Riding the airwaves.
GameSpot may get a commission from retail offers.
Here's how Not For Broadcast, a game about manipulating what gets broadcasted from the newsroom, gradually unveils its narrative: through perceptual blindness. It reminds me of a real-life experiment, involving an invisible gorilla, which illustrates this perfectly. In the experiment, viewers are tasked to count how many times three basketball players--who are dressed in white--have passed a ball to one another. As the scene is rather frenetic, keeping count of the passes requires the utmost concentration, which leads many viewers into missing an obvious visual gag: a gorilla sauntering past the players, cheekily thumping its chest, and leaving the scene.
Likewise, Not For Broadcast keeps you blinded from pivotal details--such as what goes on behind the scenes in a studio--by bombarding you with information to manage. By putting you in charge of the studio's production control room, the game is a high-intensity newsroom simulator that divulges its story in bits, all while distracting you with a multitude of ridiculously juicy scenes. Take one interview with an excessively polite and charming actor, who's revealed to be a grade-A douchebag when he is seen cursing at his host off the camera--a revelation you could have missed if you're fixated on the bright, gaudy ads playing on a separate monitor.
And your role in this madcap scenario? Turns out you're just an incredulous, agreeable janitor standing in for a producer. One who decided, on a whim, that he would rather be partying on a yacht than do his job. That means you'll be scrambling to splice together the evening news, your eyes frantically darting across multiple screens, buttons, and levers, as you attempt to patch together some form of live entertainment for a demanding television audience. Should you fail to maintain or increase your viewership, the grim alternative is losing your job and a steady income--an income that helps you support your family, and lets you purchase a variety of knick-knacks that helps you perform your job better.
It may seem quite chaotic, but Not For Broadcast doesn't overwhelm you with all these details at the start. You begin by putting together news clips with a simulacrum of a switchboard, outfitted with a perplexing number of buttons, sliders, and dials, as well as multiple screens. The original producer--yes, that guy who skipped town and asked a janitor to take his place--will run you through the basics of broadcasting: interjecting the show with ads when necessary, switching cameras, dodging interferences, and bleeping out swear words. Eventually these will become a lot more intuitive, as you settle into a comfortable cadence of video editing on the fly. Later levels will toss in more curveballs, like making sure you censor cuss words like “bollocks,” peppered liberally in the country's new--and very drunk--Prime Minister's speech. Other times you'll have to select what sort of content to broadcast, such as choosing specific pictures that would showcase the autocratic ruling party in a more favourable light. These are usually time-sensitive--sometimes split-second--decisions that will influence not just your viewership, but also shape the opinions of the viewers and even the television crew working on the show.
There are already a couple of games that depict life under a totalitarian state--Papers, Please, Beholder, and Westport Independent are just a few of them--but Not For Broadcast opts for a different approach. While the oppressive atmosphere of Papers, Please is a constant reminder of the discomfort of sacrificing your humanity so you can earn a basic living as an immigration officer, Not For Broadcast chooses to lean into its zany, slapstick humor to skewer its dystopian world, at times highlighting the absurdity of politics and daily life. One broadcast lets you put together a segment speculating on the policies of the Advance Party, the far-left ruling party. This involves interviewing an academic, whose crumbling personal life was on full display when his wife threatened to leave him live on air--in a manner not unlike the political science professor whose BBC interview got gate-crashed by his kids. Then there's the preacher who waxes lyrical about the degradation of moral values and the shameful behaviour of the LGBTQ community, only for a near-naked submissive to tumble out of his closet. It's a bit juvenile, but this humor plays a double role; like a particularly horrific car crash, it compels you to keep your eyes glued to these spectacle--distracting you from your duties as the studio's newly minted producer--while rebuking the political and social problems on display.
To get a more complete picture, Not For Broadcast lets you look at the raw feeds on all the cameras, as well as the adverts, after you completed your shift. This allows you to watch specific moments you may have missed otherwise. Here's when you can discover, for instance, the news anchor's barely disguised contempt for one of his guests, or chuckle at the ads, some of which take pot-shots at current affairs. You can also re-watch your own broadcast, and admire your nifty editing skills. Ultimately, it's upon watching these clips a second time that you get a better understanding of the events behind Not For Broadcast.
It's for these reasons that Not For Broadcast is endlessly refreshing and entertaining, but it's also the game's wacky veneer that renders the other half of its game, which is made up of sombre, text-based scenes, tonally incongruent. These vignettes play out after you're done with your day's work and delve into the impact of the Advance Party's policies on your family and common folk. You'll receive a questionnaire from the party that quizzes you on your loyalties, decide if you want to help your brother-in-law evade taxes and escape the country, and consider skipping a family vacation to go back to work (I can't imagine why you can't just find another janitor to replace you). While it's supposed to be disconcerting and overbearing, it ultimately feels oddly impersonal, since you never get to truly interact with your family or anyone else in a meaningful way. They are, after all, just a wall of text in the game.
Given the game's early access state, Not For Broadcast currently only has around three hours' worth of content. It's thus no surprise that much of its political commentary feels half-baked and even questionable at times--issues that the game will hopefully resolve in later chapters. For instance, the game's resident Alex Jones figure is a person of color, who is both a compulsive liar and an insufferable ignoramus. Meanwhile, its far-left ruling party looks like a poor caricature of a socialist party, particularly with the party's heavy-handed redistribution of wealth and assets, and party members' frequent chants about taking down the rich. While there are some well-founded criticism about the progressive movement--one broadcast revolves around a cringe-worthy rap performance about the perils of poverty by four middle-class white kids--there is relatively little commentary on modern politics. This is a tad disappointing, given that Not For Broadcast borrows so heavily from the iconography of today's politics. This is hampered by the game's idiosyncratic sense of humor, which makes it very funny, but also muddles the messages--if there's indeed any at all--the game's trying to convey.
A short snippet played at the game's finale hints at more melodramatic revelations, such as the appearance of rebels who strongly resemble the hacktivist group Anonymous, and the gradual mental breakdown of the studio crew. These are powerful images to be sure, but not unexpected. Instead, I'm looking forward to more of the hijinks Not For Broadcast will put me through in front of the switchboard. The later chapters will probably feature challenges around broadcasting government-friendly programming, while the rest of the studio and country descends into anarchy--and I'm keenly anticipating being able to do so while being bombarded by multiple stimuli across the switchboard. If Not For Broadcast will recognize this as a statement about how our entertainment is keeping us wired for distraction, it'll truly make for a powerful metaphor.