A 21st Century Story About Oppression
Not Tonight
Developer: PanicBarn
Publisher: No More Robots
Platform: PC
MSRP: $20
Release Date: August 17, 2018
Copy Obtained Through Developer

Rarely do games ever heft the full weight of the world upon a player. Their primary function is almost always escapism; we get to leave our reality and for a while, are immersed in a different one. Not Tonight is different in that regard. It pulls your eyes towards the ugliness of the real world by creating one that feels eerily familiar, one that isn’t so far off from our reality so that it becomes imaginable. It weaves a story of modern day oppression fueled by right-wing extremism, nationalism and xenophobia that is too relevant to ignore.

The story of Not Tonight begins before you’ve even started the game, and requires a little history. This game is based on the real world events surrounding Brexit, the name given to the referendum to remove Britain from the European Union. Where Not Tonight diverges from our reality is post-Brexit; While the referendum hasn’t fully passed yet for us, here it passes in its entirety. Britain completely leaves the E.U, and with it, all trade agreements with Europe are scrapped, immigration laws are up in the air and the government  had to reform. In this mess, a group named Albion First, an extreme far-right movement that touts xenophobia and nationalism, is founded. They quickly gain popularity in Britain; suddenly, there are calls within government to remove Europeans, or “Euros,” from the British mainland.

Fighting To Stay In A Country That Hates You

That’s where your character comes in. They’re an unnamed former Brit, who was a citizen until a law was passed by the Albion First party that required proof of citizenship going two generations back. The law uprooted families that had been living in the country for years, and in your character’s case, the place where you were born just doesn’t want you around any more.

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Many of the backstories read as tragically as this one.

It's time to fight against the government to stay in your home country. Of course I don’t mean fighting in terms of open rebellion (although that is in option later on), but instead you contend your citizenship by trying to prove that you’re a good citizen and financially keeping your head above water.

What’s quickly made clear however is that that intention doesn’t matter. Case in point is Officer Jupp, the immigration official who oversees your case. He abhors Europeans: he's quick to call you a “Euro”, and he’ll stop you from telling him you were born in Birmingham. In your first meeting with him, Jupp tells you that you owe the government 2500 pounds to stay in the country, just for the rest of the year.

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Jupp is Albion First's direct line to stomp out your freedoms

Living In Limbo

The next sections of this review discuss gameplay, but also begin to give spoilers about the direction of the plot. If you want nothing spoiled, please skip to the end section Purpose In Everything.

The real gameplay of Not Tonight begins as you work as a bouncer, trying to scrounge up enough cash to pay your various bills. You do everything a typical bouncer would do, check for underage clubbers, fakes and eventually for contraband being snuck into the club.

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Being a bouncer starts simple at first, but quickly becomes challenging to manage.

Of course, the pay isn’t that great starting out, but that changes the further you get into the game as you work at better bars or pricy clubs. But with more money, comes harder jobs. You’ll get gigs working at music festivals or private parties where tickets need to be checked, or sometimes VIP’s swing by with a secret password you have to remember. Thankfully, the better you do your job, the more you get paid, and bouncing isn’t your only form of making some extra cash. You can also buy drugs on your phone to sell to customers you spot on line, a good way to make some extra cash on the side but comes with the repercussions of taking points off of your social credit score, which determines how upstanding of a citizen you are. If this is reminding you of Papers, Please, it should: it's meant to build on that premise, updated for modern day events.

Don’t expect to feel that money make any change though, as it’s all quickly taken away by new costs heaped onto you by either the game or the government. When your health is taken into account and you have to buy new appliances for your apartment, it makes sense. But when you’re taxed more for utilities for being a person of European descent, it strikes a different chord. Once again, it’s a sign that the government doesn’t want you around.

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There is a LOT going on the screen sometimes - perhaps too much.

Compounding on this feeling is the job that you have to do. It’s not your character’s choice to be a bouncer, it’s the position they’ve been forced into. They need to pay bills to stay in the country, and the only way they can do such is through the government assigned job. Throughout the game, you character will muse on their life being in a limbo, because it is. They hate their job, but can’t quit because the administration is looking for a reason to throw them out.

