Tonight We Riot Devs Wanted To Make An 'Unapologetically Leftist' Game

Screenshot: Pixel Pushers Union 512, Kotaku

“Politics” has become a dirty word in gaming, especially when angrily screamed—or, as is usually the case, frantically typed—by a vocal minority of reactionary video game fans. But for more progressive players, games often aren’t political enough. Or, when they do take a position, they push objectionable conservative concepts like capitalism, imperialism, and militarism. Tonight We Riot bucks these trends by proudly wearing its decidedly leftist ideology on its sleeve.

Tonight We Riot, now available on Nintendo Switch and heading to Steam tomorrow, is the first game developed by Pixel Pushers Union 512. It tasks you with directing a mass gathering of protesters as they seize the means of production from an oppressive overlord. You throw Molotov cocktails, break formations of riot cops, and organise your fellow workers. Tonight We Riot’s gameplay mixes the street brawling of River City Ransom with the simplistic squad tactics of Pikmin. It’s a cathartic exercise in returning power to the people in a world that’s similar to our own, if maybe fast-forwarded a few years.

“The world is in the throes of global capitalism,” Tonight We Riot’s opening cutscene says, setting the scene for the carnage to come. “Workers everywhere toil daily for a pittance. Many work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. But no matter how hard they work, it’ll never be enough to be free. For those who do not own the means of production will never know real freedom. People peacefully protested but were met with violence. Those who own for a living rule those who work for a living. But all of that is about to change…”

Much like Motion Twin, the “anarcho-syndicalist” developer behind Dead Cells, Pixel Pushers Union 512 was established as a worker-owned cooperative. Decisions within the small team are made by committee, bonuses are divided equally, and if at some point the studio pulls in enough revenue to provide full-time jobs, everyone will be paid the same wage. Tonight We Riot marks the culmination of five years of work, during which the developer sought to provide an entertaining game while also arguing the merits of leftist ideologies in a medium that rarely elevates them.

“There’s tons and tons of games that have been delivering pretty strong political messages, whether they meant to or not,” Tonight We Riot code steward Stephen Meyer told Kotaku. “Most of the games in the [modern military] genre are like [neoconservative] fantasies. They enforce this idea that the very best way to make the world a better place is by massive military force, that you don’t need organisation and societal change. And there’s lots of xenophobia in there, too. You see these neocon fantasies all the time and you don’t really see leftist fantasies. In our tiny little way, we were trying to be an answer to that.”

Ted Anderson, veteran game developer and art steward on Tonight We Riot, finally felt pushed to try creating a leftist video game after playing through Bioshock Infinite. That game also depicts a violent uprising, but employs a bit of horseshoe theory in making the perpetually downtrodden masses just as sociopathic and murderous as their lifelong oppressors, a “both sides” argument that doesn’t really do justice to the importance of political revolution.

“I really loved [Bioshock Infinite], but I felt that the people in charge of writing the story kind of painted themselves into an ideological corner,” Anderson explained. “I felt like whoever [wrote] it was probably very liberal but very uncomfortable with the idea of what a revolution actually entails. It’s not a Tea Party and that people are probably going to get hurt. I was like, ‘What would happen if you made a really honest, straightforward, unapologetically leftist game?’ I’ve been playing video games since I was like four years old and I’ve never seen one. I sought to really honestly pursue that and see where it would take us.”

Screenshot: Pixel Pushers Union 512, Kotaku

Pixel Pushers Union 512 also recognised the necessity of making Tonight We Riot fun and not purely educational. This isn’t Mario is Missing; leading rioters through various locales and liberating businesses remained entertaining over the few hours it took me to beat Tonight We Riot, so much so that I was overjoyed to see an endless “permanent revolution” mode unlock after defeating the final boss. Much of what the game has to say on an ideological level is portrayed through character quips and gameplay mechanics rather than long strings of academic text.

Since you only control one character at a time in Tonight We Riot, using your comrades strategically is always more effective than charging in like Rambo. Every weapon you utilise is amplified by your fellow protesters, turning one thrown brick into a barrage of building materials. The game puts an impetus on solidarity by grading you on the number of protesters who survived to the end of the level. Meeting certain criteria will unlock better weapons and gear, like wrenches and body armour. You’re never rewarded for killing cops or destroying expensive automobiles. There’s even a Steam achievement for going the pacifist route, but it’s hard to keep protesters alive that way.

