I think it’s relatively passe now to say I don’t think much of Black Mirror. Even so, it’s hard to find fault with the first couple episodes. The pig episode was a bombshell entrance into the world, and the second episode, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, has a lot to say about the way protest is co-opted by media to become its own form of entertainment. If you’re not familiar, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ centers around a show styled after X-Factor: after a long string of events, the show’s climax sees a character (played by Daniel Kaluuya) come onto stage with a shard of glass, and threaten to kill himself in a protest against the system. The judges, unfazed, applaud his protest as one of the most powerful performances they’ve seen, and offer him his own TV show, neutering his resistance by incorporating it into the machine as simply another product for sale.
‘Fifteen Million Merits’ really demonstrates what you want from this sort of story. It’s not enough for your critique to sort of dance up and down and say ‘isn’t this terrible’ – you really need to either explore some form of meaningful resistance or explore the mechanisms by which that power is maintained. This was my criticism of Journey to the Savage Planet – it has this jaunty corporations-are-bad attitude but can’t pull itself off the couch to say anything more substantial. It’s a faux-critique, comfortably complicit with the systems it purports to criticise.
It’s a delight, then, to have recently encountered Say No! More, a 2021 game from German indie developers Studio Fizbin. Say No! More is a game where you run around an office shouting ‘No!’ at your stupid workmates whenever they ask you to do something. You start the game as an intern, and everyone tries to take advantage of you, and you shout at them and they run away crying. Each new level has you confront the next person up the corporate ladder, until you’re bellowing refusals at the CEO. There’s also a subplot about a staring contest. From our two options above, Say No! More clearly picks the first. It’s a cathartic protest game, similar in tone (although obviously not content) to Tonight We Riot or arguably even the recent Wolfenstein reboot. It’s a vehicle for venting your rage at the system – you can power up your No’s and send office equipment flying, blasting down dividers and hurling desks and paperwork across the building. It’s a power fantasy, like Tonight We Riot and Wolfenstein – it’s a politically loaded power fantasy where we break free of corporate capitalism and our fortnightly pay. Like those other games, it has revolutionary appeal – it encourages us to participate enthusiastically in a vision of a new world, and maybe in some sense realise that world by acting it out in the digital realm.
And I think – you know, the question posed by ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ still remains. We should at least be curious about whether Say No! More functions as a sort of revolutionary heat sink, as an entertainment product tied to and ultimately serving the corporate systems it critiques. It’s worth asking whether this game is only allowing us to go ‘haha yeah, fuck the boss’ so that we can feel good about ourselves and go back to work more easily the next day. Entertainment and social change have a complicated relationship – this sort of game will always exist under a cloud. That’s not to say it’s a fatal problem – we might have some reservations about the broader enterprise, but I think we can all agree that it’s good for people to have better working conditions. CEOs and business leaders shouldn’t make 300 times the income of their employees, and working conditions for entry-level staff shouldn’t be so precarious. It’s great that Say No! More addresses all of those things. So where do we place the balance? We might start with how the game handles saying Yes.
In the closing moments of Say No! More, we see the world after the heroic intern has won the day. The corporate villains have been shown their errors, and there’s a sort of post-reconstruction utopia, where the business is not destroyed, but is instead functioning quote-unquote properly. I was really struck by the nuance in this scene – all the characters are empowered, and they say No when they need, but when they do, others step in and offer to help instead. There’s a balance where people can assert their needs and also get the support they require to get the job done. The intern doesn’t tear down the business – she reshapes its culture so she can carry on with her job. In that sense, the game isn’t necessarily about revolution. It’s not against the idea of employment or working hard – its main target is the power imbalance within corporate culture. It’s against senior staff or long-serving employees lording it over the interns, with requests for coffee runs or menial errands, all in the context of super-long hours and job precarity.
You also see glimmers of this new utopia throughout the actual game, before the utopian ending. While you’re on your shouting rampage, you’ll come across office workers who are actually pretty nice. They’ll step out into your path and, instead of making demands or demeaning requests, they’ll politely ask your advice on whether they should ask someone out on a date, or whether you’d be interested in testing their video game. And you can shout No and continue storming through the company, or you can pause for a minute and spend time with them. There are no penalties or punishments either way – its really just how you choose to respond to these people. They don’t approach you as ‘the intern’- they approach you because you’re a person. And you can respond as a person in turn – as someone who exists on an equal footing, without the power imbalance baked into the rest of the game. You talk to them for as long as you want, or not. You choose whether to humour them, whether to listen to their problems or their dreams. That conversation between equals prefigures the utopian state at the end of the game. It offers a glimpse of what the revolution might look like – and how we can grasp it in the here and now. Say No! More tells you about the path it sees for social change. It shows you a vision of the future, and offers you the tools to get there. It’s not about only saying No, but – you know – it wouldn’t hurt to say it a little more.