Not Tonight: Take Back Control Edition

There’s a certain group of gamers who seem to get upset at the very idea of politics in gaming. Ghost Recon? Far Cry? Call of Duty? None of those series would ever dream of trying to make a political statement right? 😉

Well, the daft politically neutral stance studios have tried to assert as a reality in recent years goes completely out of the window with Panic Barn’s ‘Not Tonight’.

This indie bouncer-management sim has an unavoidable political message at its heart — one that’s uncomfortable, dark and altogether bleak.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, it’s all about Brexit. If you live in the UK (like me), you currently can’t get much more political than that. It’s the one topic that has dominated the headlines for the worse part of three and a half years now, resulting in very real division and polarisation. No matter which side of the argument you fall on it’s been an unusual and ugly period in British history. So what better a subject for a video game?

Things take place in an alternative universe where stuff seemingly got sorted out in record time — it’s set in 2018, where Brexit is already a done ‘deal’ (not through any agreement with the EU, but by crashing out). Of course, it’s worth noting that 2018 is when the game originally came out on PC, but I did find this now ‘dated’ timeline in the Switch port an amusing aside — thinking of it as something of a mockery of the UK’s drawn out reality. Here we are in 2020 - on the very cusp of finally leaving. For better or worse, this game got Brexit ‘done’ quicker than the government.

So, Brexit didn’t go well, and Not Tonight explores just how bad that could look. Things start off with you receiving news that the ruling far-right government has deemed you as a ‘person of European heritage’ and they want you out. The Windrush-style rejection comes despite you having lived in the UK all of your life. A strong nationalist theme runs throughout Not Tonight, making the whole affair isolating and as depressing as Lucas Pope’s puzzle sim — but all the more closer to home.

In order to stay, the government decree that you’ll need to earn your keep, all whilst being under constant surveillance. Earning enough cash to stay is done via being a bouncer. You’ll head out and work pubs, clubs and festivals, checking IDs every night.

It all starts off simple enough. Are they old enough? In they go. But soon you’ll be checking photos, expiry dates, holograms, nationality and more. This complexity is chucked at you fairly early in the game, and the pressure of getting it all right soon sets in. You need to get enough people through the boozer’s doors to earn your wages, but let a few bad punters in and you’ll get punished. It’s a tricky balancing act.

This balance only gets harder to maintain as the game progresses, and not just for gameplay reasons, as your own personal ideals are challenged. For example, in a somewhat predictable turn, your job ends up devolving into you having to reject pub patrons based on their nationality. It’s an uncomfortable wrinkle to Not Tonight, turning up the stress of your circumstances — are you compassionate to your fellow man, or stay strict enough to earn the cash you need? It’s similar to the moral dilemmas you came up against in Papers, Please, but with a downright Years and Years vibe.

Your story as a bouncer is how the game progresses, visiting different sites, always needing to achieve more. Take risks or play it safe. Mess up and you face deportation. It’s a brutal simulation, where the stakes are high — decide to course a new path for yourself or succumb to the new right-wing administration.

Beyond your time as a door man, you reside in a dingy flat, paying rent, meeting a cast of shady characters and buying new gear to help you on your troubled journey. The time spent in this flat is mainly a distraction, a saving screen if anything, and that’s fine. I found myself wanting to get out of the miserable bedsit and play for ‘just one more night’ on the Switch, trying to help my troubled protagonist.

The core gameplay has you scrambling to check a handful of different things quickly, with harsh punishments for messing up. It’s this bouncer ‘checklist gameplay’ that is the essence of Not Tonight — you’ll find the journey a gloomy yet compelling one if this style of play is appealing to you. It’s simple to grasp. Some may find it doesn’t offer quite enough though.

Overall, Not Tonight is a non-stop frantic, demanding and wholly anxious experience, but one that’s really well realised. The pixel recreation of the UK nightlife is accurate, with appropriate music, social commentary that’s cutting and a dark narrative that will hold your interest.

It will take around ten hours to get through the main campaign, and this ‘Take Back Control’ package also includes the One Love DLC. This add-on offers a slightly more optimistic outlook on things — you play on the continent, trying to find love in France. This bonus chapter adds an extra 3 to 4 hours of content. Consider it the yin to the yang of the main story. There’s plenty to get stuck into in this complete package.

If you found Papers, Please intriguing then Not Tonight will definitely scratch a similar itch. It plays great on Switch, and I found myself playing it portable for the majority of my time with it — chiefly as it’s really easy to dip in and out, complete a few nights work and call it a day. Just the right dose of misery.

It’s a grim take on the Brexit timeline, and one I hope is by no means a looming reality.