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News Tower serves up the ultimate journalistic fantasy: a stable work environment

On January 24, a couple of weeks before I installed the spanking-new industrial printer that would kickstart my own (albeit fictional) newspaper business in News Tower, The New York Times ran the following headline: “The News About the News Business is Getting Grimmer“. A day later, CNN went with “News industry off to brutal 2024 start” and Axios promptly followed up in typically pithy style with a list of outlets in trouble, including layoffs expected to hit major publications such as the Los Angeles Times and Sports Illustrated, depressingly titled “Mainstream media bloodbath“.

Games-adjacent media fare no better. At the start of 2023, The Washington Post’s Launcher and Vice’s Waypoint were widely respected hubs for in-depth criticism and vital reporting; neither survived the year. Some of those that did have slowly morphed into husks with identikit news snippets attributed to The-[insert-name-of-website-here]-Team but seemingly written by bored-out-of-their-mind chatbots. Things are looking rather bleak.

Little surprise then that, alongside the meticulously orchestrated 1930s vibes evoked by the big-band score, a tastefully subdued palette, and a whole lot of historically-accurate name-dropping, News Tower evokes a less specific yet urgently relatable kind of nostalgia: the yearning for a safe career with a reassuringly predictable trajectory.

Which is not to suggest that my life as an aspiring media mogul started out trouble-free. See, the business (based in a lovely red-brick Brooklyn office that overlooks the Statue of Liberty to the west and the Empire State Building to the north) was handed over to me by a distant uncle after he had hastily departed for an undisclosed “exotic destination”. There were only two employees currently working there: Pasha, the telegrapher, and Dennis, the reporter. And I needed to replace several pieces of equipment that had been recently vandalised, a development which may or may not be related to said uncle’s association with some of New York’s less law-abiding factions, i.e. the Mob. The readership was dwindling, the debts were mounting, and there was still Sunday’s edition to prepare.

News Tower is a business sim of two halves which, somewhat surprisingly, reminds me more of XCOM than a typical tycoon-style title. The first layer of the game I was called upon to grapple with was the base-building element: turning the ransacked offices of my publication, The Brass Eye, into a smoothly-running work environment where our weekly local newspaper could be printed on time. This entailed responsibilities like rearranging the office space for maximum efficiency and employee comfort (hard to concentrate on writing a piece if you’re seated next to a noisy printer); monitoring supplies; purchasing unlockable journalistic paraphernalia to assist productivity (such as the desk globe that, apparently, helps the telegrapher locate breaking stories more quickly); and expanding the premises by adding a (costly) floor to the building whenever the need arises.

Most importantly, I had to identify and hire the right people for the right positions. No need for another politics reporter when Dennis had that topic covered, but I was desperate for someone to write about sports—especially since the Flatbush neighbourhood, where we were hoping to attract a readership, was keenly interested in the subject.

Juggling the workaday demands of my organisation is modestly engaging, if not particularly inspiring, at least in the current early access iteration of News Tower. The audiovisual flavour does a lot of the heavy lifting in these stretches, with a downbeat jazzy score setting the mood while the funnels of ocean liners sailing down the Hudson River parade across the Brooklyn skyline as I’m preparing to close shop for the night. But some of the menial tasks required of me have been a regular source of frustration. The cause of an employee’s discomfort remained a mystery even after consulting the relevant view and inner-monologue cloud (whose purpose is, evidently, to disclose exactly these complaints), meaning that some improvements in office ambiance had to rely on arbitrary experimentation. And relocating certain pieces of equipment (looking at you, printer belt) proved so awkward, I decided to restart my playthrough with an altogether different plan rather than suffer through the ordeal.

Much more captivating than being mired in the workspace nitty-gritty is News Tower’s second core loop, the one leading up to that glorious moment of the paper going to press every Sunday. This typically involves a telegrapher sniffing out potential stories and a reporter with some expertise on the subject being dispatched to cover it. Sounds like a fairly straightforward task, but developer Sparrow Night has come up with an array of unexpected flourishes and tactical dilemmas that inject considerable depth into the process, meaningfully interweaving individual assignments with the overall progress of your organisation. For example, matching similar topics on the same page of the newspaper increases sales; expansion into different boroughs (each unlocking a unique set of upgrades) requires certain stories to be covered; and the various factions with which you associate—whether by choice or necessity—may demand that incriminating exposés remain buried.

Moreover, the shrewd addition of multi-step assignments and random events that may hinder (or altogether stop) an investigation magically brings to life a cast of characters that, in reality, amount to little more than a bunch of random stats. Based on their history of triumphs and failures, you gradually start projecting different types of personalities onto your employees much in the same manner that you might with the unerring sniper from your XCOM squad or the light-footed winger from your Football Manager team. After successfully navigating a couple of tricky encounters—a brush with some angry mobsters and a standoff with irate police officers—I found myself instinctively entrusting more important stories to Mary Johnson, even though I had a senior crime reporter on the team.

News Tower provides just the bare bones of these stories but brilliantly nudges the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps and turn some basic info and a few rolls of the dice into long-running career narratives: the rising star; the veteran who thrives under pressure; the one who could never catch a break. I could almost hear those people’s excited chatter after their shifts had ended above the din of the local speakeasy, the blare of the orchestra, the clinking of martini glasses. And I could not help but envy them.

Yes, News Tower still unquestioningly adopts the classic conventions of its genre, always eager to saddle you with the next task the moment you’ve completed your last one, never yielding in its demands on your concentration. And it’s true that, when looked too closely, these design hallmarks start feeling ironically close to the same efficiency-obsessed ideology that plagues the contemporary workplace. But if its underlying principles (alongside that of most business-sims) can be justly scrutinised, that doesn’t mean I cannot still relish that emerging surface narrative: of a news team whose collective careers are allowed to flourish inside a single news organisation, under a single roof, year after year.

News Tower is out now in early access, but the Steam Next Fest demo is also still available if you just want to dip your toe in first.

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