“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.”
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.”
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.
“[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.”