Orwell takes place in a fictional modern techno-state where the government has set up a secret mass surveillance program to monitor potentially dangerous citizens. The program, called "Orwell", bears resemblance to controversial real-world mass surveillance programs such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE. At the outset of the game, a terrorist attack of unknown origin causes panic in the state. The player takes on the role of a government employee collecting and organising data for Orwell in an effort to find the perpetrator/s of the attack.
The player can use a virtual browser to access the world wide web, the social media feeds of suspects, and eventually their instant messaging clients, audio chat software, and PCs. These elements take up the right side of the screen, while the left side is taken up by a GUI for the Orwell database. Within this GUI, the player can view the profiles of various persons of interest. Data from the internet which may be of interest is highlighted with a blue border and the player can drag it onto a profile to add it to the database. Relevant data includes employment history, contact information, relationships, recent activities of note, and other personal information. In many cases, the player's goal is to obtain the kind of incriminating evidence on an individual which will allow the authorities justification to arrest them. In the case that the player can find someone with significant links to a person of interest, a profile for them will also be added to the database.
At points, the player will find data that is highlighted in yellow rather than blue, indicating that this data conflicts with other available data on a person of interest. In these cases, the player must decide which data snippet is accurate, permanently adding it to the database and permanently discarding its conflicting partner. Through this mechanic, the player is in direct control of the government's opinion of individuals and understanding of the facts. Throughout the process, the player is guided by a senior employee in the Orwell program called "Symes" who frequently explains the relevance of data and gives the player a broad idea of how to act next. Symes remains formal and serious in manner and abhors the player adding trivial data to the system. The investigation itself plays out as a techno-thriller, involving a covert anti-authoritarian group and a hacker called "Initiate" who is aware of Orwell and trying to subvert it.