How Not Tonight became the world's first Brexit video game
PUBLISHED: 11:00 04 October 2018
With its dystopian visions and 16-bit images of Somerset pubs clad in UKIP posters, Not Tonight is no Sonic the Hedgehog
It had to happen. Edinburgh this year was awash with Brexit-themed plays and stand-up comedy. James Graham’s TV drama on the referendum airs early next year.
Even Arron Banks’ simultaneously bombastic and boring book, Bad Boys of Brexit, has been reportedly optioned for a film.
So it’s unsurprisingly that, in Not Tonight, by the London-based developers Panic Barn, Brexit has its first video game.
The game takes place in an alternative post-Brexit dystopia in which the xenophobic Britain Alone party have been swept into power. New rules deny people who can’t prove two generations of British citizenship their residency and force them to take temporary gig economy jobs to make ends meet.
The player controls the character of ‘Person of European Heritage #112’, forced to work as a nightclub bouncer and whose main task is checking the ID documents of the nightclub visitors in this 16-bit-rendered world.
In the course of the game, you can furnish your home and expand your equipment, as well as becoming a customs officer on the newly-built London Wall, which prevents immigrants from entering the country. As I say, dystopian.
“The game itself is just meant to be a dark, satirical take on what the country could look like right now if the very worst imaginable, impossible Brexit had happened,” the game’s publicist, Mike Rose, tells The New European.
“A big part of doing that was to just take it too far, to grab people’s attention but also then to use that platform to try and, you know, make some points about some of the stuff that is going on throughout the game.
“The game actually originally, when it was being prototyped a couple of years ago was going to be just a straight ‘you’re a bouncer working in the pubs and clubs of the UK’ and then, early on in the development, the game… I think what was happening in our country was beginning to worry us all a little bit. So that’s what kind of spurred that narrative on for the game.
“I guess we felt like no-one else was really using video games as a platform to make any points about what was going on with Brexit.”
The British video games industry, says Mike, is almost united in opposing Brexit. And it’s a big industry, with the days of bedroom coders long gone. Ukie, the body which represents it, says there are 2,261 active games companies in the UK, directly employing 12,100 full-time employees and contributing £755m a year to the economy. It has warned of the importance of staying open to talent and data flows post-Brexit.
“The video game industry as a whole is very much not in favour of Brexit,” says Mike.
“For a lot of the massive, what we call the AAA studios in the UK, people like Playground who just put out the new Forza this week, Rockstar, making GTA [Grand Theft Auto], and all them, this is, I would imagine, going to have massive implications for those studios.
“I think something like 85% of people in the industry voted to Remain because leaving the EU is just not in the best interest of our industry at all.”
Not everyone is delighted by Not Tonight and its images of Somerset pubs bedecked with UKIP posters. The association the3million, which campaigns for the interests of UK-based EU citizens, has called it "tasteless" because it "plays with the worst fears of people" whose future legal status is unclear.
But Mike said the “vast majority” of reaction to the game had been positive.
“I think the game is sitting on a 82% positive rating on [PC gaming portal] Steam now, with users, which is amazing to us,” he says.
“We’ve also had the interesting people of the internet popping all everywhere leaving reviews where they just write the word ‘PROPAGANDA’ and that’s just all they leave because they feel like they need someone to listen to them. Which is fine.
“The funniest is when we launched the original reveal trail for it earlier this year, in March I think, the likes and dislikes on the video were I think exactly equal to the original Brexit vote, 48% liked the video, 52% hated the video or something.
“A big thing in the games industry is there are a lot of people who are not happy that games are moving to a place where they can start to properly present politics… there’s a lot of angry people on the internet that are not happy that their video games are being used for this terrible propaganda.
“And that worried us at first, that we were going to get that kind of backlash when the game came out, but actually we’ve barely seen any of it. The vast majority of it has been incredibly positive, which has been a big sigh of relief for us, I guess.”
Perhaps that is unsurprising too. As Olivier Mauco, a professor at the Institut d'études politiques in Paris, tells the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, games like Not Tonight offer the opportunity to play through future scenarios without danger.
“It gives you the opportunity to live in a dystopian Great Britain,” he says, “with the effect of better understanding the consequences of decisions in real life”. Perhaps it’s just been released two-and-a-half years too late, then.
Not Tonight is available for the PC via Steam and will be released on the X-Box, Playstation and Nintendo Switch around March next year