Politics are a tricky venture in video games… well, social politics, anyway. War and violence are fine, but don’t you dare include a… never mind. Ministry of Broadcast may be the most politically-poignant game I’ve ever formally reviewed, which makes avoiding the elephant in the room all the harder. One could talk at length about the implementation of political subtext, though perhaps it would be more impactful to focus on why the developers felt the need to do so. Realistically, the mere existence of this game will anger some, as did its prime inspiration, 1984. Does that give me the greenlight to go all out, as well? Probably not, but some clarity on the subject will make it necessary.
Welcome to The Wall Show. Here, people compete for their chance at some neat stuff, where sacrifices will be made. In comes the only red-headed lad in the entire competition, complete with a lack of footwear and a pretty healthy demeanor. Docile and optimistic, the nature of the competition will provide him with the wisdom necessary to survive and thrive, whatever it takes. After all, it’s just a game. They wouldn’t show anything truly horrific on live television, right? So long as you say and do nothing wrong, while submitting to those with roles of power, your existence shall be a fortunate one. Nothing political about that.
Ministry of Broadcast is available on Steam for your regional pricing. It will release on the Switch at a later date.
Ministry of Broadcast is one of those games where many story beats are best left untold. Ruining the surprise of a number of horrifying, downright evil trials are a large part of what makes the campaign so impactful. Think 1984 meets The Truman Show, with lots of profanity and a talking crow. To speak generally, there is great care placed in ensuring the irony of situations is never lost. With the expectations set from the synopsis alone, it takes some time before the deeper connotations to the events begin to unfold. Once it takes precedence, however, one may find difficulty in turning away.
I’d like to stress early on how integral I think the message of this story is. Politics and their real-life parallels aside, a process of capitalization and self-sufficiency shouldn’t be the way to live one’s life. Interpreted in the most horrific ways, the narrative structures it perfectly between in-the-moment moral conundrums and after-the-fact reflection. For those who don’t care for a lot of dialogue, it even allows some cutscenes to be skippable. To see the changes taking place with the nameless role character throughout allows for a more intimate connection, despite the lack of relatability. What makes Ministry of Broadcast so powerful is in how horrifying everything is presented. The ending is especially appropriate for the bleakness of it all.
It should not be understated that story looms large for the value of this title. That said, it is not something of a novel sort. Some cutscenes occur, particularly outside the “arena” (where most gameplay lies), though the ratio between dialogue text and puzzle-platforming is rather balanced. One won’t find themselves irritated by a lack of either after the first ten minutes. And as far as dialogue is concerned, a lot of the background text is skippable, as well. One can simply indulge in a lot of puzzle-solving with only the most important bits of context attached.
One other bit of praise comes from a gripping adventure feel that never loosens. The very moment the protagonist steps out of the truck, the quality of immersion can be felt. Introductions play a substantial role in establishing a mood for the rest of a story, and what Ministry of Broadcast ends up embodying is something I think is rare in the gaming community, especially for AAA titles. An unending, unrelenting nightmare, increasingly real as the bodies pile. The more I played, the less I wished to stop. Some resonating hope within me believed there would be an escape, some solace for the hero, albeit off the backs of others (sometimes literally). This broadcast held me and wouldn’t let go. I’m glad there were no commercials.
What isn’t as powerful lies in the mechanics. Something I wasn’t expecting beforehand is that there is no fluid motion with this set-up. Movement, actions, and almost all else lies within tightly scripted sequences and grids. Almost RPG-like, each step is like a quantity of one, and the precision necessary to jump (among other actions) relies on a mathematic approach. Many will find this stilted and uncomfortable, and while I eventually grew used to it, some sequences suffered because of it. Think of it like The Thin Silence, only much faster.
Some instances require adaptably quick platforming skills and trial-and-error memorization. As much as it’d hope to achieve the sort of intuitive control concocted by other platforming greats, sometimes these quick instances are thwarted by unresponsive or unintended inputs. Constant little mistakes lead to large consequences, and if not for checkpoints in-between (thank Grandmaster), this would cause huge pacing issues. Many of the trials that await are like longer, more varied versions of the final boss fights in the Donkey Kong Country games. Muscle memory, pixel-perfect platforming, and quick senses are required to complete them. Does Ministry of Broadcast have the basic mechanics to make these enjoyable? For some, absolutely; for others, it’s as nightmarish as the setting.
Similar can be said about the implementation of puzzles throughout. The bread and footwear of the campaign is in its puzzles, as it introduces a fair amount of them. Many of them are adequately challenging and allow for the player to feel capable (and empathetic) upon completion. And then there is the one specific puzzle where one has to use a person to clog a draining pipe of sewage water, only to have the water fill up the area one remains in, requiring a quick escape, which took me a solid 90 minutes to figure out, which I’m pretty sure I cheesed through really careful planning and perfect button inputs. Not since Tales of the Neon Sea had a puzzle confounded me so deeply that I went to such drastic lengths to solve it, only to give up (here I just got lucky). Traumatic flashbacks of The Spiral Scouts also apply. All well and good for a puzzle to be difficult, but please, take it easy on the player. Taking the worst parts of the gameplay and using it as a crutch for an unsolvable puzzle is just torture.
Where Ministry of Broadcast succeeds as an adventure game is in its variety of activities. Indeed, some puzzles are mind-boggling and the controls can be shaky during fast-paced spurts. What helps this is that it’s never the same thing twice. Sometimes you push boxes, other times you jump across icy grates. Play with contact-necessary buttons on the ground, or try and outrun cute, but deadly dogs. The basic foundations of gameplay highlight platforming and object manipulation, almost Zelda-esque in pixel form. These developers could have stuck to a basic one-two punch of box-pushing and button-pressing, yet they decided to go all-out and let the player experience a large number of different challenges. For that, I am eternally grateful. Less skin-melting gas avoiding in the future, though. That was pretty aggravating.
Graphics & Audio
I am a man of detailed pixel splendor. I am a connoisseur of lively, organized blocks. This lovely game, which has such horrifying scenarios unfold, is wonderfully picturesque. Without falling into hyperbole, I believe the decision to make this entirely in pixel art was perfect and the person responsible should be heading EA. There’s something almost mystical in the way Ministry of Broadcast looks, a game that barely paints its characters in a realistic light, despite the resolute focus on constant vigilance. It almost exaggerates the inhumane moments as though they were perpetrated by dolls. Whites and grays filter the screen outside the characters, protruding an air of dystopia along the chaotic rims of nihilistic satire. Animated detail is spectacular, visual clues for puzzles are a nice touch, and the self-scan stations are harrowing later on. The gravity of some of these events, evidenced by the size of structures, is truly phenomenal.
What is most proper in accordance with a disturbing, disgusting air of totalitarianism? Lack of a score whatsoever, sure! The previous statement is a slight exaggeration: ambiance is highlighted most of all, though a few tracks fly into the player’s eardrums when major events occur. This helps in establishing the mood, though not much in terms of isolated interest. Even now, mere hours from finishing the game, I remember very little in terms of soundtrack variety. I can hear that damn crow squawking at me, if that counts. The sound of screaming and bodies being crushed in an instant come to mind, as well. It seems the action-oriented audio made the most of my mind. Otherwise, not much to hear here… neat.