Four years after Britain voted by a very narrow margin to secede from the European Union, Brexit has finally gone into full effect. The move will have an impact on almost every facet of life and government, from trade to energy to immigration. The consensus among critics of Brexit is that it will now be harder for people in the EU to move to Britain, and immigrants will be subjected to a points system to prove their worth.
But if you want an idea of what it might feel like to be an immigrant facing xenophobia in a post-Brexit world, you might try Not Tonight, a game by the independent UK publisher No More Robots. It first launched on PC in 2018, and it came to the Nintendo Switch for $25 last weekend—right as Brexit went into effect.
Not Tonight places you as an immigrant working with a temporary work visa in Britain. Your job, ironically, is a bouncer: You need to check people’s IDs as they try to enter a bar and decide whether or not they can come in. At the end of a shift, you return to your rundown apartment. On the wall, someone has spray painted “Go Home.” The next day, you get to wake up and do it all over again.
As Mike Rose, director at No More Robots tells me, a team of roughly five people began working on the game back in 2016. At the time, it was just a bouncer game. They were working on the core mechanic, or playable UI of the game, in which a queue of people would line up, hand you an ID, and you’d need to check their birthday, the expiration date, and even details like whether it’s missing a government stamp. But what the team lacked was a narrative behind it all.
“It was one of the situations where we were looking at what the theme could be . . . it was just an ID-checking game,” says Rose. “By perfect timing, Brexit came along . . . and the whole concept of Brexit felt [almost] too similar to what we were trying to do with the game . . . We all wanted to scream about this awful thing happening in our country.”
Many liberals (and scientists) have interpreted Brexit as exclusionary. Not Tonight very much amplifies this view. It begins with you picking your own backstory—I choose a woman who was born and raised in upper middle class Birmingham, but learned her grandfather wasn’t actually a citizen, and had her citizenship revoked as a result. I get a job working the door at a local pub, with a bartender named King’s Head Dave, who enjoys making casually prejudiced comments. It’s tedious. The IDs all look the same. I make mistakes, largely because I’m rushing to get the most people in that I can, and my pay depends on it. People complain.
I get paid £10, or $13, under the table for my first night’s work, while King’s Head Dave shares stories of his old Polish plumber fondly: He was cheap, too.
“A lot of jokes are extremely on the nose,” says Rose. “We’re not being subtle about this. We wanted to spit politics in people’s faces.”
Hours into the game, and life doesn’t get much better. As soon as I get used to reading the IDs, there’s a new challenge: make sure people with a certain name get in, or watch for black and white flags, which signals photocopied IDs. I realize how slowly people hand me their IDs. How people who want to bribe me, or strike up a conversation, are getting in the way of me doing my job. It only gets more nerve-wracking as my quota grows.
Most games allow you to feel a certain proficiency, or even mastery, as you move on. Mario gets a cape so he can fly, or fireballs so he can pew pew goombas. Not Tonight is stressful, and sometimes miserable, to play in a slog that feels like it might never end. “That was pretty much on purpose,” Rose says. “The more you play of the game, the more messages your character gets from awful people, the more and more rules are piled on top of you.”
At night, you return home and, like most people, play on your phone. The screen is cracked, and a news app keeps you apprised of the latest Brexit twists. Much of this plot was lifted directly from real life, but there were some unhappy accidents, too. Rose’s team imagined a storyline in which Scotland seceded from the UK, and in fact, it has voted to do just that.
Not Tonight has been relatively successful for an indie title since its 2018 release, pulling in around $1 million in revenue to date from its PC release. (It’s too early to know how the Switch version is selling.) And while I wouldn’t say playing it is fun—in fact, it’s tense and sad, most of the time—it does deliver on offering an experience of a political controversy that you simply couldn’t garner from any non-interactive media. You are forced to empathize with a post-Brexit immigrant because you quite literally become them and live their life.
“There are a lot of people who, back when we were making the game, said there’s no room for politics in video games. I absolutely contest it,” says Rose. “TV movies and books are all allowed to talk about politics . . . but when we try to put politics in a video game, the people say, ‘This is where I escape to.’ There are a million video games that aren’t about politics! If you want to escape, go to one of those!”