You know, at nearly 30 years old, I never thought I’d find myself writing about Animal Farm again.
George Orwell’s classic 1945 novel Animal Farm has been a staple of the British school curriculum for years. There exists, somewhere, multiple school essays of mine detailing how Orwell created a biting critique against fascism and Stalinist Russia amidst, in my dumb child brain’s perspective, a fun story about some pigs.
As a supposed adult, I never imagined I’d be revisiting Orwell’s novel. But then as a naive child I never expected that the dangers of fascism would become a very current reality.
And while my school essays are undoubtedly fascinating reads, worthy of the lofty editorial heights of MCV/DEVELOP, I thankfully have something a little more on-brand to talk about this month.
Inspired by our unfortunate reality, and to mark the 75th anniversary of the original novel’s release, a small collective of indie developers have worked with the Orwell estate to create an Animal Farm video game.
I may have been naive when it comes to the dangers of authoritarian regimes. But project founder Imre Jele, who grew up in Hungary, has a more direct perspective, something that has informed the game’s development.
“I grew up in a communist country,” Jele begins, “so Animal Farm was very important to me. I lived most of my life through what we described as a ‘soft regime.’ But my family was still affected, you know, an uncle who disappeared overnight, never to be seen again – that sort of shit.
“But I was the last generation who was still clapping for the big leader. I was just at the end of the old regime but still affected by it, and it was very important to understand what was happening in our country.”
It’s this personal history, and a lifelong love of Orwell (Jele describes his three favourite childhood novels as an eclectic mix of Winnie the Pooh, The Little Prince and Animal Farm) that drove him to the project.
“There were a couple of projects, which were dream projects I wanted to do, and Animal Farm was one of them. A few years ago, I did a big cleansing exercise, which I think took a month or two. Every time I’d remember an idea, I would write it on a piece of paper. And then I categorised them into ‘this must happen’ to ‘I really want it to happen,’ and ‘it’s not that important’. And then, I took the second two groups and set them on fire.
“It was a very spiritual exercise for me to clean up my head, because it felt like it was clogging up my mind – I’m not clever enough to keep that many ideas in my head, so I needed to clear that out. And Animal Farm was on that very, very short list of things which I felt like I really must do.”
The game is not just inspired by the past, of course, but unfortunately draws inspiration from our current global political climate, and a warning of what could be still to come.
“I think these things lurk up on you,” Jele notes. “People think that oppression like dictatorships and extremism happens overnight, but it doesn’t. It builds up, there are natural processes which lead to that, and then people ride the wave of that and in the process, encourage those things to happen – it’s like a feedback loop.
“I think that the people who were keeping an eye on current politics, probably have been seeing this happen for a while now. I would say it’s definitely been since 9/11, that there’s a very clear trend. And what I’ve noticed, watching politicians and figureheads and journalists, is that I started to recognise language. When I first noticed it just made me feel uncomfortable, and I didn’t quite know why.
“And then and then there was a moment like, ‘oh my God, I’ve heard this before. I’ve heard this exact sentence!’ Except replace that word with ‘capitalist spies,’ and replace that word with whatever minority or group of society you want to attack. I was like, I’ve heard that sometimes myself in a communist regime. And I’ve seen them in in the history books for Nazi Germany and other oppressions and I was like, this is a slippery slope, what is happening?
“I would say that today, the language used is like Khrushchevian Russia, like the Soviet Union. It’s not quite Stalin yet, but very close. Five years ago, ten years ago, I said, Oh, you know, it’s almost Khrushchevian. Now, it’s way beyond that and getting into Stalinian language. The way things are set up and the way governments behave, even in Western democracies is quite creepy.
“So it felt that there is more to this than a literary adaptation. It was more than just the fact that the book is really important to me, and I think we can make a great game out of it. I felt that there is a responsibility to bring that to life and bring it in front of people. How wonderful would it be if this game – even just hearing about it – would make someone read Animal Farm or 1984, if it would make someone be more conscious and aware of the language used by the ruling caste and the trends of history… I mean, these are the big dreams.
“But the fact is that Animal Farm has done that for 75 years. So our job is to just to try to be as faithful as we can to Orwell’s work and put it in front of people. And I don’t have to make political commentary – Orwell already did. I just have to put the book in front of people and allow them to reflect on what they learned from it. So it definitely feels like this is the right time to bring this game out.”
The game, which is scheduled to release this year, puts the player in the shoes of the novel’s narrator. Perhaps best described as an adventure game, the player can choose which character they want to listen to, while maintaining the farm’s systems, maintaining its food and defence levels.
KEEPING THE FAITH
Given Jele’s passion for the original work, it makes sense that he was determined to stay as faithful to Orwell as is possible to be when adapting it for a video game, only adding aspects to the narrative that would have made sense in the context of the original novel.
