Abstract Minimalism in Small Radios Big Televisions
Growing up with games’ criticism, there was always the notion that “gameplay is king.” It was a belief that for the longest time I agreed with – and to a large extent I still do. Games are interactive, after all, so I do believe that the way we interact with them should be meaningful; but the problem with this way of thinking was that at times it prevented many in-depth conversations about the games we played (and the ones we continue to play). It also lead and can lead to not fully representing games in the light that they may have earned due to a feeling that there was something “off” about the way they were designed. I can totally envision Fireface’s Small Radios Big Televisions being one of those games that gets the critical short end of the stick because of some its shortcomings. While the game’s shortcomings that should certainly be called out, there’s something within Small Radios Big Televisions that’s worth discussion and even praise.
Small Radios Big Televisions is a short puzzle game wherein players interact with the innards of several dioramas that are based upon real world structures by way of a controlled cursor. Players interact with aforementioned dioramas and are tasked with solving puzzles to progress the collection of a group of magnetic cassette tapes. More on the latter in a bit. The solution to the game’s puzzles can be perplexing due to the dioramas’ design and the nature by which the cursor behaves. Specifically, the cursor always wants to re-center, regardless of whether or not the player is moving an object or interacting with the environment. This janky behavior really makes it difficult to have direct input control; and it often feels as if a malevolent force is pulling you away from the objective by hindering any sort of elegant movement. While this annoyance should be mentioned, it’s not why we’re discussing Small Radios Big Televisions today. The reason we’re talking about the game is because of those cassette tapes that I mentioned earlier.
The places you visit in Small Radios Big Televisions are empty, but it’s clear that someone inhabited them at one point in time. What remain are various cassette tapes that tell the story of the individuals who became obsessed with a retro futurist vision of virtual reality, one by which they implanted cassette players into their brains in order to depict assorted, colorful scenes. Many of these virtual scenes are quite simple, such as the sun setting over a golden wheat field, or another that displays a grand portrait of the world as seen from atop a snowy mountain.
The virtual scenes that Fireface has crafted are presented in a style that is closer to abstract geometry than photorealism. It’s sharp and minimal. These scenes are also not static, and similarly to real world cassette tapes, they can be damaged once introduced to magnetic interference. In Small Radios Big Televisions, this concept leads to the total abstraction of the playable vignettes. Structures deform and deconstruct into the basic shapes that they’re comprised of. Colors change in hue and meld with others; and the game’s wonderful synthetic soundtrack suddenly becomes distorted. This sort of event causes everything to become more dynamic. The once golden field of wheat transforms into a sharp, glowing white that contrasts strongly against the pitch black soil beneath it. Taking a ride on an innocuous mine cart through the cliffside of a mountain subsequently turned into a ride through the album art of an 80’s new wave band, with neon blues and soft pinks to boot.
Rather than moving on after these strange audiovisual experiences washed over me and subsequently fulfilled their purpose of progress, I allowed myself a brief moment of personal reflection. It’s moments like these that make Small Radios Big Televisions enjoyable to me; and it’s here that the game finds ways to evoke a sense of warmth and comfort, while also maintaining an eerie and lonely feeling.
Of course, while all of that might be at the heart of Small Radios Big Televisions, I’m still not very fond of what makes up the periphery. I’m not sure if most would enjoy what I found so interesting about the game, and I still hold on to my own thoughts that it doesn’t feel great to play; but perhaps others will enjoy its puzzles and won’t be put off by the game’s shortcomings. If you enjoy the idea of looking at amorphous shapes expand and contract while a vaporwave-esque soundtrack plays in parallel, then I think visiting the soft pink skies of Small Radios Big Televisions might just be worth your time.
The publisher supplied a digital press code of Small Radios Big Televisions to OK Beast. The game was played on retail PlayStation 4 Pro hardware.