As a player, I even keyed into this limbo. The bouncer work that you do isn’t fun by traditional standards. It’s a slow, clunky repetitive process of looking for information on I.D cards, clicking your clicker to let people into a venue, going through a guestlist and sometimes balancing two different queues. This system even finds ways to be simply frustrating, mainly due to apathetic RNG. When you’re working a job, you need to let a certain number of people in to pass, which seems easy enough to start with. Sometimes, you’ll find the queues flooded with people you can’t let in, and you’ll end up turning away more people than you should.

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The conversations without derogatory terms can be counted on a single hand.

Of course, it doesn’t help that most of your employers will heap more hate onto you for being a Euro. Not Tonight is trying to put you in a position you can't win, and that's the point.

A Cog In The Machine

Thankfully, you won’t be alone while going through Not Tonight. You’ll run into colorful characters that interact with you: sometimes, they ask for items to help with their own struggles, and some characters have their own agendas of revolutionary change.

They’re part of the unfolding story of the game that’s told mostly through news blurbs you get on your phone or from newspapers that show on the screen at the end of each chapter. As you progress, the stories of these characters advance as well, and you only have one chance each run to interact with them. Some of these characters have a minor impact on your story, while others can change your run entirely, such as the various resistance members that contact you for assistance. Funnily enough, it’s their side stories that the player causes the most direct change in for a majority of the game. Until the very end, I had the constant feeling of being another cog in the government’s machine of oppression.

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Moments where you determine the course of someone else's life had an immense effect on me as I played.

While being oppressed and hated, you have to treat others the same in order to survive. You’ll have to turn away people just for their nationality, or their “social credit score.” However, where this truly sets in is during jobs Jupp forces you to do under threat of deportation. You’ll do work for the Albion First party, carding civilians at processing centers or turning away people from ballot boxes because they’re journalists or part of the Euro axis of evil, Italians, Irish or French. At jobs like these, there’s no club music pounding, or anything really nice to look at. It’s silent, morose, and foreboding. You know you are doing something wrong. It’s this dreadful feeling, realizing that while you are trying to make your character’s life anything but a living hell, you must enforce that feeling on other people, acting that way because you simply have no other option.

Purpose In Everything

It may sound as though I am being down on Not Tonight, mentioning its repetitiveness and some of the busy screens. Despite all of that, there isn’t a single thing that I would change about the game. I wouldn’t change the bureaucratic bouncer jobs or the burdensome health mechanics, or the outright feeling of despair that everything in this game seems to exist to exert upon you. All of these different facets and mechanics serve their purpose in making you feel like someone that is systematically oppressed, and that is what is trying to be expressed above everything else. Not Tonight tells a depressing story, and that depression is the point, the mood suffusing all other aspects of the game.

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Hatred of Europeans is present at every level of society.

Your character is totally nameless, given only the designation “#112” for the entirety of the game. Your identity as a Brit is stolen from you by nationalists that don’t see you as one of them; hell, even the resistance movement calls you expendable. Meanwhile, there’s nothing you can do but try to prove yourself as otherwise, because those calls fall on deaf ears. In the end, the game makes you feel how a member of any persecuted group feels: dehumanized.

Not Tonight is a true master of storytelling, as it doesn’t depend on characters to get you invested in the story, or make you some hero tasked with something of utmost importance, instead it hinges all of its bets on the empathy of the player. This game didn’t click with me until I took some time to imagine the spot my character was in, the kind of life he was living and how utterly dreadful it was. Then I realized that this world isn’t so strange to imagine.

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I mean who would want to live in a world where dubstep has a revival?

This created world isn’t a far cry from ours; it is something just out of arm’s reach, something that easily can play out in the imagination. The message of Not Tonight is uncomfortable because it is meant to be cautionary. If it is a look at what could be, or a game one that seeks to make us sympathetic with those subjugated by governments, it succeeds, and does a damn good job doing so.

So if you’re someone that adores a good story, get Not Tonight. If you’re someone that’s never experienced oppression, like myself, get Not Tonight. It will never be the same experiencing systemic hate in the real world, but is one of the best teachers of what such a thing could feel like.