Not for Broadcast is a comedy FMV game about managing a television broadcast. This essay is emphatically not a review, meaning that I have no intention of recommending one way or another whether you ought to play it. Rather, I’m interested in discussing its story about liberal fascists. I will also get into spoilers—warnings when I get there.
What is Not for Broadcast?
Not for Broadcast is at its core a multi-tasking game. You must divide your attention between cutting between multiple cameras, bleeping out swear words on a two second delay, adjusting for interference, and don’t forget to actually pay attention to the show that you’re editing, so you can follow the story.
There’s no mechanical benefit to following the story, so in my experience, it got lowest priority. The game delivers a unique experience where the narrative is delivered through a fog of distraction. This aligns with the narrative of the game, which is about a government that distracts from the real issues by filling broadcast news with fluff. Of course, to actually appreciate what the game was doing, I watched the archived footage afterwards. Paying attention would often cast segments in a whole new light.
Not for Broadcast also has a thickly branching story. Decisions are made during a few interactive fiction segments, as well as during live broadcasts. The main story has 14 distinct endings, and there are multiple side stories with up to 8 endings each. I’m ambivalent about this structure, since I don’t see myself going back to try a different path—but it’s important context to understanding the game.
Advance or Disrupt
General story spoilers in this section.
The main story of Not For Broadcast is about Advance, a new political party that has taken over. Their first move is to take all the money away from wealthy people. Their passports are also confiscated to prevent them from escaping to another country. This resembles certain liberal ideas about increasing the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest people (or rather, restoring the marginal tax rate to what it used to be prior to Reagan), but it’s taken to a brutal extreme. That’s the general pattern that Advance follows for the whole game.
Among Advance’s notable moves, they take public ownership of the broadcast news show (which slowly transforms into variety show), provide funding for artists (who are portrayed as laughably bad), enact a food rationing program, issue new IDs, create a youth program, and suspend elections. Oh, and they start a nuclear war, although the narrative strangely downplays the significance of that one…
There is an opposing faction, known as Disrupt. Disrupt takes violent action to tear down Advance, and I guess restore the human rights of the absurdly wealthy. They’re led by an Alex Jones-type, although he’s a lot more likable than Alex Jones (a low bar).
Video game trolleyology
The player can make various decisions that favor either Advance or Disrupt. This follows a common pattern in video games, which Yahtzee recently described as “Fascists Versus Nutters“. Players apparently aren’t interested anymore in simple good vs evil decisions, and want something a bit more balanced. Although as Yahtzee observes, the choices still aren’t very balanced:
…there’s still one side that’s more narratively satisfying than the other. Good storytelling almost never sides with the authoritarians because independence and the sense to question authority are traditionally heroic qualities.
In my own reading, Not for Broadcast very much follows this pattern. Perhaps the intention was to make Advance and Disrupt balanced, but the morally correct choice was very quickly obvious. The problems of Advance are very much thrust into the center of the narrative, especially since they take control of the show that you work for. Also, fascism is bad, folks. In the mean time, Disrupt has one very significant problem, but it’s only revealed at the end, and not even in every ending.
So we could argue that this game suffers from not sufficiently balancing its moral choices. But is that necessarily a problem? Is designing an interesting moral choice just like writing a parody trolley problem, where the two sides are so stacked with moral consequences that nobody knows what is correct? I think there must be more to it than that.
Take good vs evil. Though it may be out of fashion, we should understand why it “works” as a choice in video games. Players aren’t necessarily trying to choose what is morally best, they’re deciding between: a) morality, fictional though it may be, b) role-playing, c) curiosity, and d) mechanical outcomes. No trolley stacking necessary.
Problem Machine also observed and critiqued the tendency for video games to balance their moral choices.
A very important point that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is that more nuanced is not necessarily more correct. History is full of warring factions and, while everyone has a reason to fight, it is not rare for one side’s reasons to be very stupid and greedy and the others entirely reasonable.
This critique feels especially pointed in relation to Not For Broadcast, because it doesn’t take place in some fantasy world, but rather some alternate history version of the 90s, with politics that look very similar to ours. But where Not For Broadcast presents a “nuanced” choice between well-meaning fascists and 1-percenter rebels, in the real world (from my US-centered perspective), it’s not the liberals who are trying to overturn elections.
As Problem Machine argues, the desire for nuanced choices leads to a situation where leftist politics are systematically portrayed as ineffective or dangerous, because apparently that’s the only way for the narrative to give conservative politics a fighting chance.
This craving for “nuance” will, instead, with repeat iteration, end up systematically recreating the argument that leftist ideals are disingenuous and dangerous, and that they must be opposed by counterbalancing ideas. What was, perhaps, intended to be a certain sort of centrist even-handedness immediately dissolves into what is effectively a smear campaign – simply as an emergent property of avoiding “taking sides”!
In Not for Broadcast, the portrayal of liberal fascists feels particularly off, because it’s not just portraying liberal politics as dangerous, but indulging in a common paranoid conservative fantasy. Calls for social safety nets or increased marginal tax rates are portrayed as sinister wedges to take away people’s personal freedoms or whatnot. At times, Not for Broadcast feels downright irresponsible in its narrative decisions.
Imagining the alternative
This raises the question, what could the game have done differently? And perhaps Not for Broadcast looks better in light of how difficult that question is to answer.
Consider the hypothetical game that instead portrays conservative fascists. Wouldn’t that feel a bit on the nose for a surreal comedy? Would it feel like the moral choice was so obvious as to be uninteresting? Would it feel gross that the game gives you the option to be evil–not mustache-twirling cartoon evil, but siding with IRL villains evil?
From what I’ve seen, reviews of Not for Broadcast are generally silent on its politics (and that’s a whole other discussion about how game reviewers are too afraid to get political). But the Rock Paper Shotgun review had some thoughts along similar lines:
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.
The trouble is, while the scenario is far from reality, it’s not that far off from the fever dreams of people on the far right. I think the game needed to do more to avoid that, but I don’t know what.
What do you think?