Ministry of Broadcast is a game of its time, which might be why it’s so difficult to enjoy the platformer for what it is. Created by four Czech game designers, it won a slew of awards back in 2018 while in development, and for good reason. Its unique Czech and Russian avant-garde style packs a lot of design in some small sprites, and the dour setting of an industrial encampment has an impressive amount of screenshot-worthy moments thanks to its vibrant and distinct color palate.
The style is intentional, right down to the pixelated blood and graphic animations when your character meets its sudden end thanks to a misstep or leap. And the deaths are aplenty in Ministry of Broadcast, which comes with a rewind feature that falls well within the theme of the game. As the protagonist of the story, you play a distinctively red-haired, barefoot man trying to get back to his family by participating in what amounts to the logical extreme of a reality show taking place in a dictatorship. Something is a bit off about it the entire time, though, and as you make your way through the various levels you slowly start to figure things out.
The game works well as a platformer, and the design is sound and fairly intuitive. Jump down a bit too far and the vibrations warn you it was a close call along with a quick pause from your character and an on-screen message about it hurting. Jump from too high and you break your legs and have to start over. The puzzles and traversing tasks that follow are creative and take some time to work out. But the context they’re presented in are hard to shake.
It’s the same thing that makes Papers, Please — though brilliant and with plenty of replay value — difficult to stomach in recent months as well. Centering a game around the consequences of border crossing decisions is difficult to disassociate from the real world, where the nation’s borders are essentially shut down for only essential crossing due to COVID-19. Distractions in this world are important, if not essential, in a time where what’s actually happening feels so overwhelming. And much like how every piece of written doesn’t need to mention coronavirus and a global pandemic (sorry!), Ministry of Broadcast makes it tough to forget things are bleak in the real world right now, too.
The game has direct homages to 1984 and monolithic signs of authority. It also has public protest and police brutality against it. The humor with which it addresses it — the protesters and cops are “roles” people are cast to play for a TV broadcast — only mutes the graphic impact of “police” beating “protesters” so much. At times you actually inflict that harm on protesters to advance through the levels. It’s all a running gag — only you seem to take any lasting damage, and even then you can just hit the minus on your Switch and start back over again — but their continued abuse is still an unsettling inclusion.
That isn’t to say it’s not fun. The puzzles are interesting and some of the humor does land. And there is room for parody and brutality in gaming. The problem mostly lays with the world in which it was finally finished to be released in. Maybe soon all the omnipresent reminders of the world’s horrors will lessen and life will look more like it did when the game was being developed. But for those looking for a distraction right now it wouldn’t hurt to give Ministry of Broadcast a chance in a world that somehow feels less bleak than the game itself.