Apocalyptic Virtual Mystery
HIGH Each VR tape introduces a whimsical and trippy scene to explore.
LOW The point-and-click play becomes stale after a few levels.
WTF Magnetizing a VR tape to make its environment psychedelic.
A lot of indies feel like nostalgic throwbacks to earlier eras or reproduce tropes of the mainstream industry on a smaller scale. Far too few feel like works of counterculture art that actively subvert or ignore the styles and mechanics that have become synonymous with videogames. Not so with Small Radios, Big Televisions (SRBT). It’s one of those rare indies that offers something unconventional and risky — it doesn’t seem to care what players expect, and uses the malleable form of the medium to create an original, bizarre digital experience that’s acid-washed in ’80s TV aesthetics and a nightmarish sci-fi motif.
From SRBT’s opening moments, it establishes itself as quiet, quirky, and unusual. After a title screen that mimics a faulty TV signal from the era of CRT sets, players begin with a wide shot of what looks like an offshore oil refinery. The style and perspective make the levels look like small dioramas to be explored by manipulating the camera. Each of the game’s five levels resemble similar factories, each one a hollow and empty husk abandoned after an unexplained calamity has overtaken the world.
From a disembodied point of view, players navigate these factories by using a reticle to click on doorways and objects in the environment. For instance, players might hit a switch or manipulate cogs to operate an inactive machine. The goal of each level is to fully explore its factory and unlock all the doors by solving simple environmental puzzles, hunting for VR tapes, and exploring environments within the tapes.
The VR tapes are central to the core mechanics and the mysterious story. The tapes transport players to a variety of picturesque or surreal environments, including a forest, river, and mountain. Here the game provides players with a vista and, in many cases, a collectable green jewel. This jewel can then be used to access other doors within the complex. One trick players learn early is that they can use magnetizing devices to alter the content of each tape — this warps the environment and colors, and can reveal previously hidden gems.
After solving the puzzles and unlocking all the doors in each factory level, SRBT cuts to enigmatic narrative interludes. These are presented within a single frame that consists of a close-up shot of an experiment involving lasers and a crystal. A radio sits alongside this experiment, and a disembodied conversation between two people crackles from its small speakers. Their conversation is obtuse and difficult to follow, yet gradually the content converges with these narrative crumbs to suggest the semblance of a backstory.
Hardly a lengthy experience, SRBT consists of just five levels. Normal players can probably make their way through the game in a few hours, but replays are incentivized by placing special hidden lenses in each factory. What these lenses ultimately do is something only diligent players will discover.
Most notably, Small Radios, Big Televisions conveys a haunting, unearthly atmosphere. As an experience, it reminds me of watching late night TV as a child in the late ’80s, half awake with insomnia. Somewhere between a bad dream and a foggy reality, my TV screen would flicker with static, the colors oversaturated one minute then inverted the next, and electronic noises would blare as the broadcast network prepared to shut down until dawn. In other words, the game is nightmarish in the most admirably mundane sense.
Although it’s not immediately apparent, Small Radios, Big Televisions practically screams for a PSVR version that allows players to manipulate the camera with movement of their head, and the dioramic environments would work nicely as a short VR experience. This feature would be particularly appropriate in the spectacular ending, which takes players on a literal ride through visually arresting areas.
In one sense, Small Radios, Big Televisions is a short, poetic exploration of humanity’s descent into virtual reality to escape the apocalyptic reality it’s created for itself. In another sense, the game is merely a brief environmental puzzler, thick with atmosphere, style, and enigma. Like any great art, it doesn’t tell players how to interpret it, but instead offers a layered, polysemic experience that can (unfortunately) be just as easily dismissed as appreciated.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Fireface and published by Adult Swim Games. It is currently available on Steam and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 2.5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E for Everyone. The ESRB provide no descriptors for the game. There is no violence. Players click on objects to manipulate them. There is a vague sense during the narrative interludes that something catastrophic has happened, but no visual imagery that is inappropriate for children.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: No sound is necessary to enjoy this game.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
In college John fell to poetry, short story writing, and journalism, but ultimately took to writing critical, academic work on video games. He was actually surprised this was an option. For reasons he will never be completely sure of, he ended up in graduate school where he wrote about the discursive mapping of gender onto the terms "hardcore" and "casual" and the power hierarchy of legitimate and illegitimate games that creates. He is a proud feminist.
Currently, John is a PhD student in the Film and Media Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He continues to study gender, race, and sexuality in video games, video game culture, and the video game industry. He also mulls over issues of creative labor, cultural hierarchy, and power, among other random subjects.
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- Small Radios, Big Televisions Review - November 21, 2016
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