Not Tonight takes place in an alternative present. Britain's vote to leave the European Union has triggered a convulsion of xenophobia that sweeps a party called Britain Alone into power. Under their rule citizens who can't prove two generations of British citizenship are refused residency and forced to take temp gig economy jobs to make ends meet. As one such citizen, you sign up for infrequent bouncer work at a scuzzy local pub and spend your nights checking ID cards.
It plays like Papers, Please. You take the ID, check the picture, flag print, hologram, date-of-birth and the ID's expiry date and then either admit the guest or tell them to scram. The venue sets admission targets, but too many incorrect admissions will shut down the job early and pay nothing. Between gigs, which you sign up for via an app called BouncR, you sit in your hovel and take visits from neighbours and a corrupt policeman.
This bleak universe is rendered in very effective, grotty pixel art. There's an authentic caricature of a run down Somerset pub, complete with a ruined bus stop plastered in UKIP posters. As you take on new jobs you move into the cities and take jobs on tired old concrete high streets. The game's Brexit stance is the headline-grabber, but these sardonic snapshots of British nightlife are the best thing about the game. Queue-dodgers attempt to sneak in, telling you they know the owners. Angry clubbers get lairy with you for telling them they're underage, and it all happens to sound of muffled subterranean beats.
The moment-to-moment of the game is too gruelling in this beta version, though. The trouble with simulating a boring job is that it can make for a boring game. Papers, Please managed to put a lot of tactile interactions into the bureaucratic busywork to keep it involving, but Not Tonight doesn't manage this. The task of checking IDs gets extra layers when you're also checking a queue of VIPs against a checklist, but the sluggish progression means shifts are mind-numbing.
This might be intentional. The occasional attempts at humour fall flat for me, and it feels like a game that's trying to deliver a message rather than entertain. The Brexit stuff is a smokescreen, too. Not Tonight is really about a particular strain of British nationalism, and the fear of that moving from far right fringe groups into the mainstream. The way your character is referred to as a 'Euro' evokes the cadences of racist abuse commonly leveled at Pakistani communities just a few decades ago. It's got Brexit on the box, but it's about the Bradford riots, Windrush, and the UK's complicated relationship with immigration.
It's not a subtle parable and like a lot of worthy projects that come at you with a big message, it does end up feeling like taking medicine. As the player there's no room to come back and engage with the issues. Your character is monosyllabic and in the first few hours don't get to make many of the promised moral choices. The map suggests there will be a lot of venues to work at, but the idea of working all of those doors fills me with dread. Still, it's good to see a game at least to try to engage with some of these themes, even if the current state of the game could use improvement. The final version is due out this summer.