*Review copy provided by publisher*
There’s no way I’ll make it through this review without comparing Not Tonight to Papers, Please, so let’s get it out of the way early. Yes, Not Tonight is a hell of a lot like Papers, Please. Instead of working at a border, you’re a doorman for local pubs and bars, but it still requires you to check IDs and make sure documentation is valid. The UI and mechanics are almost identical to Papers, Please, and some of the story beats are a little too familiar, however Not Tonight injects enough British humor and political commentary to earn its own identity.
Not Tonight is all about Brexit and—while I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth—it seems safe to say that developer PanicBarn is firmly on the side of remain. You choose to play as one of three characters, although it doesn’t make much difference to the story. The protagonists are all British citizens, however British citizenship is no longer enough to stay in the country. Under the rule of right-wing party Albion First, you’re only considered truly British if your grandparents and parents were too. Second-generation immigrants are shunted off to “Relocation Centers” to await departure to a country they’ve probably never even visited.
You’re allowed to stay in the country so long as you keep working, stay on the right side of the law, and pay your bills. The only work available to a low-life Euro like yourself is doorman. Each evening you peruse the Bouncr app on your phone and select a job to work for the night. As a doorman, it’s your job to check IDs to ensure customers are at least 18, match the photo, and ensure the ID hasn’t expired. Complexity is gradually added so soon you’re scanning for prohibited weapons, checking tickets, and ticking off names on the guest list, all the while keeping an eye out for the deadly Euro axis of evil (French, Irish, and Italians). Your pay is dependent on how many customers you let through, although you’ll be fined if you let in too many undesirables.
Playing as a doorman is not quite as on-theme as playing an immigration officer in Papers, Please. The doorman concept is little more than an excuse to have you checking IDs in a similar way to Papers, Please without directly copying. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but there are limits to what you can get away with. PanicBarn was wise to come up with a new twist even if it introduces some narrative inconsistency (the main gripe about Euros is that they “steal eh jerbs” and yet to stay in the country you have to work).
As someone with a baby-face who was regularly refused entry by bouncers, it’s satisfying to play the opposite role even if my reasons for denying entry in Not Tonight are a touch more controversial than being under the legal drinking age. For the most part, the routine of grabbing an ID, checking it’s genuine, and clicking your counter is incredibly satisfying. You occasionally drift into a trance much like you might while playing Tetris or a clicker, however your trance can be interrupted by a few gameplay niggles that need ironing out. Text often obstructs the guest list, moving between queues can be a little cumbersome, and the random nature of the customers means you can fail to meet quotas through no fault of your own. I also had a few problems spotting when customers didn’t match the photo on their ID which sometimes comes down to a hairband being a slightly different color. This isn’t easy to spot with the pastel colors and chunky pixel art.
A basic RPG leveling system offers some sense of progression, although most upgrades are barely noticeable. Leveling up your clicker to activate it with a keyboard command is helpful but an alphabetized guest list and faster scanner is hardly exciting. I got all the available upgrades with hours to spare and keep leveling with no future rewards to look forward to.
You also have a bunch of meters to manage such as your health and social score. Health is introduced about half-way through as a bit of an afterthought. Essentially you need to skip a day of work every now and again, and upgrade your bed, heater, and refrigerator to improve comfort. I ended up getting all the upgrades and had plenty of money to spare at the end. I’m not sure why this survival system wasn’t introduced earlier to create a feeling of desperation in those early hours. I spent £500 on a coffee pot in the first few hours while living in a dive. Hours later, it became apparent I should have saved that money for a bed. I couldn’t sell the coffee pot. I guess Euros can’t use eBay.
The social score is a little more nebulous. You lose points if you skip work or don’t pay your bills on time and gain them by working and paying your bills. You can complete the story without looking at the social score because it’s taken care of simply by playing the game. That is, unless you decide to do a bit of drug dealing on the side. Dealing drugs is incredibly lucrative and often worth the minor hit to your social score, however getting caught is always a risk and carries a bigger punishment.
If you want to fight back against all this nonsense then you can join the resistance. Resistance members pop up randomly in your bathroom to request help with simple tasks like gathering information from security officers or letting undesirables into the bar. Whether you help or not is technically a choice, but if you don’t then there isn’t much to motivate you to keep playing. Seeing the story through to its satisfying conclusion takes around 10 to 12 hours. There’s a little too much filler in here for my tastes. While new gameplay mechanics are drip-fed in at a regular rate, I got a touch bored during each of the three chapters when I had to repeat the same shifts over and over again. Cutting out some of the padding and adding in more variety of outcomes might have been a better approach.
Not Tonight is in no way realistic, nor is it supposed to be. That doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch. Despite being a British citizen, nearly everyone you meet refers to you as “Euro.” Sometimes it’s said with venom and other times with a hint of affection, but it feels just as offensive regardless. It’s hard not to recognize people you know in the caricatures on display. For example, there’s Dave, the pub owner, who thinks what’s happening is a bit of a shame because some Euros were hard workers. I’m sure we all know someone who thinks the Polish were “okay because they worked hard.” Dave hits a little too close to home.
Not Tonight constantly treads a fine line between social commentary and silliness and it nearly always succeeds. About half-way through, you start working shifts at the Thames Wall which politicians pretend is all about flood protection (which it kind of is, just not a water-based flood). When you work at a voter registration center, you see officers shredding ballots in the background and you’re asked to keep out mime artists and clowns. It’s funny until the next time you show up and you’re asked to keep out writers and journalists.
Not Tonight‘s occasional missteps come about due to a lack of focus. PanicBarn wants to take shots at the gig economy but doesn’t go at it with the same passion it reserves for Brexit. In the second half, you have to refuse entry to those with a low social score or income, regardless of nationality. I’m not sure if this supposed to be taking aim at capitalism or the current lack of empathy for the poor, or if it’s just another thing for you to look at while checking IDs.
It’s inevitable that Not Tonight‘s strong political views will put some people off, although it’s hard to imagine who would be offended at such obvious satire unless their own views are a little too closely represented for comfort. Not Tonight made me laugh and feel awkward on a regular basis, often both in close proximity. It has moments of tedium but it’s worth sticking with for the laughs that follow those periods of downtime.