Dunno if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a whole lot of news lately. Too much news in fact. Growing up, we barely had any news. There was just one bit of news that we’d all have to share. A man would drive around our village with the news in the back of his van, and we’d all come out of our houses to watch as he slid open the doors and pointed at it, saying “well, here is the news”. And it was the same news, every day. The news about the hole in the ozone layer. And it was all the news we needed.
Not For Broadcast puts you in charge of all of the news. Set in an alternate timeline 1980s Britain in which an authoritarian far-left party has swept to power on a wave of populist policies, it casts the player as the lens through which the nation will view its new government. Seated in front of a bank of glowing screens, sliders and controls, you have the enviable power to switch between four live camera feeds, bleep out naughty words (and later subversive opinion), choose which ads to run during the break, and select which images are highlighted on screen during each news story.
To the game’s main point: the ability to editorialise the news on a whim makes you more influential than any politician, pundit or firebrand author. Choreographing public opinion by presenting celebrities in an unflattering light sends their careers into comedic freefall later in the story, while eulogising the powers that be enables the government to carry out their plans unimpeded by anything as inconvenient opinion polls, and sends the plot cartwheeling off on a new trajectory and towards one of a handful of major endings.
Each episode is a roughly 20 minute long sequence of hammy live-action news stories and interviews, sports features and cooking segments, which you must stitch together into a plausible broadcast. On the left you have a grid of four smaller displays showing the separate feeds available to you at any given moment. In front of you is the main broadcast screen showing the shot you’ve selected. To your right, and on a two second delay so you can catch any f**ks that come tumbling out of the mouths of interviewees, is the live feed as it appears on television sets around the country.
If a single tit were to blithely wander on to the news, the fabric of British society would come apart at the seams.
The action unfolds in real time, so braiding all four camera feeds into something coherent and pleasing to a fickle unseen audience feels like spinning news-plates on a runaway news-train. You’ve got some basic rules to follow. Keep the camera on whoever’s talking, but not for too long. Cut away to wide-angle and reaction shots occasionally, but don’t linger. And above all, don’t let a tit or an arse get on the news. If a single tit were to blithely wander on to the news, the fabric of British society would come apart at the seams.
To keep your editing fingers warmed up, Not For Broadcast likes to throw you plenty of weird curveballs. Naked protesters might raid the studio, for example, requiring you to deftly edit around their bare arses as they flit from camera to camera like big pink moths. Some of the slapstick sketch comedy lands nicely. There’s a pitch-perfect Gordon Ramsey impression later in the game, which requires you to have the reaction times of a fighter pilot to censor around. Then there’s a made-up sport with a set of inscrutable rules which – with a bit of editing down and a few more drafts – could easily have been a lesser-known Mitchell & Webb sketch.
Other segments outstay their welcome, or fall flat when the cast get a little too ambitious with their routines. In one interview a sanctimonious police commissioner rants down his webcam about moral decay, while in the background a guy in a gimp mask escapes from a closet and has to be wrangled by a dominatrix. Which is all a bit… unsubtle? The writers stop short of anything as nuanced as taking a swipe at the spate of kink-shaming takedowns of heinous public figures by tabloid papers in the 90s, and bails on the joke early with a basic sight-gag of a policeman wearing fishnet stockings.
The tone veers clumsily from this kind of surreal comic discourse and cartoonish characters in the studio, to more grave, text-based sequences in between episodes. Here, the chickens you edited in the broadcast suite come home to roost, and you’re forced to make difficult life choices as the government encroaches more and more into your everyday existence.
These interstitial sections move the story along nicely, but are so bleakly presented that they feel like they could have been lifted from an entirely different game. In the studio it’s all cockwomble this and Johnny Hamsleeves that. At home you’re concerned that your teenage son has joined some sort of Hitler Youth programme. It’s a bit like if This War Of Mine had been interspersed with a series of Cooking Mama minigames.
There’s also a weird disconnect between the moral choices you’re being asked to make and the politics on display. Not For Broadcast ostensibly tries to chart a neutral course, but the choice of antagonist in an hyper-exaggerated far-left government (whose dastardly schemes include wealth redistribution and assisted dying) is peculiar during a time in history when successive conservative governments have kicked inequality into overdrive, and populist politicians and far-right parties around the world are actively trying to dismantle democracy.
“But what if the left got into power and took our money?” doesn’t seem like an appropriately terrifying scenario to present a player with in 2022. And when the fictional government’s food banks start showing up, well, things become so ironic it’s hard to see straight.
To its benefit, Not For Broadcast does its best to avoid real-world politics where it can, and presumably a scenario in which a British government has a crack at implementing a socialist police state is as far from reality as the developer could imagine. In either case the wildly flailing, hedge-betting politics of the game ends up making things more fun for the player, as the more you can sympathise with certain aspects of the government’s plans, the more interesting your choices become.
Putting the politics of this game about politics to one side, Not For Broadcast nails the sense that your decisions in the editing booth are charting a course through an elaborate branching timeline. The unique format of sitting through a sequence of live FMVs as you push buttons makes replaying the thing from the beginning to explore other avenues a chore – I was satisfied after seeing just one ending – but there’s fun to be had in combing through rushes to listen in on hot mics during ad breaks, or hearing news anchors slagging off guests before going on air.
By its closing chapters I’d become strangely attached to its cast of roving reporters, its dumb running jokes about murderous children’s toys and even its wantonly childish, Profinisaurus-grade character names.
The central, notionally interactive premise of fiddling around with camera angles, retuning signals and slapping censorship buttons isn’t engaging enough in the moment to make you want to dive back in and uncover the two thirds of the game you miss, but one helping of the news is more than enough. A strange, funny, and enormously ambitious game, Not For Broadcast is unlike anything else I’ve played.