I am a cog in the machine of a slowly approaching dystopia. My job is to handle the nightly news in an alternative-history version of 1980s Britain, producing the live events as they happen. This full-motion video game shows me newscasters, directors promoting their movies, politicians, and entrepreneurs on a variety of screens, and it’s my job to make some sense out of it for the audience that tunes in every night to get the “news.”
A new political party, the far-left Advance, has come to power. I get to document their rise as well. If I’m smart, I can edit that news in order to steer public perception the way I desire, in a direction I think will inform or help people. If I’m sloppy, viewers stop tuning in, and I’m suddenly out of a job.
On the other hand, I also have to manage the interview of a man named Tit-wank Tony, and decide whether to publicize an Elon Musk-esque transit tunnel that’s given the acronym of MOOBS (Mobile Orientation Operation Burrowing System).
Is Not for Broadcast goofy slapstick, or a political story with teeth? It’s both. Kind of. Mostly? It gets weird, real fast. And, it turns out, producing live news is hard.
Picking up control
Not for Broadcast is an early access title; this release contains a massive chunk of story and multiple missions, but there will be more to come with extra polish added to the existing parts. I take the role of broadcast operator, which comes with a unique set of controls. Luckily, there’s a robust tutorial, where my friend calls into the studio and walks me through everything I need to do. At the end of the call, he tells me this is my job now.
I don’t move around too much in Not for Broadcast; I’m stuck at my station. However, that station is quite elaborate. There are four screens on the left, each of which can show different camera angles or segments of the news. I get to choose which of those screens to display on the broadcast screen, which is smack in the middle. To the right is the live feed. The live feed is the broadcast that the entire nation is watching; that’s where I can see if my editing decisions worked out, or if I flubbed a transition.
I have to watch all of those screens, and then look at the console beneath them, which allows me to switch screens, select images to show the audience, run commercials, and censor out any unfortunate swears. And I have to do this all in real time.
It’s initially chaotic, but there are a few simple rules that clarify things. I want to put the camera on whoever’s talking, but things get boring if I stay on a single shot for too long. I fall into a comfortable rhythm: Shot, reaction shot, wide shot, go to commercials. I start to feel as if I’m in control, and that’s a heady feeling.
It’s surprisingly fun to play director. I’m not much of a movie buff or a TV nerd; I couldn’t tell you much about camera terminology or set management. Not for Broadcast’s unique gameplay gives me an idea of how difficult that is. The developers at NotGames put a lot of work into creating elaborate situations and then filming them from multiple angles; my job of turning them all into a coherent, clear picture is difficult.
Learning to do it on the fly, sewing together an actual show, feels great. It’s like learning how to paint, or sculpt a model. It’s tough, and it’s a skill I haven’t really thought about or built up naturally, but it’s fulfilling when I start to see the results of my hard work on screen.
I begin to enjoy putting together a great broadcast. I learn to pepper in reaction shots and wide shots to keep the pace lively. Producing live television is tougher than it looks — switch the camera too early, and you might catch a guest picking their nose, or making a face. At one point, naked protesters flood a local sporting event, and I have to carefully switch cameras to ensure no one sees an errant titty or unwelcome bum.
I also have to bleep swear words — I have to watch a swear monitor on my station and slam the space bar at the right moment — or I make less money and get a note on my permanent record. Occasional power surges mean I lose control of certain keys.
If I do well, I’m rewarded with some in-game cash, which I can use to upgrade and decorate my station. Some of these purchases are just bobbleheads or posters; other upgrades have tangible effects, like reducing the amount of electrical surges.
That sets up the rhythm of the game. I show up for work, and then I have to run through the day’s news. That news is divided up into a set number of segments. The first might be a run through morning news, while a later one might focus on me interviewing a director or an exclusive interview with a politician. Once the day is done, I’m graded on each segment.
All of this sounds mechanically dense, but it becomes more art than science. I feel like a true professional when local teens come to the studio to perform a play about friendship, and I’m switching cameras to bring their (terrible, amateurish, just truly awful) vision to life. After I’m done with a level, I can go back and watch my cut ... or I can check each individual feed, uncovering little Easter eggs and bits of dialogue from other members of the news staff that it would have been disastrous to broadcast.
There’s not much gameplay incentive to do this — I can sprint to the end of the game if I prefer — but it’s fun to uncover secrets, or find clips of the news anchor sniping with the makeup artist.
Mechanics-wise, Not For Broadcast sells my profession perfectly. The problem is with the story built around it.
Tone is everything
After a long day at my job at the propaganda mill, I go home and experience family life through short text-based vignettes. Britain is changing around me, thanks to the election of the far-left Advance party. These revolutionary politicians believe in forcible redistribution of wealth, comprehensive end-of-life care, the public holding stock in corporations, and other Labour-ish policies. The game is set before the era of Brexit, but with the recent British election, I expected some kind of relevant, modern commentary on politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. It never arrives.
It’s clear that Not for Broadcast wants me to feel like I’m navigating a tense dystopia of misinformation and spin. The framing is all very serious; even the pause music is chilling! In the text segments of the game, my brother-in-law shows up on my doorstep to beg for my passport so he can escape the country, fleeing the government with his assets. I refuse, because pay your taxes, Chris, you ass. The choice to keep my passport crops up again and again, as my family relationships become strained.
It’s all very oppressive and concerning — until we get back into the broadcast. There, the segments I edit veer back into “Yakety Sax”-level slapstick. A preacher who praises Leviticus has his closet door fall open and ... surprise, there’s a leather-wearing submissive in there, and the interview descends into chaos. The preacher blames immigrants for the moral decay of society, and in the background, a female dom and the sub chase each other around. It’s impossible to edit around, which is the entire point.
That particular situation was a dumb and lazy joke, but there are moments where I can see amazing potential in a version of Not for Broadcast that really focuses on the comedy of what’s going on. The aforementioned local sports tournament takes place around a fictional sport; there are some fun smash cuts to new, unexpected scenarios, and zany made-up rules that legitimately make me guffaw.
But then we’re back to the politics again, and the game leans over to elbow me in the ribs. “Hey,” it whispers. “Don’t look now, but the Advance party is looking pretty shady ... am I right?”
I don’t know, game, you’re laying it on pretty thick.
I like Not for Broadcast, but it looks like a The Fly-style experiment grafted together from two different games. I would like very much to play either of them separately, but putting them together weakens the final product. There’s time for developer NotGames to right the ship, however, and the mechanics are intriguing enough to keep me interested in the next chapter.
Not for Broadcast will be released Jan. 30 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a Steam Early Access download code provided by TinyBuild Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.