“Regret Is Such A Short Word… And Yet It Stretches On Forever.”
Some developers avoid politics in their games at all costs for fear of offence. Others say their games aren’t political when they clearly are (hi there, Ubisoft). Not PanicBarn, makers of Not Tonight. This is a political game. It’s so political. I have to give full credit to PanicBarn for that alone – it’s a rare thing to play a game that knows what it wants to say and isn’t afraid to say it.
It’s said that this is a game about Brexit, and it is. But it’s about more than that. It’s about a decade of Tory government. It’s about the government’s hostile environment policy for immigrants. It’s about the gig economy and the feeling of helplessness that comes from living one day to the next constantly fighting a losing battle against bills. It’s about the sell-off of the NHS, the ridiculousness of the Royal family, and the decline of Britain’s High Streets. If you share the developer’s politics then you should probably play this game, irrespective of the rest of this review, as you’ll probably never play another game quite like it. Although while it’s commendable that such topics have been tackled, I did unfortunately find myself wishing PanicBarn could have done so with a bit more finesse. There’s no subtly here whatsoever.
The game is set post-Brexit, and an extreme hard-right nationalist government (Farage, basically) has taken control of Britain and is generally causing a quick descent into chaos. You choose your own back-story from a range of options, all of which involve you having a European ancestor, which means you no longer qualify as British. You’ve been re-housed to some slum apartment and face deportation. The only thing you can do to hold this off is to take your temporary work visa and make yourself useful by working as a bouncer. If you’re thinking that doesn’t make much sense you’d be right, but it doesn’t really matter.
There is a good cast of neighbours, corrupt officials, and landlords that are all fun to speak to and wonderfully horrible. The writing is all very witty, in particular I enjoyed the abuse your ‘Billr’ app gives you as it sends you increasingly unreasonable bills to pay.
The game itself sees you taking jobs in a variety of venues; checking IDs and admitting entry to a queue of people. The game starts simply enough – all you need to do is check someone’s over 18 and that their ID isn’t out of date. Very soon though the mental agility required starts to pile up. You’re checking names against a guestlist, reviewing visas, tickets, fake IDs, scanning people for hidden weapons, fending off bribes, and selling drugs to bring in some extra cash. Each night only allows for a small handful of mistakes too before you are fined and then ultimately fail, having the venue close early as punishment for your ineptitude.
That all sounds overwhelming, but the game does a great job at training you. You get plenty of practice over the game’s 100 or so nights you’ll be working the door. Once the gameplay loop clicks it is seriously satisfying when you find yourself in the zone, juggling complex tasks. Like the best puzzle games, you can reach a Zen-like state where you don’t have to consciously think about your actions, you just do them.
The graphics are lovely, with fantastic pixel art backdrops that are full of character. The scenes really capture Britain at is grimmest. There’s a seaside hut with a sign offering a Full English and a pint for £2. The High Street scenes are all bookies, vape shops and takeaways. It’s all grey and rainy, but yet bathed in colourful neon streetlight.
The game sounds brilliant too and I’d strongly recommend you play with headphones in if possible. The music that play in each venue is tailored to the night your working at. Indie, chill, house, funk, pop; each track is a great example of its genre and I’d happily listen to this game’s soundtrack. It employs a neat trick where the sound is the muffled music you hear when you’re stuck outside a venue waiting in the rain – as the doors open to let someone in it blasts out crystal clear and you hear what you’re missing.
One big issue that holds the game back on Switch are the controls. You can tell this was originally designed as a point and click game on PC. Navigating the various parts of the lower screen menus is done via the d-pad (such that Switch has one) and never feels natural. Taking things out of your inventory and passing them to someone always felt totally random.
More unforgivably, the A-button is used to admit entry and also to move text along when someone is talking to you. The quotas of people to allow in is usually set high, so you need to work as fast as possible. Frequently you will try to turn people away only for them to enter in some dialogue trying to convince you otherwise. You want to just skip through this as quickly as possible to get to the next person in line, but one too many hits of the A button after they’ve finished speaking lets them in after all against your intention. Why would they put these commands on the same button?! There’s loads of buttons that aren’t used at all! It’s maddening.
My other big problem with this game is unfortunately a significant one. Without spoiling anything, at various points you can collect items from venues, which can later be put to good use. The game does a terrible job at explaining what’s needed and also when it needs to be obtained by. At one point I missed my chance to obtain what’s needed and in doing so failed the game; it’s literally not possible to progress later on in the game without certain items. Unforgivably though, the game lets you play on for hours, completely wasting your time before it delivers the bad news. You then have to re-load an earlier auto-save to replay things differently. I’m happy to lose when I don’t hit a quota, or let in too many of the wrong people as these mistakes are my fault, I know I can do better. But to be caught out so unfairly leaves a bitter taste.
Why would a game have so little respect for your time? It wouldn’t have been hard to programme in a message telling you to replay the section right away. Or allow you some other means to progress. You’ve read this now, so my advice would be to read up online beforehand to see what you need to do to. There’s a few other instances too where the game doesn’t explain things very well and by the time you realise it’s too late to avoid other premature endings.
The game takes around 12 hours to finish (or longer if you have to repeat huge sections), and it’s followed by an amusing ‘One Love’ DLC pack that targets Tinder and sees you take control of one of the main game’s supporting characters in their search for love overseas. This introduces some new mechanics and nice locations, but it’s basically more of the same work as a bouncer to play through.
Not Tonight’s willingness to tackle weighty topics (however cack-handedly), a hugely satisfying core gameplay loop and gorgeous art and sound design all stand strongly in its favour. However, horrible controls and some disastrous design decisions really did undermine this for me and leave me fed up with playing it. Hopefully the developers can patch the controls. And while the game’s structure is locked in perhaps you can follow its intentions or simply equip yourself in advance better than I managed and avoid a cruel failure. In which case, you’ll likely come away with a much stronger view on it. Right now though, I would struggle to recommend it as much as I wish I could.
I find this game so frustrating for undermining itself in the way that it does. But then again, given it’s a game about Brexit, I suppose that it is ultimately quite appropriate.