Pixel Riot

Gary Z.
Editor and Contributor


In the wake of the left’s resurgence into mainstream political culture, there has been much debate about how to build out and institutionalize this new energy. One of the more novel institutionalizations of left-wing culture is evident in the formation of Pixel Pushers Union 512, a cooperatively owned video game publisher which has just released its first production, Tonight We Riot!, for Nintendo Switch and PC.

The production is financed by Means Media, a cooperatively owned digital media firm whose flagship streaming platform (Means TV) launched in 2019. The platform collates various left-tubers, documentaries, and original productions for the cost of little more than a monthly Netflix subscription. The venture is attempting to build a sustainable structure around the explosion of left-wing media that has matured along with the Very Online cultural stream of the current zeitgeist. The expansion of “Left Tube,” or online communities of leftists that span digital realms, may have been a response to the far right’s original explosion in digital popularity; but the culture has matured and fostered a multi-faceted left-wing ideology that has begun to bubble over into popular culture.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the left has attempted to build businesses and institutions that reflect its values at the intersection of commerce and content. If firms such as Vice and The Young Turks represented some of the first attempts at colonizing the digital space in the name of the left, their failure to adopt left-wing modes of production – unionization and worker control – may doom their resiliency. This is what inspires new hope for Means TV and Pixel Pushers Union: they are showing that it’s not enough for the left to criticize the capitalist mode of production, but imperative to demonstrate what a socialist mode of production looks like in practice.
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At only $15, I was nervous that Tonight would be an incomplete or limited experience - but my concerns were quickly assuaged after booting the software. Tonight curates a holistic gameplay experience: it houses a consistent tone, a consistent style of art and animation, and responsive gameplay that never betrays the experience through flow-halting mechanics or bugs. Tonight is emboldened by a soundtrack defined by its use of a horror synth which is not only reminiscent of early retro games, but succeeds in transcending them. The synthwave inspired soundtrack successfully evokes a conception of post-industrial capitalism reminiscent of 80’s media such as Max Headroom, They Live! Or Escape from New York.

Rather than controlling a sole character, Tonight bestows the player control over a crowd charging against the forces of capitalism. The mob is the players’ primary resource – a means to navigate each level’s enemies but also a de-facto health bar: when your controlled character is felled, another unit in the group becomes the crowd’s leader until the protest is exhausted. Your forces are emboldened by liberating businesses that swell your ranks: the banner of your movement is raised over an enterprise and workers rush to the streets to rally to your aide. It’s a consistently engaging gameplay mechanic that successfully mirrors the energy that fuels real-world protest.

The gameplay feels a bit awkward, but that’s sort of the point. To be clear, the game’s control system is responsive and intuitive, but controlling the flow of the crowd can be cumbersome and at times inconsistent. However, I found myself actively enjoying this facet of play, as it seemed to reinforce Tonight’s themes of disorder and revolution. Consider a typical level: you measure the obstacles such as a police barricade, configure your strategy, and charge forward. The field immediately becomes confusing - some new enemies bolt onto screen, distressing your original plan, causing you to mash buttons franticly in response. You start to panic because your crowd’s numbers begin to thin, and you can’t figure out why segments of your group are running the wrong way, only to realize that under duress you had been pushing the wrong direction for your orders. You duck behind a car to retain your composure, figure out an appropriate response to an oncoming police phalanx, and charge back out, narrowly avoiding a Game Over. This ebb and flow makes for satisfying and diverse experiences that emulates the frenetic planning and energy that typifies real-world demonstrations.

I compare these crowd-control mechanics favorably to the Pikmin series, one of my personal favorite games and one of the best executions of crowd-based gameplay. But as the Pikmin series continued, evolving mechanics expanded the players’ dexterity over the crowd. While these evolutions in game design provided for more nuanced gameplay, they also challenged the tone of earlier entries in the series, which evolved from surreal horror into management-simulator. Tonight’s crowd control mechanics never really expand, and so the game’s chaotic tone is preserved. One of the few modifications the player has in controlling the crowd is the acquisition of weapons to furnish your mob, which provides for alternate means of interacting with a given stage. The mechanic feels clunky, but again not in a way that feels unresponsive or broken. Figuring out how to use the bricks and Molotov’s allows the player to feel like they are part of a force slowly figuring out how to use the debris of capitalism to battle its grip.

These elements solidify Tonight as not only a gameplay experience, but a work of contemporary revolutionary art in its own right. The game’s expression of left-wing angst towards a gluttonous and inhuman economic system is represented as the player maneuvers through capitalism’s heart of darkness: the weapons of the state become increasingly extravagant and deadly (evolving from water cannons to mutant squids). While Tonight provides a consistent thematic experience, the gameplay mechanics may chafe those who prefer achieving mastery over a game’s systems through deft use of a control schema.

By creating gameplay that feels different and new, we are exploring a mode of resistance – group organization – that feels shockingly underexplored in the history of game design. And so, playing the game felt wrong in some ways. I began to realize how taboo representations of worker revolts are in mainstream culture. I had murdered avatars of the state in countless games before (usually through some Rambo-like avatar) but here the actions felt particularly tense despite Tonight’s cartoonish graphics. Although video games have normalized endless war and jaw-dropping violence for some time, Tonight demonstrates how criminally underexplored the concept of channeled mass anger is in the medium of gameplay.

If there is one key critique of the game’s theme, it may be in its failure to break the trappings of parody. Retro-inspired games typically suffer from groaned lines of silly and extravagant dialogue based on cultural camp. And as this game is an homage to retro titles of the past, seeing these holes filled with left-wing language and ideas, rather than the ironic machoism that informed so many 80’s games, is intriguing in its own right (one begins to wonder how different video gaming might be if it was the Communists, rather than Capitalists, who unlocked the secrets of global market saturation back in the 80s). But if this parody is unique, the game’s dialogue and messaging does at times fail to transcend satire. Much of the game’s humor rests on references to Very Online Leftwing culture, which tends to skew towards juvenile jabs at capitalism that become tiring. And although the intentions of the designers are clear, their use of parody might downplay the larger themes in the game, allowing bad-faith players to smear the game as an example of the trappings of left-wing ideology. Nevertheless, these critiques represent analysis at the margins; hardly denouncement.

Additionally, I would have liked to see more done with its novel mechanic. The gameplay, while again wholly satisfying as an experience (and well worth its price), lacks options for gameplay variability that might encourage recurrent playthroughs. There are some very interesting encounters and boss battles, but I feel the crowd management mechanic could have been pushed further. Want for more is hardly a bad way for a game to leave a player.

And so I’m excited to see where Pixel Pushers goes from here. A future installment may find ways to further replicate acts of resistance such as preparing for a protest, managing the interests of competing factions, or maintaining and building resistance and coordination networks. Just as crowd control was an interesting mechanic explored here, future games might try to interpret left-wing ideology in ways underexplored in modern gameplay.

Either way, I’ll be keeping tabs on their work, along with Means Media, going forward. Any serious socialist should be taking notes on enterprises such as this as they represent alternative ways of organizing and building means of production. Charting their successes (and failures) will be crucial for informing a deeper conception of what a left-wing production model might look like in the digital age.