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Saturday, April 13, 2024

'Orwell's Animal Farm' Sticks a Bit Too Close to the Source Material

George Orwell’s Animal Farm: A Fairy Story is a well-loved parable set on a farm in England, where rebellious animals stand in as critique for the corruption and downfall of the Communist Revolution in Russia. It is also a story that has often been made to serve different meanings for different groups of people.

In 1946, Orwell received a letter (documented in the book George Orwell: A Life in Letters) from a colleague, Dwight Macdonald, who reported that anti-Stalinists in his circle “claimed that the parable of Animal Farm meant that revolution always ended badly for the underdog, ‘hence to hell with it and hail the status quo.’” In his response, Orwell made sure to clarify his thoughts, writing: “If people think I am defending the status quo, that is, I think, because they have grown pessimistic and assume that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism.” He emphasized that if there was one lesson behind his parable, it was “you can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.”

Imre Jele, cofounder of The Dairymen, the developers behind the video game Orwell’s Animal Farm, seems to share much of Orwell’s sentiments. In a letter sent out as part of the game’s press package, he reflects on his own upbringing in Communist Hungary: “George Orwell’s words spoke to me. Somehow I felt his fantastical tale of talking animals on Manor Farm reflected life under an authoritarian regime.” In light of his history, and in light of the contemporary world’s swing toward strongman, fascistic politics, Jele and the rest of his team felt the need to “bring Orwell’s study of inequity, control, and corrosive power to gamers.”

My own experience reading Animal Farm and playing its video game adaptation is, naturally, colored by my personal history with Orwell’s story. I was taught the book in an American grade school in the 1990s, by teachers who had experienced America’s side of the Cold War, and who, like Macdonald’s colleagues, largely saw Animal Farm as a work in support of capitalism, Western democracy, and the status quo. Meanwhile, my own radical parents raised me with a healthy fear of the capitalist forces that made US markets boom at the same time as budgets were being cut from nearly every social program, including the schools where I was receiving my pro-capitalist education.


Under these conditions it was difficult not to associate the book with the many institutions I despised (and which Orwell surely would have, as well): neoliberal, austerity-loving government, along with conservative teachers at underfunded public schools; one of whom rounded on me once during homeroom for not properly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, as was required in every public school classroom in America. She brought me outside and sternly asked if I wouldn’t prefer starving in breadlines in Communist Russia, somehow still stuck in a personal paranoia of a place that, by the time I was in school, no longer even existed.

These self-interested interpretations largely spoiled my ability to appreciate the wit and cleverness of Orwell’s cautionary tale, nor its admirably sharp political analysis. This, after all, is the weakness of all satire: It is made or unmade by the manner in which it is delivered and subsequently received. As successful as Orwell’s feat originally may have been, it also exists in a world and alongside an ever-shifting politics that is more than happy to twist and manipulate its narrative toward entirely different ends. Following Orwell’s death in 1950, as an example, Animal Farm and 1984 were adapted into films, both funded and significantly altered by the CIA.

Considering the curious malleability of a work with such a seemingly straightforward message, I went into the video game adaptation curious about how the additional interactivity inherent to the medium would influence or alter the meaning behind Orwell’s original words. I was interested in seeing whether a story that had been taught to me as a lesson in why a better world was simply not possible could, instead, offer something more open-ended, and less prescriptive, as was Orwell’s original intention.

It turns out that Orwell’s Animal Farm sticks pretty close to its source material. A pastoral tableau fills the screen for most of the game, fast-forwarding between pivotal moments from the story as spring turns to summer and summer turns to fall. Each step along the ladder toward authoritarianism is narrated by Abubakar Salim’s disconcertingly dulcet voice. Aside from where there are significant departures from the original story, the lines he reads aloud are, if not nearly verbatim, only subtly different from how they appear in the book. (Benefits, surely, of the game’s sign-off from the Orwell estate.)

And though there are a variety of paths to choose from in the game–versions of what the Animal Farm story might possibly have been–it hews close to Orwell’s script in the moments where it matters. When the pigs take the cow’s milk and the extra apples for themselves, the other animals may be allowed to complain and express their doubts, but the course of these events cannot be significantly changed, pivotal as they are to Orwell’s parable.

Elsewhere, there is far more freedom. It’s not easy to unseat Napoleon or prevent him from driving the softer, more socially liberal Snowball from the farm, but it is possible. You can choose to guide the farm toward an isolationist stance, letting the hedges grow wild, barricading the main gate in preparation for attack. Or you can invite the humans to trade their goods for milk and eggs from the farm. You can ignore the windmill entirely. You can protect certain animals from ever lifting a hoof to work and drive others into an early grave. The meat of the game lies in these decisions, in the shuffling around and rearranging of a nearly endless assortment of details and variances. Still, the game’s narrative pillars, its morale and its ultimate takeaway remain exactingly consistent. Even in runs with Napoleon gone and Snowball in power, things don’t feel much different. Snowball is no better as a leader, taking the same pigly privileges as the others and manipulating the dumber animals with empty promises. “Napoleon and Snowball never had any great interest in our wishes,” Benjamin the donkey quips at one point, putting a fine point on it.

