'Small Radios Big Televisions'

Small Game Short Review

by G. Christopher Williams

22 November 2016

 
cover art

Small Radios Big Televisions

(Adult Swim Games)
US: 8 Nov 2016

I generally really admire Adult Swim Games. The publisher dabbles in curios, games like Jazzpunk, Robot Unicorn Attack, Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars, and Headlander. These games carve out unique niches in the medium. They are often funny, a little arthouse, a lot of absurd, sometimes amusing, sometimes slightly obscene. Basically, I know them for being a publisher that Is interested in promoting engaging experiments by unusual developers.

That’s the personal context that I bring to Small Radios Big Televisions and some of what defined my expectations for the game. And, indeed, it is clearly an experimental game. Unfortunately, for me, it is hardly engaging.

Small Radios Big Televisions is ostensibly a puzzle game that involves exploring some strange, vacant facilities that contain cassette tapes that when played launch you into virtual worlds, generally natural environments (which contrasts with the more sterile facility interiors of much of the rest of the game). The puzzles in the game sort of involve those tapes, since most of them contain gems that unlock doors in the facility allowing one to advance. There are also some light environmental puzzle mechanics accomplished during exploration of the facilities, which involve things like manipulating gears, opening and closing drains, and using magnets.

These puzzles are pretty straightforward. If you get stuck, it’s probably just a matter of you not noticing something that can be clicked. When you notice it, you’ll click it, and then you’ll move along. Basically, these are merely tedious exercises that aren’t stumping you. Instead, they merely point out your inattentiveness to the game world.

The intended lure of the game, I think, is supposed to be its imagery and sound. Those tapes that I alluded to and that the Steam page for the game describes as “contain[ing] boundless virtual worlds”, which is true if you define a “boundless open world” as most often a single screen with a very limited camera to view that world through.

The worlds aren’t big and are barely interactive. Mostly, you just go there and click on a gem, or if a gem is not there, find a magnet in the facility to distort the tape, then return to the tape world to find the gem now revealed. This is not engaging. It is just, as I said before, kind of tedious.

The worlds themselves have a unique aesthetic and are accompanied by strange, distorted music. All of which just comes off as a video game inspired form of psychedelia, which, if that’s your thing, is fine, I guess. It’s just not really mine. Seeing wavering, cartoonish imagery coupled with weird, distorted tunes creates that Adult Swim ethos of strangeness, but not with any real interest or purpose that I can see. Games like Jazzpunk make me laugh and make me think. Small Radios Big Televisions just reminds me of staring into a lava lamp for a couple of hours.

Solutions to all of the “riddles” of each facility do unlock some cutscenes that provide some vague sense of the game’s world on the whole and hints at a reason for the deserted facilities and the function of the cassette tapes in the world’s fiction, but I can’t say that those pieces of backstory really made up for what is a tedious experiment, rather than an engaging one.

I suspect that there is an audience for this game, one that will find its visual aesthetics and sound fascinating to drink in in some zen-like fashion. I’m just not the audience for this game. Check it out if you like psychedelia, perhaps, or the idea of a game that provokes a zen-like state of engagement. However, while I like Adult Swim Games, I like arthouse games, and I admire this publisher’s commitment to something a little more avant garde in the medium, this just happens to not be my kind of avant garde.

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