I grew up on the cusp of mix tapes and mix CDs, that span between the late 1980s and into the 1990s, spending my time as a young boy listening to the radio, waiting for a specific song to come on and record it with a tape deck cradled in my lap. Frustratingly, I’d often capture a snippet of commercial in there or the DJ talking over the first few seconds, permanently changing the song to my ears for years to come. Oh well. There are still several mix tapes in my possession given to me as Christmas gifts from my sister Dina that I cherish and no longer have a way to listen to anymore, and I’ll always prefer tapes over CDs despite now using a thumb-drive in my car full of MP3s.
Either way, these tapes were listened to over and over and over, taking me away from the bullies outside my window shouting mean things about me keeping to myself to musical worlds ruled by the likes of David Bowie, the Steve Miller Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc., and so I really resonated with the cassette tapes you find in Small Radios Big Televisions that transport you elsewhere when you drop them into your portable player, the TD-525.
Small Radios Big Televisions is the very title that inspired the My Laptop Hates These Games feature here on this gracefully aging blog of mine, and so I thought it only fitting that it be one of the first games I try to run on my brand new, fancy laptop. And good news–it worked perfectly. Not a single hitch or stutter or black screen of death or obtuse error message laden with computer jargon. So, that’s good. Also, the game’s pretty good, a bite-sized adventure that sees you descending into abandoned factories in search of lost cassette tapes which hold mystical, door-powering gems for you to find. Sometimes you need to manipulate the tapes first by tossing them against a magnet, distorting them. Progress is hidden within the spools of magnetic tape.
Most of the puzzles in Small Radios Big Televisions focus on fixing dormant machinery in these deserted locales, and these honestly don’t require that much effort. You’ll find doors you can’t open, which means searching for a gem in a tape. If you can’t find a tape, it’s probably behind a door or gate, which can be opened by correctly utilizing gear pieces. If you have all the tapes, then you need to search within them more for a bright green gem, which means try all versions of a tape to see what, if anything, changes. I forgot to mention that, for most of these sections, you are a distant viewer, clicking on things from afar; when you enter a tape, it’s more of a first-person perspective, with limited movement. Towards the end of the game, you’ll actually control someone with WASD and move around a limited area looking for key items.
Alas, there isn’t much story to go off here. After completing each factory section, you’re treated to a short dialogue sequence playing over a radio, with some words cutting off due to static. The conversations are between two unidentified men and tease the origins of these cassette tapes, implying their use as a means of recreation, as well as escape for those in need. Especially as the world outside these factories is crumbling away. Or something like that. Really, it wasn’t at all clear, but that’s okay. Because the Small Radios Big Televisions soundtrack, written and produced by the game’s developer Owen Deery, does an amazing and even better job than any words could depicting worlds within worlds and contemplating the manipulation of audio-visual data through its haunting, transformative synths.
Small Radios Big Television can most likely be completed in a single sitting, seeing as I put in a little more than two hours and saw credits roll, but I did that over several sittings, pausing after each completed factory session. To think, to ponder. To listen to the soundtrack on the side. Also, after you complete the game, you can go back to all the levels and find any missing tapes, and the game tracks which ones you have or don’t have, which is a feature I would kill to have in every single videogame ever going forward from this time and date.