“We have a really fantastic team, and everyone on the team agrees that our job is not to reinvent Animal Farm. I always say the same thing – we don’t want Animal Farm: in Space!”
Speak for yourself Imre, but do go on.
“Well, our goal was not that. Our goal was, look, Orwell figured it out. We use the word ‘Orwellian’ for a reason, right? Like, this guy figured it out, so let’s be faithful to that. And I’m not saying that adaptations can’t take creative liberties – of course they can. That’s fine, but we wanted to get it as close as we can.”
Of course, staying faithful to the original is easier said than done. Animal Farm is one of the most widely-read novels out there. How do you encapsulate what a specific novel is, when it has meant so many different things to so many different people over generations?
“So then we come to that process of adaptation, especially with such an emotionally charged book, in such a politically charged environment. It’s very difficult not to adapt, right?
“When you read the book and imagine it in your head, you’ve already adapted it. The book in your head looks different than the one in my head. Anyone who says that their personal idea of the novel is not in their own creation is either dumb or a liar. Of course it is, but what you can do as a professional is to always go back to your pillars and ask: ‘Is this what Animal Farm is about, or am I taking liberties here? Are those liberties acceptable? What would Orwell do?’
“I think our process works and I’m quite proud of it because we’ve tried to stick to the book and extend in a way that we felt Orwell would have done. Let me give you an example. In the book, it is mentioned explicitly that the ruling pigs use birds as spies to spy on neighbouring farms. But what the book does not cover, but one can assume, is that of course, they would also use the birds to spy on their own animals.
“And then suddenly that’s something which makes sense in that universe, and is very current. It’s relevant to our life today because of mass surveillance, and it makes sense. And it’s present in 1984, with the ever watching television screen, so we know Orwell would have agreed.
“So with that thought process, we could find a couple of instances of taking an idea which was in the book, and taking a couple of steps forward and find an interpretation of how they look in 2020. But again, there’s a very strict process to not add anything that we can avoid adding. And again, we have a great team, with everyone looking over each other’s shoulder to ensure that we don’t run away with our own biases and perspectives. Because ultimately, I don’t want people to debate my opinion. I want people to debate Orwell’s opinion.”
Jele is just as keen to enthuse about Orwell as he is about the team that has assembled around this project. The indie collective working on the game consists of The Dairymen (Just Flight and AppyNation founder Andy Payne, alongside Jele) and Reigns developer Nerial. Additionally, the game features the writing talent of renown interactive fiction writer Emily Short, alongside Abubakar Salim (of Assassin’s Creed: Origins fame, also see page 44) stepping in as the voice of the narrator.
He seems openly ecstatic to be working with this team, who he credits as his creative inspirations long before Animal Farm went into development.
“I was talking to Andy [before development], and I was explaining some of my references. There are games like Papers, Please, which you know, who wouldn’t be inspired by that? And it fits for the theme. But another was Reigns, by Nerial.
“I remember when it came out,” says Jele, “I sent François [Alliot, managing director at Nerial] an email to congratulate him. I didn’t even know François back then. Reigns is one of those games that makes you
angry, because why didn’t you think of it?
“And then all these years later, I was like, well, why don’t I talk to him? So I reached out and they were just pumped about getting on board. We’re very excited because they bring in that understanding of combining narrative with this live level of Tycoony interaction.
“And then for the longest time, we’ve worked with some very talented writers, who have contributed and helped in finding the right language. And ultimately, I’m a big fan of interactive fiction in general, and Emily Short – she’s gonna hate me for saying this – is like the queen of interactive fiction. She’s just amazing. If you search for best interactive fiction ever, like from the top ten, four of them are going to be hers. She’s amazing. I really love her work. And so I went asking her to advise someone to write for us, and she replied ‘well, how about me?’ So I was really excited for her coming
“We also have Kate Saxon, who has been the voice director and performance director of countless successful video games. We have Abubakar Salim, who played Bayek in Assassin’s Creed. Like, all of these people we approached were like ‘yeah, we’d love to. When?’ We were able to build this team who are effectively independent indies from various sources, various companies and coming together specifically for this game. Yeah, I’m very excited.
“Nerial and Emily in particular, they make a huge difference. This game would not be this good without them. It doesn’t matter how many decades I’ve been thinking about it. They just took it to a whole new level, which I’m so grateful for. You know, they really saved me from myself.
“It’s extremely humbling and terrifying to live up to a 75 year legacy, and a name which is part of everyday discourse. But the team really wants to live up to expectations, and it seems that the audience is keen to hear and keen to experience Animal Farm on a new platform.”