Tonight We Riot certainly won’t be winning over the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd, but Pixel Pushers Union 512 was careful to keep from going too far with their message of revolution. While leftists might not have an issue with the depiction of a Molotov cocktail crashing through the windshield of a cop car, the average person won’t always have a positive perspective on that kind of direct action. As the opening cinematic explains, the workers of Tonight We Riot are taking to the streets because they’ve been given no other option. Passive demonstrations have been savaged by police brutality. Democracy has been replaced by plutocracy. Human rights are non-existent. Peaceful revolution is impossible, thus making violent revolution inevitable.

“If you start up the game, load up the first level, and then just take the controller and set it down, the first thing that’ll happen is riot police come in and beat all of you to death,” Meyer said, explaining how the state of the world is communicated through gameplay.

“We’re able to be the ones who are crafting the story, we’re crafting the world, we’re crafting our form of the argument, so it’s on us to set it up in a way that explains it to the player even if they’re not, you know, politically savvy,” Anderson added. “We set it up in a very realistic context. Yes, the cops will definitely escalate the situation; there’s studies to back this up. They will beat the shit out of protesters and damn right they will kill them.”

Gif: Pixel Pushers Union 512, Kotaku

Tonight We Riot’s messaging isn’t always hyper-focused on oppression. It’s also about welcoming new comrades into the fold. Every so often, you’ll come across a business that can be liberated with the push of a button, swelling the protesters’ ranks. Some enemies will even come over to your side if you kill their bosses first. A dog named Loukanikos—an reference to popular “riot dogs” from revolutions around the world—shows up in certain stages, sharing its own canine-based ideology in Greek. One line in particular, “We have nothing to lose but our leashes and the whole world to gain,” echoes a similar refrain from The Communist Manifesto.

Anderson, who founded Pixel Pushers Union 512 and originally came up with the idea for Tonight We Riot, was as much inspired by political movements as he was by video games. He credits his research into the Industrial Workers of the World, colloquially known as the IWW or the Wobblies, as the main driving force behind his work.

A popular story from the IWW’s history tells how organisers, after demands from the sheriff to speak to a leader during a demonstration, responded by telling law enforcement that everyone in the IWW was a leader. This legend stuck with Anderson ever since he first heard it via folk musician Utah Phillips, and informs both his efforts to establish a worker-owned game studio and develop Tonight We Riot.

“That’s also what I wanted to promote,” Anderson said. “I think that in this world especially, when there’s such scary times going on around us all the time, a lot of folks look to try and find someone who’s going to lead them out of it when they themselves, in their own small little ways, are helping out. Just by being a good parent, just by being a good listener, just by checking in on a friend, you’re being someone who’s making an impact. You count, you and the things that you do matter. You’re not just this cog in this gross machine. You can change things in solidarity with your friends and fellow workers.”

Is it even possible to utilise the shop democracy of indie studios at institutions responsible for putting out AAA games? Pixel Pushers Union 512 thinks so. During our chat, Anderson and Meyer drew comparisons between major developers and overseas corporations like the Mondragon Corporation, a cooperative manufacturer in the Basque region of Spain owned by over 70,000 workers. The only problem is that it would require executives at these massive video game companies to give up a portion of their power and money, which is easier said than done, especially when you realise just how much more they make compared to the folks who actually create the games.

Screenshot: Pixel Pushers Union 512, Kotaku

“[Worker-owned studios are] a much leaner way of producing games,” Anderson said. “You don’t have a whole suite of executives at the top milking the company for all it’s worth, you don’t have managers […] climbing the ladder. As an artist, I want to make art. I don’t like managing. If you gave me a managerial position at a studio by virtue of me having a ton of years of being an artist, you’re losing an artist and gaining a subpar manager. That sucks for everybody involved! It sucks for the people underneath me, it sucks for me because I want to make art. I want to make it where people who fit into natural positions can be guided into those positions by the virtue of their skillset, like more of a true meritocracy, so everybody’s skills are valued.”

Just like folks were worried about an indie game bubble back in 2014, Pixel Pushers Union 512 believe a similar moment may be coming for AAA games. The pay gap between executives and workers is widening. Costs are only going up. Margins are thin. Crunch is inevitable. Developers are routinely laid off through no fault of their own.

Microtransactions, loot boxes, and downloadable content dominate the landscape as publishers try to make back the exorbitant amount of money they spend in pursuit of more cinematic experiences and realistic graphics. The situation is, frankly, untenable.

