“Welcome to Hell,” the digital red letters flashed as I entered the pop-up bar that would lead to my inevitable death. Why did I need a sign? I already knew where I was. And by the time I reached the end of my playthrough with Not Tonight, I had already accepted my fate.
Not Tonight is a point-and-click RPG that takes place in a post-Brexit dystopia. It’s the first major game by developer PanicBarn. You play as a person of European descent who finds themselves living in the slums and at risk of being deported from the United Kingdom, the only country you’ve ever known. At night, you work as a bouncer across various clubs, hoping to save up enough money to pay your bills and stay in the country.
What first drew my attention to this game were the fans of Papers, Please, many of whom enthusiastically refer to Not Tonight as a spiritual sequel. But what got me to invest in the game was its overall concept. I admired the developer’s effort to educate players on Brexit and challenge what themes we typically think video games explore. I find something inherently valuable in games that address issues we find within our own world.
While it has a bleak premise, Not Tonight‘s beautiful 2D visuals are anything but. From settings, to the lighting, to the smallest details you’ll find lurking in the background, it provides an immersive experience for the player from the get go. This is paired with an eclectic soundtrack and masterful usage of sound effects. What I found to be particularly impressive was how each venue had its own distinct soundtrack. The Tiki Bar featured breezy Hawaiian tunes, while the Indie Music Festival played songs that sounded like they were ripped straight from an Arctic Monkeys album. This reflects the loving amount of detail that the developers put into each scene.
Playing through the challenging nights is made simple with a surprisingly intuitive and easy to use player interface. Each night, you’re put in charge of a queue of people. Your job is to check their IDs for any discrepancies, such as different photos, missing holograms or fake flags. You also need to make sure that people aren’t underage. You get a packet of rules that you can flip through during the course of the night, and a little clicker keeps track of how many people you’ve let into the venue. A radio off to the left side allows your boss to communicate with you and let you know if you’ve done anything wrong, or how much time you have left. Later, as you work at different venues, you may also need to manage the VIP line and cross off names from a guest list. This is kept to the left side of your screen, and you simply need to click. At one point in the game, I was also given a scanner to check for weapons and other contraband items. A blacklight is another device that you’ll use to scan visa documents to make sure that they’re legitimate.
The nice part about this interface was that I didn’t find myself struggling to go from queue to queue, or understanding what one particular device did versus another. If I couldn’t remember the rules for a venue, tah–dah, my answer was right there in the packet. And the number of items that I could be given for any one venue weren’t overwhelming, either. I had a large space to work with that let me spread everything out and examine all the documents without anything overlapping. Making the devices themselves work was fairly simple as well. You need to check to see if that visa was stamped? Wave it underneath this blacklight, which is conveniently already on and never runs out of battery. And you’ll never have to worry about frisking anyone for contraband items when you’ve got a handy dandy red button which can scan and do all the work for you.
Unfortunately, this is where my enjoyment for Not Tonight ends as I encountered a multitude of unfair gameplay aspects. As a bouncer, it’s your job to root out those who are underage, have fake IDs or have criminal intentions. Unlike Papers, Please, where you are graded on the number of people you serve each day, Not Tonight grades you on the number of people you let into the bar in total. While on paper this doesn’t seem like a significant difference, when it comes to the actual gameplay, it is. I was given only a few precious hours to work each shift and meet my quotas, and countless people would waste my time with fake IDs and then try to bribe me . Many times I failed to reach my quota because of these people, and even if I made it through a night without any incidents, my overall grade would tank. To clarify: even if I did nothing wrong, I was still punished. This in turn lowers my reputation, which impacts my ability to stay in the U.K.
While I admire the initial concept and theme of the game, the characters do not contribute much to it. The dialogue between the characters certainly helps to illustrate the anti-European sentiments that have manifested within the United Kingdom, but my interactions with others lacked the emotional punch that I was seeking. For example, I was confused by the conflict with Mylarna and her husband, Viklav. In chapter one of the game, Mylarna requests that I send Viklav home if I come across him, but I was unable to do so. Viklav is later convicted for bombing King Dave’s pub, but somehow, the owner of said pub later starts a get-out-of-jail fund for him because he feels like Viklav has been wrongly accused. Later, chapter two prompted me to give an item to Mylarna, but I had no idea what to give her.
Shannon is another character you’ll frequently encounter, and she’s little more than an un-amusing pain in the ass that likes to waste your time. At one point in my playthrough, I helped out a member of the resistance. That same person later texted me with something nonsensical that in no way contributed to the story, nor indicated that my relationship to the resistance had changed from my initial neutral standpoint. As time passed, I grew confused as to why these characters were involved in my life and what their purposes were. The only one whose presence I understood was that of my Integrations Officer, Jupp, who largely made the decision as to whether or not I could stay in the U.K.
At first, I loved the number of choices that Not Tonight presented me with. To sell drugs, or not to sell drugs? Work at the Tiki Bar, or grab a shift at the Indie Music Festival? Ooh, which of my many financially crippling debts should I pay off first? However, gradually, I became overwhelmed. From the incessant pinging of my phone with messages to the multitude of useless items to purchase to the number of stats I had to manage, I was frustrated and ready to pull my hair out. I felt less like I was playing a nuanced video game and more of a mindless cookie clicker. There was simply too much going on and too much presented to me all at once, and unfortunately, these things did little to contribute to the enjoyment of my overall gaming experience.
Normally, I don’t pay attention to the length of games, but Not Tonight is so gruelingly long that each day felt more like a chore than a challenge. There are three chapters to the game. Each chapter lasts for the course of a month, which is approximately three hours in real time, and you have to play every. Single. Day. Sure, you can make the decision to just not work for a night and sleep through the day, but then your reputation is going to take a hit. Honestly, if just the first chapter was packaged as the entire game, I would’ve felt so much better about it. By the end of chapter two I was exhausted, and didn’t want to continue.
As I mentioned before, this game suffers from unfair gameplay aspects. This wasn’t just found in my work as a bouncer, it was also at home. At first, I was fine with simply managing my staggering visa, rent and utilities expenses. Then in the second chapter of the game, they decided to introduce a new mechanic: health. Suddenly I was saddled with not only massive medical debt, but a particularly punishing health meter that I struggled to manage each day. The doctor advised me to purchase a nice bed, a fridge and a water heater which were all laughably expensive. After saving up, I finally purchased a bed, but this did little to prevent my health from quickly deteriorating. The doctor also advises you to take days off of work, but how are you supposed to given that you are lucky to make a couple hundred bucks each day, and your bills are in the hundreds, if not thousands? If you don’t pay your bills, your reputation is damaged, which can lead to your deportation. But if you don’t manage your health, guess what happens?
You die. On my final day, I was at 3 health and had finished paying off a number of debts. I wanted to give my character a break. But the game would not allow me to skip a day of work since it was introducing a new venue, so I was forced to play for absolutely no reason. I died a miserable death in my expensive European plush bed. I returned to the main menu and attempted to resume my game, but it just picked up right on that same day, and there was nothing I could do to correct it. If I wanted to make it to the end of chapter two, I would have to completely restart the game.
When I first wrote my impressions for Not Tonight, I referred to it as a clunkier, yet prettier form of Papers, Please. I was concerned with the game’s ability to establish its own individuality, and while I find that it has succeeded in doing this, that’s not enough to outweigh its many flaws. By the time I died at the end of the second chapter and realized I had to restart the game, I completely lacked any motivation or reason to do so.
Chloe reviewed Not Tonight on Steam with a code provided by the developer.