Not For Broadcast is one of the most interesting and unique games I’ve played in a very long time. This little indie game puts you behind the scenes of the Nightly National News program, cutting between camera’s, censoring anything naughty and ensuring a smooth show so that leading news anchor Jeremy Donaldson can deliver the headlines to the nation. Amidst Not For Broadcast’s crazier moments is a story of people, governments, propaganda, the power that media wields and tough choices. Despite some issues, this is one broadcast you don’t want to miss because it might just end up being your game of the year.
As Alex, you’re nothing more than a humble janitor at the National Nightly News studios until you wander into the editing room and get a phone call from Dave who informs you that he needs you to take the reigns for the night. This new job title comes at a tricky time a group called Advance have just come into power and quickly set about introducing huge new reforms, starting with a redistribution of wealth. The two new prime ministers, one a boozy bloke and the other an overly smiley lady, are holding a press conference that will lay the groundwork for this new vision of the future. And then Dave kindly informs you that his ferry has arrived and that he probably isn’t coming back so the job is yours. Y’know, that’s almost exactly how I wound up with this reviewing gig.
As Advance begin implementing their new ideas, it’s pretty clear that things are going to be rocky. But the first hints of problems within your job begin when you’re asked to censor anything on the special censor graph that shows up as blue, not just the highlighted red swearing. Do the job and you won’t notice that everything blue is anti-government speech or even anything that vaguely pokes at Advance’s ideals.
Behind the desk, you have a lot of control over how issues are portrayed based on what images you use during headlines, what speech you censor out, the camera angles selected and even what adverts to run. Eventually, and without spoiling too much, people will begin to fight back against the new regime and you’ll be stuck in the terrible position of whether you should support them by allowing their messages through, or whether to play it safe to support your family. And it’s not like Advance are depicted purely as evil; they have some good ideas and genuinely do some good, but at what cost? At first, the time jumps you experience are a few days at a time, but before long huge swathes of time zip past, giving you a look at how Advance’s ideas and laws change the country and even the world.
It’s such a fascinating look at how media affects us every single day and how just one person sitting behind a desk can influence millions even when they don’t intend to. The various decisions you make will come back to poke you in the arse in a myriad of ways, culminating in one of 14 different possible endings, providing plenty of reason to go back and replay the 6-8 hour story mode. How will you present a certain celebrity to the world? Will you show that potentially controversial image of them? Will you cut the cameras when things start to get intense? And there’s no awkward good/evil gauge guiding your path – you make choices, you hope for the best and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. No matter the outcome it feels as though your choices do matter.
Everything is conveyed via hours and hours of FMV and is performed by an exceptionally talented cast who seem to be having a blast with the game’s often barmy antics. Although there’s a serious story at its core, Not For Broadcast loves to dabble in the absurd, including sentient toys, incredibly dumb celebrities and scientists trapped within Dante’s Taint. It’s a difficult line to walk, yet NotGames do an admirable job mixing their brand of dark comedy with poignant moments and properly emotional sequences. There was one section in particular that actually left me with a sense of shock, and it took me a solid five minutes to unpause the game and keep going. That’s not something a videogame does very often.
The tricky thing is it’s difficult to talk about why Not For Broadcast’s excellent story works without spoiling huge pieces of it. I desperately want to talk about specific events and moments that kicked me squarely in the feels or made me laugh or just made me stop and consider things. Instead, I have to give it all vague, so suffice to say the writing is pin-sharp and absolutely makes the most of having FMV. Given the low budget, I don’t think NotGames could have done a game like this using animation. It’s impossible to imagine this game without Paul Baverstock playing lead anchor Jeremy Donaldson, a deeply sarcastic and argumentative man who gradually grows more and more frustrated with how the news is being changed. Likewise, Megan Wolfe (played by Andrea Valls) is captivating as the newest member of National Nightly News rising up the ranks to compete with Jeremy. Importantly, the use of FMV helps smooth the jumps between the dark, gritty sections and the crazy, weird moments.
Running the broadcast means doing a bunch of busywork, starting with the camera’s themselves. The left side of the control desk features four screens that show the different camera angles, while the central screen shows what you currently have selected. The far-right side monitor depicts what the viewers at home are seeing, a live feed that’s only two seconds behind what you see. To aid you the game lays down a few key rules: pick the camera that displays whoever is talking and don’t hold a shot for more than 10-seconds otherwise viewers will get bored. Instead, jump to a reaction shot or perhaps a wide-angle, holding the new shot for at least 1 second before going back.