Independent developers, particularly those that adopt co-op structures, might have a better chance of riding out this kind of turbulence. As a veteran artist, Anderson has seen these issues first-hand while bouncing from job to job. And now that he has a family, putting down roots is more important than ever.

But there’s always hope. While giving a talk at Game Developers Conference 2019 with Night in the Woods creators Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, Anderson was heartened to see the room packed with folks eager to learn more about the co-op studio model.

“People were very excited about it and it made me feel good about where the industry could head,” said Anderson. “I want these kids who are getting into the industry now not to get chewed up and used. I want them to value their labour. I want unpaid internships to go away and I want royalties to come back. I want more workers to have a say in what they do in a company.”


Comments

    I got to the bioshock section and then started laughing from the fact they didnt get bioshock infinite at all .

      At first I was like "what are you...?" Then I read that part and boyyyyyyyy... talk about them missing the games entire point.

      It's a pretty straight forward and widely understood reading of the game.

      The only way you can interpret Binfinite differently is if you interpret everything through the awfully inconsistent and jarring DLC released up to 12 months after the main game, DLC that is primarily just a check box of the dev's bizarre post hoc justifications and shoe-horned responses to obvious criticisms made after the game's initial publication.

      You've already written thousands of words on the topic in previous articles, however, so there's really not much point in revisiting that discussion again here.

      I'd like to hear how you interpreted it, because I thought it was pretty blatant what they were saying (or indeed failing to say).

      Bioshock was never half as clever as it thought it was and the same was true for Infinite. I quite liked Infinite, but not for its narrative or thematic content which were as shallow as that of the first game (I'm going to cop flak for that, but Ayn Rand's own writing offered more nuanced and efective criticism of Objectivism than Bioshock did, and that was in texts made to sell people on the idea). I had fun with it, but outside of some decent voice acting and an intruiging (though dissapointingly unexplored) idea for handling the protagonist / antagonist relationship the narrative was pretty forgettable and politcally confused.

      If there is something I missed I'd love to hear it, but I'm genuinely surprised anyone could come to any other interpretation of that part of the narrative.

        Could be interpreted many ways as ive discussed previously in previous bioshock topics.
        Could even be interpreted PRE DLC that they arent actually back in the timeline they started in because as stated by elizabeth she cant really control where she goes, so the world they found themselves in is just one where she (daisy) is the antithesis of the metaphor for "better the devil you know".
        But if you go by Angorafishs accusations that it was changed after the fact to make Daisy not so evil because the leftists got mad because the devs used Horseshoe theory as a plot device because they dont like reality, i suppose that is another way to interpret it.
        Could also be interpreted as absolute power corrupts absolutely.
        Or it could be interpreted that the game is about about choice and that it doesnt matter which way you slice it, There is always a man and always a lighthouse. And the main Character no matter what choices were made it was always going to end the same way rather than a statement on Left vs right.

          TIL that the view from the centre of the two sides has a name, Horseshoe theory. Which is funny. Being an avowed centrist its easy to see how alike the two sides are.

          On the language of the article, 'leftist' seems such an innocuous term for a group that advocates violence and the destruction of other people's property if they don't get their way. I wonder if it would fall under the same ban hammer that Mark Ecko's Under Pressure had for advocating criminal acts.

          (Which is funny considering all the criminal acts we do in the average Saints Row / GTA game)

            Dude, read the article linked with the horseshoe theory part.
            Its rather amusing in the "I dont like how people see the far left and far right as equal shit shows, so im going to try remind everyone that true communism has never happened" kind of way.

              That was hilarious, particularly the fishhook theory. It reminds me of the adage about the ABC. When you're on the extreme right, everything looks left to you. So it seems for the opposite side too.

          Right - so a basic, boring kind of non-statement. My big thing with Infinite's narrative was that there is so much in-between that's interesting, so much nuance that you could pull from the themes it started with that it just didn't go into - I want to see all of the stuff inbetween Booker and Dewitt or one opressed group and their opressors, but there's none of that in Infinite.

