George Orwell‘s 1945 classic Animal Farm was, the author said, the “first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”. An allegorical critique of Stalinist Russia, Orwell’s book follows the revolutionary undertakings of an English Farm’s four-legged and winged inhabitants. The Guardian called it “”a delightfully humorous and caustic satire on the rule of the many by the few”. If that seems oddly reminiscent of modern politics to you, you’re not the only one.
“Over the last decade some governments started using language eerily similar to what I heard growing up under a communist regime. So I can’t help feeling personally challenged to spread Orwell’s dystopian warning by adapting Animal Farm into a game”
That’s Imre Jele, co-founder of Bossa Studios – the minds behind Worlds Adrift, Surgeon Simulator, and similarly dystopic nightmare I am Bread. Alongside a team with experience working on everything from Dear Esther to Fable, Imre hopes to bring Orwell’s vision to life for a whole new audience. Imre Jelle was kind enough to speak to Cliqist recently about Animal Farm, Orwell, and the difficulties of adapting a literary classic.
Cliqist: We’ve seen a resurgence in popularity for Orwell’s work recently – 1984 hitting the bestseller lists last year, for example – what do you feel it is about the current climate that’s caused such interest? What is it about animal farm in particular that made it an interesting prospect to adapt?
Imre Jele: I’ve been thinking about creating a game based on Animal Farm for decades
as it was a very important book for me growing up in a communist country. Orwell’s book does a fantastic job of explaining the complex and terrifying ways of how oppressive regimes suppress critical thinking, and how a small minority can rule and exploit the majority. And he does all this with a deceptive ease and guise of simplicity.
It was only in 2014 when I braved contacting the Orwell Estate with my idea of a game based on Animal Farm. At that time many modern democracies were already tainted by alarming trends like mass surveillance, erosion of civil liberties, voter disenfranchisement so it felt important to create a game warning against oppressive regimes. Even though we feared the momentum of these destructive changes will not lessen, we did not quite know back then how fast will our civil discourse be perverted by post-truth politics. It is hard not to see the parallels between the ideas of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and today’s modern politics.
Books can help us make sense of the world around us. And Orwell’s work has always been relevant as it teaches us fundamental truths about the human spirit. But in a very distressing way many of his specific ideas about oppressive regimes became part of our everyday lives which turns his fictional warnings all too real.
Animal Farm… In Space!
A large part of Orwell’s enduring appeal has been his special attention to language. Were the team concerned about losing some of this in translation? What efforts have been made to try and capture Orwell’s voice – rather than just his settings and allegory – in the game?
One of our biggest concerns is to lose what made Orwell’s work so powerful. Adapting a book is always a challenge and it is almost impossible not to add yourself and your own biases into the adaptation. That can undermine your work, but if one is lucky, these additions make the message richer and more relevant to a new audience.
Beyond the obvious solution of getting to know Animal Farm and his other writings, we also spent a lot of time trying to understand Orwell as a person. Ultimately we can’t just adapt the what is the story, even understanding how he told the story would fall short. We can only truly adapt Animal Farm with a creative honesty if we understand why he decided to tell this story and why this way. It’s been superbly helpful to work with the Orwell Estate as they can provide us unparalleled insight.
It was important for us from day one that we keep true to Orwell’s work. I firmly believe that we do not need “Animal Farm… IN! SPACE!”. His novel, though relatively short, has a huge amount of depth. And there are many ideas and motifs which he has established but hasn’t fully explored, giving us a fertile ground to make the Animal Farm Game faithful to the original, yet being able to meaningfully expand it on this new, interactive platform.
Absolute Power Corrupts
The best stories are about the human spirit. You can put your characters in any number of universes, expose them to any number of conflicts, you can even masquerade them as farm animals leading a revolution against their exploitative human master – but the human spirit remains the core.
In that sense, The Walking Dead is not really about zombies, and Romeo and Juliet is not about two warring families, but they are both about people put in extreme situations.
It’s very easy to get lost in the grim intricacies of a dystopian setting or be distracted by gruesome events of such universe, so we try our hardest to remember that these are ultimately superficial decorations on a story about oppression and how “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In that sense the real dystopia of Orwell’s Animal Farm is inside the characters’ heads.
Just because I’m excited as anyone to find out, how does Animal Farm play? Will the actions the player engages in reflect the themes of Orwell’s work?
We describe our game as an adventure-tycoon. It’s not a widely used genre definition but there are some games which has similar elements. 80 Days, This is the Police, Sunless Sea, Papers Please and many other have inspired us greatly. We are combining a text adventure game with a tycoon about managing the farm.
In the Animal Farm Game you play as a pig, and will face decisions about the running of the farm and the fate of the other animals, which two ultimately of course are interlinked to tell the story of a rebellious farm creating a utopia, locking itself in a dystopia or destroy itself trying.
Finally, when can we expect our first glimpse at what the team have been working on?
We hope to show our players and the press a first playable version of Animal Farm Game in the autumn.
You can keep up with Animal Farm here, and check back on Cliqist soon for more coverage in the future. If you’ve still got some catching up to do with Orwell’s writing, I’d like to humbly suggest that his essay Politics and the English Language is the single most important thing anyone living in the age of fake news can read, and a great place to start. Question everything, folks!*
*Do not question Cliqist. Cliqist are your friends.