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Animal Farm developer: "I wish more games made a statement"

Imre Jele on why a team of highly experienced creators are revisiting Orwell's 1940s classic

In the preface to Animal Farm (which remained unpublished for almost 30 years) George Orwell chastised the publishing community for its initial rejection of his work.

The story of a group of animals that rise up to take control of a farm from oppressive humans, only to become as bad (or even worse) than the enemy they replaced, was a direct attack on Stalin and Russia - who were a vital ally to Britain at the time.

Publisher after publisher was afraid to touch it before it finally found a home, almost two years after it was conceived. Orwell wrote in reaction that "intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face".

The rebellion against such cowardice is what has inspired a small team of highly experienced developers to turn Animal Farm into a video game.

"The famous poem by Martin Niemöller, 'First they came...' speaks about the cowardice of not speaking up against oppressive regimes, starting with the words, 'First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Socialist'," begins game designer Imre Jele, who is best known as the co-founder and creator of Bossa Studios.

"We simply don't want to wait with speaking up until it's too late, until as Niemöller put it, 'Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.' Our team consists of people who feel the need to speak up - in our humble way - by creating a game."

The team creating the Animal Farm game is full of familiar names. There's experienced industry head Andy Payne, cinematic and performance director Kate Saxon, former Lionhead creator Georg Baker and BAFTA-winning game composer Jessica Curry.

The Team: Imre Jele, Kate Saxon, Jessica Curry, Georg Backer and Andy Payne

It's an unusual story to try and adapt into video game form. Aside from the Battle of the Cowshed and the Battle of the Windmill, it's not a tale known for its action. In fact, it's largely about a group of animals hauling rocks and ploughing fields, while the pigs give manipulative speeches.

"Animal Farm will be a narrative-lead management game," Jele responds. "This adventure-tycoon will place the player in the Manor Farm as one of the animals just before the revolution, and will follow their journey through the ups and downs of the farm. The gameplay will combine story choices and decisions about how to run the farm into a consistent narrative. Our story and play mechanics will be about our deeply rooted, collective desires for liberty, equality and fraternity that are overshadowed by the absolute corruptive effect of power over individuals.

"I believe the setting, characters and their conflicts are a perfect fit for a game. However, translating Orwell's original story into an interactive form is challenging simply because of the huge responsibility it presents. We're not just building a cute indie game; we were trusted to adapt one of the most important literary works of human history."

It's ambitious, it's even exciting, but why exactly are these five industry heads taking this on?

"In our humble view, creating this game is also a social and cultural responsibility

"Because we can't not do it," Jele insists.

"Game makers build games for all sorts of reasons, [whether they] be artistic, commercial or other. But in the case of Animal Farm, in our humble view, creating this game is also a social and cultural responsibility.

"Over the last decade we've started to see some governments use language eerily similar to oppressive regimes of the past. I can't help feeling personally challenged to create a game adaptation of Animal Farm, as I myself grew up under a communist regime. It's everyone's responsibility to speak up against the tide of oppression and we hope to do our small part by creating this game."

He continues: "The slow corruption of high ideals of society and governance, the increasing divide between the haves and have-nots, oppression created not only by the oppressors but by the naïveté of the oppressed, and the abuse of language and information. These are not only themes of Animal Farm, but increasingly, elements of our everyday politics."

Jele's personal connection with the text comes, in part, from his life in communist Hungary. What will be interesting to see is whether the Animal Farm game truly reflects Orwell's views, or that of the development team.

Jele ponders: "We are dedicated to being completely faithful to Animal Farm and Orwell's body of work. At the same time our interpretation of Orwell's original book is already a reflection of ourselves, too, so we can't possibly say we can separate our idiosyncrasies from the game we create. Equally, we also have a responsibility to our audience. We need to create something they can relate to, something which represents what is important to them. Ultimately though, if in doubt, we always ask ourselves: What would Orwell do?"

He adds: "We want to be faithful to Animal Farm and Orwell's work in general. In 'Why I Write', an essay about his personal journey to become a writer, he stated that in Animal Farm he wanted to 'fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole'. Our game couldn't and shouldn't avoid that same goal. It's our job to make a statement and I wish more games did so. As a form of art we can't avoid that responsibility any longer, and even though we have some stellar interactive works exploring tough topics, I hope to see more."

Jele describes Animal Farm as "a story about the absolute corruptive effect of power, a cautionary tale about how selfishness makes some believe they are more equal than others, a great literary criticism of people who think their ignorance is as important as the knowledge of others." Indeed, despite the obvious Soviet criticism, there is a far broader message that has proven timeless.

Animal Farm's relevance is undimmed even after 70 years. It's not a novel that needs updating or adapting, but Jele believes the interactive medium can bring added weight to what is already a powerful story.

"It's our job to make a statement and I wish more games did so"

"A good book can make you feel sympathy: compassion, sorrow, or pity for its characters, whilst a great book invokes empathy, enabling you to put yourself in the shoes of those characters," Jele analyses. "But none of that compares to a great interactive experience which takes you beyond sympathy or empathy, and allows you as a player to identity as one of the characters, to be part of those stories - not only observing but forming the events unfolding. This is a unique and powerful capability of interactive narrative.

"In the case of Animal Farm, it's particularly important for the readers and players to be able to identify with both oppressors and the oppressed. This personal journey through fiction can hopefully allow our audience to better understand the motives of the powerful and their own place in an increasingly divided society bearing hallmarks of totalitarian regimes."

Jele keeps coming back to this "social and cultural responsibility" to create the Animal Farm game. It's a unique motivation, although its success may prove hard to quantify.

"I often say that my goal as a game creator is to make a game which some people will fondly remember and reminisce about in a decade's time, the same way I talk about the games I loved to play in the nineties for example," Jele answers. "Our definition of success for Animal Farm is more immediate. We hope it can make our players better understand the trends of our evolving society and engage them to take an active part in steering our future towards liberty, equality and fraternity, rather than oppression by a powerful few."

In their press quotes, Curry says that Animal Farm was "one of the first books that politicised me and that made me want to change the world", while Payne says: "I have wanted to make Animal Farm into a game for about 20 years. With the current global political situation aping Manor Farm on steroids, it is now or never".

It's clear the aims for this new team are not to make a lot of money, or even win a lot of awards, but to intellectually and politically challenge those who play it. It's a concept that hearkens back to Orwell's original unpublished preface: "If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear".

Of course, we live in a time where we are often told what we don't want to hear - whether that's from the right-wing press, or the left-wing press, or on Twitter, or out of the mouths of our elected leaders. We don't inhabit the same world of intellectual cowardice that kept Animal Farm from the book shops in 1943. However, we do find ourselves fighting to be heard and believed, above all the lies and manipulations that we're faced with almost every day.

In that sense, Animal Farm has perhaps - incredibly - become more relevant as time has moved on.

"Many of us wanted to adapt Animal Farm for years, even decades and we believe it's the right time to create this game," Jele concludes. "It's the right time for us as creators as we are mature enough to take on the responsibility, it's the right time for the audience as gamers who are keen to experience more sophisticated themes and subject matters, and it's the right time for society as we're heading into an era uncomfortably similar to the universe described by George Orwell."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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