          And this irritation with Infinite isn't about the distinctly centrist perspective it arrives at, nor the fact I'm obviously a lefty - I despise Objectivism for example, it's an evil ideology that literally demands the murder of incompetent, unintelligent or just plain unlucky people because those 'special' individuals could do so much more good if they weren't held back by common decency. It's despicable, and yet I really like Atlas Shrugged - not because I agree with its perspectives (I don't) and certainly not because it's supposed to sell people on the ideas it's based on, but because it's well written, with a dark sense of humour and some wonderfully fleshed out characters. I can simultaneously like media I disagree with and despise the beliefs that underpin it. I loved Mass Effect Andromeda, but when played with the writings of post-colonial theorists in mind there are quite a few moments that will give you pause. Infinite doesn't say anything though. It wraps its narrative in the veneer of good man becomes bad man and pats itself on the back for being clever, but its idea of actual political revolution is cartoonish at best, which is the specific moment this article is referring to.

          I'm not trying to be an ass here, but I think it is just as simplistic as it's made out to be on the surface - it's good cause =/= good actions, but with no more depth than that, and I don't see how any more can be read into it than that. I just don't think it's there.

            Well you already admitted you cant see anything beyond the surface, so its pretty clear you dont want to.

          Don't put words into my mouth dude. Nothing you've said bears any relationship whatsoever to any opinion that I've ever expressed on the topic.

            "The only way you can interpret Binfinite differently is if you interpret everything through the awfully inconsistent and jarring DLC released up to 12 months after the main game, DLC that is primarily just a check box of the dev's bizarre post hoc justifications and shoe-horned responses to obvious criticisms made after the game's initial publication."

            Im sorry, what was that again?

              "it was changed after the fact to make Daisy not so evil because the leftists got mad because the devs used Horseshoe theory as a plot device because they don’t like reality".

              No, it was changed because the devs were stung when people pointed out that large chunks of the game was illogical, weaksauce, twenty-something cynicism passing itself off as philosophy bullshit.

              The devs then tried to explain how all their weaksauce cynicism passing itself off as philosophy was really, in fact, profound, but just kept digging their hole further and making the game even more illogical and glib further proving the original point about how shit the whole thing was. Kinda like you're doing right now.

                Thanks for proving my point about the leftists btw.
                Also considering the fact that IN GAME before DLC it was a different daisy than the one you started with, as she stated in game, HER booker is dead. So you dont actually KNOW what happened to this daisy to make her that way. Even though the original daisy didnt give a shit about booker or elizabeth unless there was something in it for her and her cause.
                Shows that you dont get bioshock at all because your head is up your own ideological ass because you want to whinge about 15% at most section of the game, ignoring everything else because it didnt subscribe to your out of touch viewpoint of the world, ignoring the fact the game was always about choice, dealing with alternate realities and a character study of elizabeth and booker not a case study on Horseshoe theory, but you want to hold on to the fact "Game devs made out person isnt a paragon of everything good just because shes fighting for a good cause. This makes me mad because i refuse to look inward at some of the dumb shit i say/do because i fight for as good cause"
                But hey. As i already said to you. Never change fishboy. Never change.

                  Here you go, turning everything into some kind of bullshit culture wars argument as if politics has anything to do with it. Come back to me when you've got that chip off your shoulder dude.

              Also, since you clearly don't get it, I should add that the quote you have used is not my argument, it's yours, since the vast majority of your arguments require you to reference plot points that are only articulated in the DLC released 12 months after the main game. Even you have trouble explaining how the main game wasn't bullshit without all the dev's convoluted post-hoc rationalisation.

                "The only way you can interpret Binfinite differently is if you interpret everything through the awfully inconsistent and jarring DLC released up to 12 months after the main game, DLC that is primarily just a check box of the dev's bizarre post hoc justifications and shoe-horned responses to obvious criticisms made after the game's initial publication."
                Those are your words.
                Seeing as how you clearly dont get it.
                I quoted them again, back at you. To make sure you remember, those were your words and your argument.
                Your mental gymnastics at not being able to understand bioshock infinite deserves a gold star.
                https://rlv.zcache.com.au/custom_message_gold_star_with_gold_glitter_texture_star_sticker-r8c6018b4e6f64bd4b7386ba858eb00be_0ugdr_8byvr_540.jpg
                There ya go fishboy.

                  Good old m2d2, always go the man not the argument. Never change m2d2, never change.

