07/01/2021

๐Ÿท๐Ÿด Animal Farm | Review | PC | "Your worst-case scenario is mass death" ๐Ÿท๐Ÿด @AnimalFarmGame @PixelHunted #IndieGames #GameDev

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At first glance, George Orwell’s classic 1945 allegorical novel Animal Farm doesn’t seem like a great candidate for a video game. 

The tale of rebellious animals seizing control of their farm, banishing humans and attempting to carve out a new society is an excellent satire but contains few action sequences, no hordes of monsters to blast your way through and, as far as I can remember from studying it in school, not a single high-octane car chase.

That’s where developer Nerial comes in. 

Thanks to them you now have a say in the destiny of Animal Farm. Will you follow the plot of the book? Head off in unexpected new directions? Meticulously plan out the future? Or totally screw things up and watch as the animals starve and eat each other *sheepishly raises hand*.

This is effectively a visual novel and with some very light resource management. You play through eight years of life on Animal Farm, with your primary concerns being the changing seasons, the amount of food in your storage, the morale of the animals and the state of the farm. 

Beyond that you have various overarching plans to choose from, like spending valuable resources to build a mill, an education programme to teach the animals to read or propaganda encouraging animals on other farms to revolt.

You quickly realise that there’s no pleasing everyone. Misery is baked into the game’s systems and the animals are generally either cold, hungry or miserable (sometimes all three). A playthrough of a game takes about 45 minutes (less if you’re skipping voiced dialogue) and each ending of the four I saw was pretty damn gloomy. Your worst-case scenario is mass death and the best that I can see is engineering what’s described as “a facade of democracy”.

It makes for a downbeat experience, especially as certain events will happen regardless of your decisions. The pigs will always begin to steal resources from the other animals, the humans will always sabotage your mill (and ruin hours of labour) and poor old Boxer seems destined for the glue factory no matter how little you work him.

Perhaps the biggest problem in Animal Farm is that you’re playing an omniscient observer rather than a character in the story. Perhaps a better way of putting your fingerprints on the story would have been to let you choose an animal to play as at the beginning and try to make their goals a reality. It’d also add a bit of tension as you’d have some self-interest in your decisions rather than the dispassionate god’s eye view you’re presented with.

The fact that there doesn’t appear to be any possible happy ending also feels a bit overly cynical towards socialism. After all, Orwell was a committed socialist and his motivation for writing the book wasn’t to prove it doesn’t work - it was an indictment of Stalin’s perversion of Marxism.

I’m not asking for the game to present some kind of fuzzy-wuzzy utopia, but when even the best ending leaves the animals as exploited as they were under the humans it feels like the game is saying they should have sucked it up and gotten on with their miserable lives as slaves. I’ve always felt the real tragedy of Animal Farm isn’t that the animals were wrong to revolt but that their good intentions were warped by bad actors.

It’s a shame because Animal Farm does a lot right. The children’s book-style art is perfectly pitched (though it’s a bit disappointing that key events from the book are often described rather than depicted) and the character art is excellent. Abubakar Salim (Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins) also provides some of the best narration I’ve heard in ages, adding a subtle edge of menace to events.

Animal Farm isn’t a bad game - and I like the gumption of adapting classic literature into video game form - but right now it’s merely an interesting curio with a (probably unintentional) message that political revolution is bad.

6/10

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