You’re barely given time to rub the sleep from your eyes after waking up in your rundown, one-room apartment in Not Tonight before you’re slapped with a huge bill for the privilege of staying in the country. And what a dubious privilege it is. An app on your phone called BillR records the debt, and the due date is recorded on a calendar. Another app, BouncR, offers you long hours for bad pay. So you do the only thing you can. You let the grind, and the grey streets of dystopian, post-Brexit UK, swallow you up completely.
Not Tonight has you checking punters’ IDs for things like age to decide whether to let them into a variety of establishments. It’s effectively a constant risk/reward between speed and efficiency. Your first or second shift at a new place might be a cushy gig, but things soon get complicated. A punter gets found with a knife, and now you have to use precious seconds to scan everyone who enters for contraband. The pub owner has a bad plate of pasta and decides to ban Italians.
On the first week you might be allowed five slip-ups before your wages get docked, seven before the place shuts down early and you’re sent home unpaid and with declining social credit. By week four you might only be allowed a single mistake before a dock and two before it’s all over.
So, make too many mistakes and get your wages docked early in a shift and you’re forced to carry on; the shadow of failure nudging the overcast British weather that final inch to block out the sun for good. If this happens, the challenge shifts from a simple minigame. It’s suddenly about your own motivation not to just throw in the towel, demanding that you focus your attention on the grind to stay afloat despite reduced rewards at the end.
Not Tonight doesn’t match the clearly influential Papers, Please’s coherence between systems and theme — there’s just not comparable emotional weight in turning someone away from a pub as a border crossing — but it captures the bitter, cyclical pointlessness in scraping by just to survive long enough to get up the next day and do it all over again. There’s a certain unique hell in having to be diligent and dutiful in the full knowledge that you’re being shafted, and Not Tonight captures it perfectly.
Not Tonight, then, deserves praise for being brave enough to make the player suffer to get its message across, because the ennui is, at times, extremely real. Even with increasing challenge and having to balance health, finances, and social credit, novelty eventually gives way to lethargy as you drag and check and click, drag and check and click.
There’s a fair amount of game here — at least ten hours. While consistently sharp and funny writing goes a long way in execution, Not Tonight’s biggest failure is in conception itself. I’ve seen it argued that the game’s political allegory is a bit front and centre. That’s the setting it opted for though. It’s naturally going to permeate every aspect, and I don’t see it as a problem. The problem lies in borrowing a mechanic from Paper’s Please, which was designed as an allegory in itself, and stretching it out this long. The mileage just isn’t there.
I also believe that for political art to be effective it has to do away with, or at least subvert, tropes buried so deeply that we tend to not even notice them anymore. Otherwise, a few cheap laughs and easy plot points can end up undermining your whole message. I’m not saying that Not Tonight fully suffers for this, just that having female clubbers in crop tops with bloated stomachs that wouldn’t look out of place in a conservative rags political cartoon from the height of ‘chav’- bashing seems a bit incongruent. Ditto completely unexamined parodies of drug use that seem to lump all drugs under one blurry, morally dubious banner without much thought.
But listen, I’m glad this game exists. I’m glad these things are being said. It manages to turn an utterly depressing setting beautiful with some great pixel art, and if it the writing wasn’t as good as it was, I would have given up a lot sooner. Up to you whether that’s a positive or not. It has given me a fresh new empathy for bouncers, though.