This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.
Not For Broadcast is about handling the nightly news as it's broadcast live. Players will be bleeping out cussing, making sure the camera angles are right, and using censorship to keep your government overlords happy. Or not.
Game Developer sat down with Alex Paterson, Director for the project, to chat about putting the studio's backgrounds in theatre and television to work on a game project, the way they drew on a simplified version of 70's broadcasting equipment for the player's controls, and how they hope the game makes players think more on the agendas that fuel the media they see.
Who are you, and what was your role in developing Not For Broadcast?
I'm Alex Paterson, the Director, Designer, and Writer of Not For Broadcast.
What's your background in making games?
My background is as an actor and voice actor for theater, TV, and comedy before founding NotGames as a hobby studio. We began making parody and comedy games for charity which led to more success than we were expecting.
How did you come up with the concept for Not For Broadcast?
Our team all have a background in TV and film, so I was looking for a way to incorporate that unique skill set into our games. Her Story by Sam Barlow was a big inspiration. I especially liked how he used the live action video diegetically—the player character is watching videos as part of their job—as this felt like a way to use video in an immersive way for the first time. This led me to the thought that the gallery of a TV station would be a really engaging and interesting way to use real video in a completely unique way.
From there, alongside my co-writer Jason Orbaum, we began to develop the world and the themes of censorship and news as these complimented the gameplay choices available to a character in charge of a live broadcast.
What development tools were used to build your game?
We developed the game in Unity.
What interested you about turning television broadcasting, and the hands that shape it, into a game?
As the team comes from the world of TV, film, and theater, it felt like a natural extension of our knowledge and experience. Analogue TV news is also a really nice, simplified way of exploring more contemporary attitudes to media and digital information sharing. Huge corporations, both traditional media outlets and online platforms, and governments spend considerable resources globally trying to communicate various agendas and essentially exert some measure of control, for better or worse, over what and how people think. We were interested in exploring what it would be like if the power over those huge decisions was in the hands of a single person and what might happen if it was wielded without care, or even with the best of intentions.
In a world of polarized division, what is the role of the media? Should we be creating echo chambers of agreement or challenging the views of those on both sides of the political spectrum?
Not For Broadcast uses dark humor and its mechanics to explore some unsettling themes about what is or isn't allowed to be televised, doing so in an evocative way. How did these themes shape the game and its story?
The themes sprang from the gameplay itself. We are giving the player control over how events are seen by the public, so this has to be the core of the game. What will you show and what won't you show? With this in mind, censorship is a natural theme. At the start of the game, we introduce the theme in a fun and slightly silly way by asking the player to censor naked streakers at sports games, ridiculous swearwords, and drunk politicians, but later this gets twisted into a much more sinister perspective as the government puts pressure on you to censor ideas and people.
What thoughts went into the design of the game's controls? How did you choose what tools to give them to control and censor what is shown?
The broadcast equipment is a very simplified version of how a live news program is edited. At all times we put the needs of the game and the player over that of realism. It was a delicate balance of giving players enough control but without overwhelming new players.
How did you create the specific look of the control panel? Why was this particular look at setup important to what you were creating?
The look of the equipment is based on old 70s broadcasting equipment but again, vastly simplified. A vision mixer, which is used to select and mix camera inputs is an incredibly complex piece of kit, so we distilled it down to 4 big clear buttons, each for selecting one of four camera angles. I eschewed the realistic layout in favor of a clear, clean 2x2 grid of squares which mirrors the layout of the 4 TV screens in front of you. Any time we could remove complexity, we did.
These tools can fail at times. Why sabotage the player's tools? What do you feel that added to the experience?
At times, the controls can become electrified, requiring the player to demonstrate that they have developed the prerequisite skill to operate the studio with precision to avoid getting a nasty shock. At other times in the game, equipment can overheat if the player doesn't manage the temperature correctly. This is at a very tense and important moment in the story where we really wanted to emphasise just how hot and unpleasant and stressed the characters on the screens are, so we force the player to battle the heat too.
What challenges did you face in allowing the story to go in many different directions based on player actions? Especially when having to do recorded footage with live actors?
Shooting footage with live actors, sets, costumes and props is incredibly expensive—especially relative to the average indie game—so whenever you decide to add content, the budget begins to spiral exponentially. As a result, it was a constant back and forth between our wallets and the need to feel like player choice actually matters. We felt it was integral to the experience that there be genuine consequences for your actions, so this necessitated a certain amount of content that wouldn't be seen by all players on the average playthrough. Also, whenever you begin branching stories or paths, it doesn't take long before it becomes a really unwieldy thing to manage.
What ideas went into capturing the distracting, often bizarre nature of television?
Not For Broadcast follows the journey of the National Nightly News and the news was the obvious choice for this game—reporting and providing differing perspective on huge world events, giving the player the ability to shape the public's opinion and literally change the world.
What are some things you hope the player considers after playing Not For Broadcast?
I hope the player thinks not only that they should question the information they receive, but also how human and fallible we are. There are agendas out there, whether they are businesses looking to expand their profits, or governments that want to quash rebellion, but there are is also chaos and error. We should be much more careful about how much power we put on those whose voices reach the furthest.