There is an element to which these unchanging outcomes owe not just to the developer’s dedication to the source but to the game’s nature as a management simulation, that style of game made popular by classics like SimCity and Theme Park. The approach of games like these is to offer a simplified version of how a society might function, with the goal, usually, of making that society as prosperous and successful as possible. A central assumption of nearly every management sim is that all decisions are made by a singular and primary authority: the player.

The management sim nature of Orwell’s Animal Farm means that as sympathetic as I might feel for the plight of the farm’s overworked and exploited animals, as much as I cherish the words of their proud anthem “Beasts of England,” as much as I admire Boxer’s noble sense of dedication and self-sacrifice, I cannot honestly situate myself among their ranks.

Playing Animal Farm means playing as one of the pigs. At the end of each year in the game, it isn’t in the barn or the stables, but the inside of the house that belonged to Jones, the farm’s previous human owner, where the decisions for the following year are made, and it is the pigs you direct in making them. It’s Jones’ supply of beer, his books, and his soft beds that all sit there, tempting you to partake. The internecine ideological squabbles between Snowball and Napoleon cease to matter, since you are playing through them, not as them, they are interchangeable end-game achievements, tiny trophies snatched from an inevitable defeat.

One management sim that Animal Farm closely resembles is Frostpunk, developed fittingly enough by 11 Bit Studios in Poland, an ex-Soviet-bloc nation. In Frostpunk, you are tasked with building a small village on a frozen arctic tundra in a globally cooled apocalyptic future. Like Animal Farm, it focuses on the desperate and dehumanizing work of keeping your society running in spite of oppressive scarcity, largely through authoritarian means.

No matter how pure or honest your intentions might be in Frostpunk, you must make sacrifice after sacrifice: the rights of your laborers, the safety of your citizens, and their ability to practice their religion freely are all kindling to be tossed into the town’s towering furnace in order to keep it burning just one day longer. Frostpunk’s gameplay, like Animal Farm’s, inherently prevents lofty idealism from taking root in the face of an endless and near-overwhelming series of difficult and morally compromised decisions. In both games, though your intent may be to create a protective haven for a vulnerable population, your priorities invariably shift away from the people and the animals you lead to the society as a unit. Individual beings become statistical entries: mouths to feed or bodies to otherwise sacrifice.

The functional lesson here is clear enough in both games. But Animal Farm, loyal as it is to Orwell’s intentions, concerned as it is with making his meaning unmistakable, doesn’t appear satisfied with letting the results speak for themselves. Everywhere, the player’s actions in the interactive space of the game are restrained by the original plot points of the source text. In my playthroughs, I couldn’t share the milk or stop Napoleon from raising a brood of puppies to become his personal guard, nor could I ultimately keep Boxer from the knackers, no matter how delicately I treated him.

In some ways, the added interactivity that existed elsewhere made these moments feel all the more constraining. In Frostpunk, you take the children out of school and send them to work in the coal mills only because any other decision at that particular moment feels impossible. In Animal Farm, the pigs always take more than their share, always get drunk, always change the laws and trample over the other animals, making it impossible to forget that you are playing a very specific parable with one largely inescapable meaning: that “there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.” Missing, though, is the first part of Orwell’s thinking, asking us to make the revolution for ourselves.

There’s no doubt that the message behind Animal Farm is an important one. The book represents Orwell’s very real frustration with “the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement,” as he expresses in his forward to the Ukrainian translation of the book. Animal Farm wades in the pain and anger of Orwell’s lifelong frustrations: He was, after all, a man who sacrificed much, risking his own life to help make things better only to be betrayed by the agents of a selfish and opportunistic political movement, as happened when, in the midst of Spain’s civil war, he and his wife were driven out of the country by Soviet loyalists. It’s only natural that developers like Jele, who lived for a time under Soviet rule, would be just as interested in exploring this pain and frustration. But something in the stiffness of the adaptation, its high regard for its source, makes for a noticeably less powerful impact. It doesn’t appear that The Dairymen fully trust the medium and its chaotic interactivity to properly convey all aspects of what the book was able to accomplish. In not allowing the player to come to their own conclusions about power, about sacrifice and accountability, it feels a little too much like the teachers who first taught me the book in their paranoid and close-minded spirit.

Orwell’s story is powerful enough that it doesn’t need to be employed as a cudgel, doesn’t need to be hewn from unchanging stone. In adhering to it to this degree, the game seems to close itself off from the future, making it hard to see a way outside of Orwell’s dreaded “status-quo.” Today, fascism and authoritarianism are no less threatening, but the status quo will not save us; reliving tragedy and rehashing the methods of authoritarian evil is just one part of the equation, making our own revolution will need to be the other.

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