Games

Newsroom simulation Not For Broadcast gives an insight into the farce of producing media under a repressive regime. By Jinghua Qian.

Not For Broadcast

A scene from Not For Broadcast.
Credit: NOTGAMES

When people find out that I used to be head of news at a media outlet in Shanghai, they always ask me what it was like dealing with government censorship. I tell them it was faceless, exasperating, unpredictable and often absurd – such as the day my boss told me we could still cover censorship, but we couldn’t use the word “censorship”.

I quickly memorised synonyms for all the sensitive topics. As we were writing in English, we got away with a fair bit, both because Chinese officials tended to be quite literal in their reading, and because they were probably less concerned with press that only a minority of citizens could access. Sometimes we would manage to publish something that I had been sure would get nixed, and it felt like winning.

The whole experience felt a lot like a game, actually – a futile yet addictive game that made your heart race as you tried to jump from story to story, ducking and weaving, squeezing as much as you could through an ever-shrinking space. The landscape shifted. The obstacles multiplied. There was no end in sight. I was exhausted, defeated and hopelessly obsessed. So, when I saw that there was a new indie game promoting itself as an “immersive, high-pressure, propaganda sim”, I had to get my hands on it.

Not For Broadcast is currently available through Steam as an early-access game still in development, with episode 2 slated for release this week. Appropriately, the game is now available with full audio in English, Chinese and Russian, with subtitle support for additional languages.

It’s set in an alternative-reality version of 1980s Britain following the election of a far-left party named Advance that promises to redistribute wealth. You play as Alex, a (deliberately genderless) television network employee who is suddenly thrust into the role of producing the live National Nightly News. You decide what you want the nation to see, and what shapes public opinion. It’s your job to mix four live camera feeds, select headlines and ads, bleep out swearwords, avoid signal interference and build audience numbers. Your ratings determine your wages – and yes, it’s that blatant.

This clever set-up allows Not For Broadcast to mix live-action footage in the camera feeds with challenging, fast-paced gameplay on the animated studio mixer console. The developers, the British game studio NotGames, come from backgrounds in film, television, theatre and comedy, and the game mechanism here highlights these skills as the cast brings the cracking script to life.

There’s the jaded news anchor, the boozy politician, the shifty entrepreneur and the hypocritical conservative who rails against “moral decay” while indulging his own peccadilloes on the down low. I screamed with laughter at a segment featuring a youth theatre group’s anti-bullying musical and an advert for a vacation at “St Bumley on the Taint”. The music throughout the game is shockingly catchy, proving how the most repulsive or ridiculous sentiment can imprint on your subconscious if it’s attached to a decent jingle.

But don’t let the quality of the writing or the use of live-action footage fool you into thinking this is an interactive film. Some narrative-driven games are self-paced and light on physical challenges – your choices matter for the storyline, but you can’t really lose. Here, the richness of the story is embedded in some seriously demanding gameplay and, at times, I struggled to keep up. The game allows you to replay segments with additional challenges – I’d appreciate it if various difficulty settings could be selected in the main game, too. As I played on, I developed more of an editing rhythm, and I enjoyed how the game triggered the same adrenalin-fuelled frenzy I would enter when breaking news. There’s a depraved thrill in having to make irreversible ethical decisions while racing against the clock, I guess, even in a fictional context.

The more advanced gameplay sets Not For Broadcast apart from other political sims such as Papers, Please (2013), in which you play an immigration officer in the vaguely Soviet country of Arstotzka. Papers, Please also grades and pays the player based on how well government directives are enforced, but the clunky point-and-click controls and repetitive gameplay detract from the story, despite successfully replicating the drudgery of bureaucracy. In Not For Broadcast, you’re dealing with real problems and real politics – the lockdown chapter, written and released during the coronavirus pandemic, is particularly unnerving – and the gamification is integrated into the story rather than feeling like a forced overlay.

However, although the absurd humour of the script is delightful, there are times when it seems as though the writers are more comfortable with high farce than heavy social or political issues. The script picks up themes only to put them down a moment later. In one segment, a conservative commentator blames all Britain’s social ills on “foreigners, gays and gypsies” but the scene quickly descends, like many others, into chaos before anyone really responds. Characters are largely mocked for their personal vices rather than their ideologies of violence. The game plays with politics as a wrestling theatre but avoids getting its hands dirty on actual opinions that might alienate some players – although I welcome the way the game makes it impossible for you to emerge uncompromised.

The constant silliness of the live-action footage contrasts with the segments between broadcasts, when Alex is at home with their partner and kids, navigating even more moral dilemmas that have resulted from the government’s growing authoritarianism. These segments are chilling, and sometimes demonstrate a more confident and sophisticated engagement with politics: one scene asks whether you think the government’s responsibility should be to keep its citizens safe, free, happy or equal. But these text-based scenes also feel tonally and aesthetically jarring in their sombre minimalism compared with the multi-screen hysteria of the studio segments. I hope that in coming chapters the creators will be able to achieve a more even balance and smoother transition between the zany and the grim. There is certainly enough gallows humour in the real-world news media landscape from which to draw.

I am also curious to see how the game might handle indirect censorship – corporations pulling advertising after unfavourable coverage, for instance – and the more insidious effects of a repressive political environment on the media. Something that is impossible to quantify is the number of stories that never need to be censored because they don’t even make it to a pitch in the first place – because the story never got out of the village, or people know not to talk to journalists, or the message was intercepted by a tech company, or victims have no reason to hope for justice. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "Political mixer".

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Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer, poet and provocateur living in the Kulin nations.