Before long more complications arise; interference can ruin the broadcast so a little graph must be manipulated to keep the green lines within the white band. Swearing needs to be removed by holding down the censor button, sound effects have to be selected for certain segments, ads must be run at the right time and so on. On top of all that, Not For Broadcast frequently throws in one-off events like having to zap sentient toys off the broadcast tower or use a fan to cool overheating equipment. There are even musical numbers where editing to the beat nets you extra viewers.
It can all get pretty hectic in the later game. Segments that involve numerous people can become a muddle because following the golden rule of focusing on whoever is talking can result in far too many edits. And sadly the game isn’t always good at conveying what went wrong. I would frequently get a good grade for broadcasts, but upon entering the more detailed information screen I’d discover that I had apparently done an abysmal edit. I’ve tried and tried to improve, but alas I can’t seem to get into the flow of what Not For Broadcast wants from me.
I really like how the busywork of the gameplay keeps you so busy that you don’t register the news itself and what everyone is saying. Focus hard on doing your job in the booth and it’s entirely possible that every hint of things going wrong in the first hour or two will go by without you even noticing. A smart feature to counteract this is the archives where you can go back through broadcasts, including listening in on other camera angles that couldn’t be heard during the broadcast because you had to focus the camera elsewhere.
Sadly though, I do think the gameplay struggles. The first few hours were enjoyable as I got the hang of switching cameras, censoring rude words, controlling the interference and running ads. But after a while the sense of busywork begins to grate, the monotony sets in and everything starts to feel more like a never-ending series of dull mini-games. I suppose it could and probably should be argued that the gameplay is thematically on-point – just like in reality doing the same job over and over again can become mindless and rote, a case of going through the motions until something big pops up, which in this case are the decisions surrounding how to portray the new government, guests and other groups.
That’s reality though, and I don’t play games to simulate real life. It the story wasn’t so strong, wasn’t so entertaining and interesting I would have stopped playing in the first 3 or 4 hours because the gameplay simply is not strong enough on its own. Commendably though, the developers have included options to tweak aspects of the gameplay, like turning on auto-censoring or making the interference much easier to deal with or having the rate that viewers are lost drastically decreased.
Between broadcasts, the game shifts to life at home where decisions must be made and where some of the ramifications of the broadcasts will show up. An early example is when my partner’s brother arrived at the door asking to take my passport so he and his family could escape the country before their money is seized in the name of the greater good. Or is it worth providing the funds for my daughter’s trip? Do I support my son as he becomes more and more involved with Advance? And how much Hell will I be subjected to if I got to work over the weekend again instead of spending some loving time with my partner?
One of the most obvious ways that handling the news affects family life is money. Doing the job well, usually by editing everything nicely and playing along with Advance, means bringing in more cash and that directly influences a bunch of things down the road, including a couple of heartbreaking scenarios. A sneakier option is to influence the stock market by running certain ads. I really love this whole setup of being caught in the middle of everything and having to balance doing what you believe to be right, and what’s good for the family.
Unfortunately, there’s a significant disconnect between your life behind the desk and your life at home. In the studio there are hours and hours and hours of footage filled with dialogue that let us get to know the anchors and guests. Regardless of whether or not you like those people, there’s a connection there. Life at home, however, is presented via lifeless background images and text. Everything is vague, which seems to be very deliberate. You never see your family, and your Partner is referred by their name, Sam, or as they/them, so they could be whoever you want. With that vagueness comes a lack of personality – I have no idea who Sam is, what they like, what they don’t or what their sense of humour is. I have two kids apparently but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. I don’t even know what my house looks like.
It makes the decisions feel hollow and the results of those decisions meaningless. Huge, dramatic beats would occur and I just wouldn’t care. I know who everyone at the broadcasting station is, but I don’t know who my family is. They’re text ghosts.
I’ve said before that gameplay is king, and while I stand by that statement there are always exceptions to the rule and Not For Broadcast is most certainly one of those. A quick look at the Steam reviews shows that a lot of people were far more impressed with the gameplay than I. Regardless, to me, the unique ideas and excellent writing far outstripped the busy work of running a live broadcast. The concept is exceptional, a unique idea in an industry full of clones and rote design, the characters and writing are superb and the way decisions trundle back around before kicking you squarely in the privates is fantastic.
Of course, that makes scoring it a bit tricky. I don’t like the gameplay very much and I think the family stuff is underdeveloped, but I adore everything else. Luckily, this is my review and I’m an inconsistent idiot, thus the score will be…