Being unfamiliar with the developer Fire Face’s previous work, and seeing that Small Radios Big Televisions was published by Adult Swim, I went into this with very little expectation of what was to follow, other than perhaps a characteristically irreverent sense of humour and a surreal perspective on the world within, typical of most of Adult Swim’s usual output. What I found was a quote unquote serious game, though with surrealism in spades, even if it has no sense of humour.
Small Radios Big Televisions starts abruptly, placing you in front of one of the game’s five factories after the press start screen with no explanation of what to do or how you got there. After fiddling around for awhile, I soon realised that there are only two things you control; the camera angle and interacting with objects in the environment, usually highlighted with a white outline. It’s worth noting here that the camera controls are extremely skewwhiff- you seem to fly around a central vector at a curve as opposed to panning over the environs. This can cause some frustration later in the game, say for example if you are trying to go through a door at the bottom of the screen, as your inventory hovers over the bottom-centre ground of your view and due to the fact that you can’t pan (merely orbit strangely as expressed above), I ended up spending about five minutes trying to open the aforementioned door but instead would click on the key in my inventory over and over again. While infrequently infuriating (and infuriating it is), the odd sense of perspective does often serve to further the pervading oddness of the world you inhabit in Small Radios Big Televisions.
But anyway, back to the game itself.
As you begin to explore the first factory, the aptly-named Square (for reasons that will become clear when playing), you soon come across the first of the game’s tapes. These tapes make up much of the core gameplay mechanic in Small Radios Big Televisions, as they (as well as being often beautiful, bizarre, unsettling or perhaps all three simultaneously) transports the player’s consciousness away from the dilapidated factories and into different localities altogether. The three that you find within the first factory are called Coast, Road and Forest. As well as serving as pretty, interactive low-poly screensavers from the 90’s, they often also give the player a key to progress through the factory itself. The majority of the game plays out like this: Look for tape, find key, solve puzzle, open locked door, find another tape, ad infinitum until you leave each of the games’ five factories and progress on to the next.
In between each factory visit is the only time there is any clear sense of narrative in Small Radios Big Televisions; after leaving the Square factory, you find yourself in a room, listening to a partially redacted and hugely muffled (though fortunately subtitled) conversation on a little radio. No big TV’s in sight, though. These slim portions of exposition are revealing enough to hint at a sense of purpose for your time in the world of Small Radios Big Televisions, but also ambiguous enough to cultivate a sense of mystery as to quite why it is that you’re exploring these numerous abandoned factories filled with cassette tapes that can be described as mind-altering. Given the nature of the equipment you are given to use in Small Radios Big Televisions – that being, tapes and a tape player – it has to be said that the game is one of the most analogue-feeling experiences I’ve had in the digital world of late.
The way the visuals distort as your perspective shifts between a tape and the factory you are in is in keeping with the low-tech vibe throughout your journey, and the game does in fact often look like it’s running off a battered old VHS tape. It often felt strange to be holding a Dualshock 4 with an experience like this- I almost want to play through it again with a joystick and single button, on a fat old valve-powered TV unit and forget entirely that 2016 is even a thing. I wish 2016 wasn’t a thing. I wished it wasn’t a thing before playing Small Radios Big Televisions and if anything, I wish it wasn’t a thing even more since finishing it.
The soundtrack is also superb throughout, and fits in well with the tone. It sounds like the game feels- meandering melodies on analogue synthesisers dominate here. The sound will often warp with the visuals to great effect too, serving succinctly as two parts of one whole.
I’m loathe to divulge much more in terms of direct or revealing information about the game- if you are still reading at this point and are still interested then you probably already know you’re going to like it- this is video games as art therapy, as relaxation, as psychedelic experimentation. If you’re looking for a puzzler of any serious length you may want to look elsewhere; Small Radios Big Televisions is probably around two hours at a push, and is not particularly challenging at any point throughout. But I feel that is not the point here- this is a game interested in immersion and playing with the medium as a whole.
So, if you’re still here and not completely put off by the concept of arthouse video games, do yourself a favour and download Small Radios, Big Televisions. That’s it. Enjoy the trip.