Video games are enamored of the “Lone Hero” narrative, which makes sense, given how many of them act as vehicles for wish fulfillment. Many games have the player singlehandedly taking down hordes of enemies and saving the day. But trying that in Tonight We Riot won’t get you far. In this “crowd brawler,” you play not as one character, but as a collective of people working together to upend the system. It’s an imperfectly constructed but extremely fun piece of leftist agitprop.
Tonight We Riot is the first game from Means Media, a new Detroit-based, anti-capitalist media group. It is unabashedly and gleefully partisan, featuring a worker revolution against a sci-fi police state eerily close to our current reality. I played the game and took screenshots before the uprisings across the US over the past weekend, and, well …
The game takes its basic setup from the beat ’em up genre, particularly the likes of River City Ransom and Double Dragon. However, instead of playing a martial arts demigod, the player controls a single, relatively weak revolutionary surrounded by a crowd of comrades. You’ll go down in a few hits from cops, drones, and white supremacist gangs, but as soon as one player character dies, your control switches to another member of the collective. As long as you have your compatriots, you’re still in the fight; the game only ends if every single protester is defeated. The emphasis is not on individual heroism but combined power. As your squad fights its way through the various levels, its ranks are replenished by liberating more workers to join it. You are rewarded for keeping more fighters alive with weapon upgrades.
The game’s spirit is built into its mechanics in other ways. While whatever character you inhabit loosely leads the crowd, every member has its own AI scripts that lead them to act individually. So they will fight enemies or destroy barricades on their own, without the input of the player. You can somewhat direct the group as one (similarly to the Pikmin series), but you can never fully control them. This can be frustrating at times, such as when a bomb is about to blow and you really need everyone to get clear of it, but it’s as much a feature as it is a bug. The game isn’t terribly complex, but in this way, it conveys the idea that you are taking part in a larger movement made up of people with their own agency, rather than simply being surrounded by nonplayable characters.
There’s been a recent push to avoid the stigma of the term “riot” by labeling both contemporary and historical incidences of mass destructive protest as “uprisings” or “rebellions” instead. Tonight We Riot goes in the opposite direction, seeking to reclaim the riot as a force for good. It is uncomplicated and clearheaded in its parameters: the revolution is justified, the capitalist system and its enforcers are bad. The story is as blunt and basic as its format. And right now, given all the hemming and hawing over “violent protest” in the US, that’s quite refreshing.
Tonight We Riot is available on the Nintendo Switch and multiple PC platforms.