesBeat: If there were a bigger budget or team available to you, is there anything you felt like you left on the table, that you would have done with more resources?

Jele: It’s hard to answer that. There’s an old line about how you never complete a creative project. You just abandon it. We were very mindful of that from the beginning. There was a version we considered where it was going to be Animal Farm meets Uncharted. That just didn’t feel right. A lot of ideas were abandoned not for financial, but for creative reasons.

This is a faithful adaptation of a book. It’s not trying to be something else, to be a big action-adventure or anything else. It’s a faithful adaptation of one of the most relevant and historically important literary works. I feel like we have to bear that in mind. Now that the deadline is closing in, do I wish we had an extra few months to polish? Of course. There are a lot of things I wish we did. But I also feel that I don’t want to add huge amounts of extra stuff, even if I had all the time and money in the world. This game has achieved what we set out to do. We’re very proud of the work.

Short: I always can find more things that I would tweak, because that’s how it always is. But in terms of the creative concept of it, what we were trying to make–I feel like if it had a lot more–it’s not a story that needs lots of CGI. In fact I think it would be kind of distracting. I’m happy with the shape that it wound up taking. It doesn’t go too wildly far outside–I don’t feel like there are bits where, if we put it in front of Orwell, he’d say, “My God, what is this?” If we’d gone deeply video game-ey about it, it would probably have that quality.

GamesBeat: The story’s relevance to politics and history, do you feel like it’s there in the game? Have you said what you wanted to say about that?

Jele: I was raised to hate communists. When I say the word “hate” I mean hate. Not “I hate chocolate ice cream.” But a visceral anger. I said nasty things. They were the enemy, the Soviet communists.

I remember playing Papers, Please, and I realized, playing that game–a number would come up. “Do you have enough money to pay for medication?” Or whatever it was. After a few rounds, I started to act like a machine, ignoring other humans. You could say that I’m a gamer and I’m playing it that way, and that’s true. But how quickly did I become that person in a video game, who just runs the system and uses the excuse of just being part of the system? I remember that made me very emotional. What would I have done if it were my child, my parents? What decisions would I make in that scenario? It was very uncomfortable to match that up with the hate I was raised with.

That has to be reflected in the story, because Animal Farm does reflect that. The historical evils done to these animals were also done to real people in the real world. Talking about the facts of how people fail these systems or stand up to these systems–it’s not just a great creative subject to talk about, but it’s also a responsibility these days, when we see powerful autocratic regimes seemingly rise up around the planet. It’s important to talk about it, and I feel that Animal Farm, adapted very faithfully, needs to be done. It talks about where I grew up, and it talks about the millions of people who suffered specifically under the Soviet communist regime, but there are many other forms of oppression.

Above: Napoleon is Animal Farm’s bad pig.

It’s obnoxious to say this, of course. Do we match Orwell’s work? I don’t know. We tried our best, as far as I can tell. A lot of effort went into getting it right, into making sure that we were channeling Orwell’s voice. We know that his voice still works. We always wanted to achieve that, and how successfully we achieved that–you know how it is. After a while you’re blind to your project. I can’t tell anymore. But we’ll see how players react.

Ultimately my hope is that people don’t even talk about how well it was adapted. My dream would be that people just say, “Yes, it’s Animal Farm.” If we could manage to make people feel like the book did, if we can make even a single person say, “You know what, I’ve heard similar things in the news, what’s happening in this game.” If we could achieve that, I’d be extremely proud. This was an inspiring, humbling, and terrifying project to work on, because of its importance.

Short: All of what you said, in terms of capturing those moments narratively–there were also some things in terms of the mechanical design that I was quite happy with, how they embed message. One thing that’s a subtler strand in Animal Farm–it’s not only critiquing the pigs and the way they behave, but also things like–Boxer is altruistic. He’s kind. He’s good. He works very hard. But his response also enables what happens. His constant desire to resolve systemic injustices and systemic problems by throwing his own labor into it and trying to work harder actually opens the door for Napoleon to be what he is.

That’s something the mechanical design reflects. There are certain things the pigs do that–their ability to do that is numerically enhanced by Boxer’s behavior. There are things like that where we take elements that are thematic in the book and express them through the gameplay. Whether everyone is going to read that is another question. But I felt particularly strongly about getting that kind of thing across. It not only speaks to authoritarianism, but it also speaks to some of the problems with modern capitalism and the things it can do to people. The way it makes individuals responsible for their household and their well-being, but doesn’t provide any social safety net. Again, I’m throwing my own labor into filling a gap rather than addressing the problem at the level of system and politics.

Jele: As I say, this was inspiring, humbling, and terrifying, to do all this. Not just because of the 75-year legacy, but because of the importance of the work and how relevant it is. It’s why I was so excited to have Emily on board, and to have Nerial with their mechanical thinking, bringing this collective together. That’s the kind of thinking it needed. If it was just down to me, it wouldn’t have been possible to make this game. It needed these different perspectives — not just on the book, not just on gameplay and narrative design, but every aspect.

It’s exciting when there’s a problem I can’t solve, even a trivial one. Early on I asked, “What should the voice be? Is it first-person, third-person?” It was Emily who said, “Well, the book has an omniscient narrator, so why don’t we use that point of view?” In the game, you don’t make a choice about what “I” do, or point at someone to make them do something. There’s a narrator, and you choose who you listen to. The animals present themselves and you pick one.

All of these ideas came together in the process with the team. It was a very joyful process. But like any game launch, we’ll see what people think.

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