I really enjoyed this game. I have to say this now, because the next two paragraphs are pretty unforgiving – but don’t give up, it’s worth it in the end.
To quote Community creator Dan Harmon: “Your story about people in a mysterious room/maze/game trying to figure out how they got there is a great metaphor for bad writing.” This is a sentiment that only half applies to Small Radios, Big Televisions, to be fair. It certainly takes place in a mysteriously empty world, and has all the hallmarks of the ‘post-rapture and/or apocalypse’ setting that seems increasingly common in indie games – a get-out clause to avoid the hideous expense of creating a fully realized, fully animated world, perhaps. It’s unfortunate that this game got its full commercial release now – rather than several years ago – before ‘find out what happened in this mysteriously abandoned factory/city/world’ became the go-to narrative arc of, well, pretty much everything. It’s this hint of over-saturation which is the game’s weakest point, its Achilles’ heel.
“Mostly it’s a puzzle game in the traditional, fairly abstract sense.”
What is Small Radios, Big Televisions anyway? Mostly it’s a puzzle game in the traditional, fairly abstract sense. You navigate, in slightly off-kilter orthogonal vision, a series of puzzle-ridden, abandoned facilities; puzzles are solved, keys are collected, doors are opened. So-far so-puzzling. Inside these factory walls you – the mysteriously disembodied player – find cassette tapes which, when played, transport you to other worlds, or memories. It’s hard to say exactly. Which brings me to the game’s second Achilles’ heel: this is a very beautifully designed and realized puzzle game which is crippled by its own marketing material. For example: “Some of these tapes may contain clues to help you progress, some need to have their worlds distorted and ripped apart by magnetic fields to discover what’s stored inside” suggests to me a much more intriguing and unique method of puzzling than we are ever treated to in-game. Instead we are given straightforward (though occasionally inscrutable) mechanical puzzles of the usual sort – juggle these gears, empty this chamber of water, switch that light on. You know the drill.
Now, I feel the need to re-iterate: I loved this game, despite its flaws. For one, it’s incredibly tasteful. It may occasionally fall foul of inexplicable environmental graffiti, but on the whole its exterior worlds are charmingly built, its cassette-driven first-person visions sublime. From cuboid clouds to roiling low-poly seas, everything in the world is ebulliently colorful and sharply rendered. Coupled with striking depth-of-field effects, VHS distortion, and the very slight chromatic aberrations at the far corners of your vision, Small Radios, Big Televisions creates a fascinating marriage of two iconic media. In this sense it has delivered on its promise to explore ‘digital worlds stored on analog media’.
For me, the wonder of this marriage goes deeper. In essence the visual style of Small Radios, Big Televisions is deeply modernist. Simple low-poly modelling, though once a necessity, has always been distinctly modernist – it makes licit the process of creating a 3D model. You may not understand vector maths, nor shader programming, but with this aesthetic you can look at the world and see how it’s made. It’s a load of triangles, ya dingus! While the game’s representation of VHS tape decay and retro lens effects are only a simulacrum, again we come face to face with the internal attributes that make these mediums what they are: photosensitivity and magnetism. This sublime exposé of the constructive elements of a medium (any medium will do) is a theme that rears its prismatic head time and again across the sparse narrative of Small Radios, Big Televisions. Charmingly, this is a game that delights in the challenge of visualising these skeuomorphisms, and by weaving those digitally-rendered anachronisms into the core of its narrative it has perhaps created gaming’s first skeuomorphic metaphor.
“In essence the visual style of Small Radios, Big Televisions is deeply modernist.”
For those of you scratching your heads: a skeuomorphism is a (usually unnecessary) digital rendition of the real world attributes of an object. Most digital reading apps have a little page turning animation. This is skeuomorphism. There is no need for an eBook app to reference the physical act of reading a real book. Lots of capital-D Designers think skeuomorphs should be shot on sight. Here though, in the big televisual world we’re given, it has a suitably inflated purpose.
“Why prize fidelity at all?”
Nostalgia is a word I’ve seen bandied around a lot in discussion of Small Radios, Big Televisions – usually in reference to its chunky celebration of analogue technologies. This misses the point. The otherworldly, magnetically distorted re-interpretations of those cassette-driven spaces we’re asked to explore are a far better representation of nostalgia than the trappings that surround them. Or maybe they show us the mind’s bitter decay at the mercy of Time – a demented ghost world shifting behind the vivid clarity of memories freshly laid. Why prize fidelity at all? Are distortions not far more enchanting, in analogue worlds as much as virtual ones? Could the human psyche possibly endure the horror of a digital memory? Or are the trappings of analogue reality a crutch after all – a burden to the expansion of the human spirit in psychological and digital spaces.
Small Radios, Big Televisions highlights a facet of the digital world that is rarely examined in games: the impossibility of decay. The analogue cassette-worlds of the game decay, as do the rules that govern them. Gravity and history appear to be just as subject to the effects of magnetism as the visuals of each cassette-world. This is anterior to our reality. Accidental corruption changing the systems governing a game world are practically unheard of, and are even rarer out in meat-space. Today’s games will always remain playable and pristine or, if the PS4 Pro is anything to go by, gradually increase in fidelity. Videogames are governed by binary processes; the platform may change, the graphics may suffer under the quirks of emulation, but the core remains the same – a game’s systems are non-degradable. It is either present and playable, or it’s not. Today’s games will never acquire Jerome K Jerome’s ‘patina of time’. If games age with us it is only in affect, not aspect. Alongside everything else, Small Radios, Big Televisions’ charming worlds ask us to consider what is lost and what is gained by creating something so forcefully opposed to the steady decay of an analogue world.