I have a certain interest in the mundane. It’s a topic that is altogether easily relatable for nearly every person on the planet but also so abstract to be, ironically, interesting. There’s a beauty to the mundane that is rife with opportunity; to twist and play, experiment and create something altogether alien but familiar. It’s within that space that Not Tonight plants its flag firmly in the dirt, announcing its position as an exploration of routine and crippling isolation wrapped up in a blanket of dry satire and political commentary.
While it’s not the first of its kind to do that and it can sometimes fumble the more nuanced aspect of the complicated themes of racism within a post-Brexit UK, Not Tonight left an impression on me by being a game that wasn’t afraid to clearly take a stance on a political matter instead of flip-flopping around issues that are sure to spark some debate. While the sort of game that will raise the hackles of those not interested in such discussions, I admire it for at least being steadfast.
Not Tonight is a game that wears its inspirations on its sleeve, borrowing heavily from Lucas Pope’s similarly politically charged game Papers, Please. Within the setting of England following the nation’s successful exit from the European Union (is that enough to tag this review as “fantasy”?) you’ll be playing an immigrant (despite being born in the UK) just trying to make ends meet. There’s nothing unique about your character, just an every-day person sifting through the rubble of a country that wants nothing to do with them. To scrape together the money to pay rent and ensure you aren’t kicked out of your home country, you’ll have to work as a bouncer for various watering holes, checking ID’s, guest lists, nationalities and dress codes before allowing people to enter. What starts out as a simple game of mentally ticking the boxes very quickly escalates into a frantic survey of appearances and numbers, ensuring that only the guests who meet a certain standard are allowed into the venues, essentially taking on the role of “border control” in a much more casual setting; an appreciated inclusion of thematic symmetry.
It’s a simple yet addictive gameplay loop as poor Immigrant #112, as they are so affectionately called, is thrown a continuous stream of curveballs. It’s a struggle every day to keep the lights on and while it may be an engaging experience to play through, it wasn’t lost on me how miserable my character was. Hell, I could fault the game for growing repetitive after a while, despite the increasing list of tasks to take into account, but when that’s commented on by the game as being a miserable existence for #112, forced into a reality where every day is exactly the same with the hope of a better tomorrow constantly fading away, the repetition fits.
Not Tonight is repetitive for a reason, forcing you and your character to experience that same level of tedium that is their whole life. While it may not necessarily be fun, it’s effective in communicating that emotion. I wanted #112 to have a better life, something beyond the constant belittlement or casual racism and xenophobia hurled their way. Who doesn’t enjoy an underdog story?
Which only becomes more engaging the longer the story plays out. Taking place over the course of a year, the narrative of Not Tonight is one of modern revolution within a stagnant and regressive society, never shying away from those themes. The writers juggle complex ideas and politics with a sympathetic ear, very bold in their beliefs regarding the British population’s push for Brexit.
Nearly all games are political, that’s a fact, but Not Tonight doesn’t pull any punches with its overt politics – to such an extent that it can often come across as ham-fisted. While many of the conversations that #112 is forced into within the game feature a power dynamic reminiscent of an unfairly racialised society, some of the game’s more manifest villains cross the line of “bad” into “cartoonishly evil,” bearing a hatred for Europeans that feels exaggerated to the extent of farce. Which is maybe the point; the satire present in Not Tonight is strong enough to be powerful criticism of modern Britain while also causing the occasional smile. It’s not the sort of game that will make you snort with laughter but instead is quietly witty, a factor which tickled me in just the right way.
More than anything else, Not Tonight is a satisfying game. While the controls can sometimes feel a touch clunky on the Switch and some character models were difficult to parse against their ID’s, I was able to overlook both stumbling blocks to see a game that knows what it wants to achieve and scores an absolute whopper of a goal. Consistently gorgeous to look at with a wide variety of well-produced music for those pixelated Britons to dance to, Not Tonight leaves an impression by being bold enough to say something very relevant.
While not the hottest take on Brexit, labelling it the result of a xenophobic and outdated society, it’s still a stance that many people will agree with. Not Tonight is more than a political statement, it’s a tangible fear of what England may eventually warp into. Sure, it’s a fear that’s been taken to an extreme and yet the future posited by the game still felt…possible. You probably won’t walk away from Not Tonight understanding the confusion around Brexit any more, nor is it likely to change whatever political argument you hold for the movement. Yet I think you’ll walk away from it with a lot on your mind.
It’s out on Steam right now, and is coming to Switch on January 31.
Last Updated: January 27, 2020