                  @angorafish
                  Well the fact you cant even remember what you type and go "NO I DIDNT! YOU DID!"
                  what would be the point in arguing that argument, i have no desire to return to the primary school dealings of "im rubber your glue"
                  Considering that most of my comments on interpretations of the game was in the version of release, NOT POST dlc and you wanna hold onto that because you got upset that a Char that wasnt really a good gu...girl that you met for sub 10 minutes isnt seen as the best char ever in an 10+ hour game that the game is about SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY and then argue I didnt get the game because it doesnt fit your world view.
                  But you wanna hold onto the DLC where they try and stitch all 3 games together in a not so satisfactory matter like you know what the hell you are talking about.
                  Please. Nobody is buying what your selling except for the people who wanted to see the game be more political.

                  @m2d2 Once again, you just can't let go of 'politics', but as there appears to be no risk of you ever ceasing to beat that dead horse so I'll just have to leave you to it.

                  Seriously, there really are no people on the internet more interested in 'politics' than people arguing that there's allegedly too much of it.

                  And you can quote what I write all day long but if you aren't willing to either read or attempt to understand it you're just shouting into the wind.

                  Frankly, I have trouble understanding how anyone with more than a basic grasp of English can interpret the paragraph that you keep quoting as anything other than a take-down of the position it's describing, and given that you appear to have at least the English comprehension of a native speaker I can only assume that you've reflexively gone straight on the attack without actually thinking.

                  @angorafish
                  "The only way you can interpret Binfinite differently is if you interpret everything through the awfully inconsistent and jarring DLC released up to 12 months after the main game, DLC that is primarily just a check box of the dev's bizarre post hoc justifications and shoe-horned responses to obvious criticisms made after the game's initial publication."
                  Just wanted to post that again because once again all but one of the interpretations are PRE DLC and a friendly reminder you missed the point that the game has alternate realities which you were told about PRE DLC, The events in the MAIN game were NOT changed with a patch.
                  But considering you still fail to get understand that and try to sidestep YOU are the one who tried to tie it to the DLC and then claim i did because YOU are the one hung up on its politics trying the Im Rubber Youre Glue argument AGAIN, when it didnt work the first time.
                  Never change fishboy.
                  And considering this article has a big section of certain lefties who didnt understand bioshock Infinite while claiming dodgy politics. And a poster who wish the game had MORE politics advocating the game only has service level points. You also failed on the more people argument. Cause neither i nor weresmurf were advocating POLITICS BAD! Just that the dev in question and the author of this article didnt get bioshock Infinite. Just like YOU and CAD didnt.

                  @m2d2 I honestly have no idea what you're talking about at this point, and I'm not convinced that you do either.

                  I can see your problem though. It's hard to launch into an actual argument after firing off half a dozen ad hominems and then trying to tie them back into something resembling a coherent position after the fact.

                  Kinda like Binfinite really.

                  @angorafish
                  I was going to say "Well considering you didnt get the point of a video game, its not hard to get that you wouldnt understand the fact that you fucked up your own standing when you even went against your first words on the topic" when the interpretations were pre DLC without using the DLC as a touchstone. And that Daisy Fitzroy isnt really that significant to the point of the game.

                  But considering the last line of what you just said.
                  You kinda showed your hand.

    Fuck yes. Sign me the hell up.

    Those who own for a living rule those who work for a living.
    We're already there. In the trailer, they're not describing the fictional setting of the game, they're describing right the fuck now.

    In before the inevitable “imagine the outrage if..” comments from people who didn’t read the article.

    It's funny because this is the, very real, life of people who already live in socialist/communist countries.

      You mean totalitarian dictatorships using communist propaganda to entrench their hegemony, right?

        Ahhhh the old "it's not real communism" argument... You got me there!

          Well, yes. Because you can dress your dog in antlers and a red nose and tell people his name is Rudolph, but he's not a reindeer. Even if people believe it.

          Besides, you realise that we live in a more or less socialist country, right? In fact the huge drop in living conditions we have suffered recently are a direct result of converting our socialist structures into privatised ones more in line with the modern capitalist mindset.

      Capitalist countries, too. The intro cinematic is legit describing real life, here and now.

        We'll agree to disagree on that. *Thumbs up*

          What do you do for a job? I'm genuinely interested. Did you grow up in a wealthy family? Are your parents educated?

          Because you seem to be flat out denying the existence of the lived experience of millions of Australians.

    Well, if you wanted to know who the sweaty fascists were, this article certainly rang a very loud bell.

    Having said that, given it's the same cluster of dudes EVERY TIME it's not like anyone wanted or needed that.

    The joke being is that these are the guys who use the word 'triggered' unironically but gosh, post an article about Leftism or GIRLS and watch what happens.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now