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Small Radios, Big Televisions: Radical(!) Environmentalism with a Burst of '80s Nostalgia

Small Radios, Big Televisions: Radical(!) Environmentalism with a Burst of '80s Nostalgia

I first saw the video game Small Radios, Big Televisions advertised on the late-night programming block Adult Swim in early November 2016. Immediately, I knew that it was something I had to look into, especially upon discovering that the developers at Fire Face Media described the game as an “[exploration of] digital worlds stored on analog media." The release date finally came, and I purchased Small Radios, Big Televisions on Steam and eagerly played the entire game in one sitting (total playtime is only 1-2 hours). Though a deceptively simple point-and-click game on the surface, Small Radios, Big Televisions offers simultaneously beautiful and disturbing commentaries on the effects of industrialism, the consumption of natural resources, and the recently flourishing nostalgia for 1980s aesthetics.

Set in what could only be described as a dystopia of abandoned air and water treatment plants, the game allows players to explore ultra-industrial realms in which remnants of a previously organic one can still be found in the form of hidden cassette tapes. These are abandoned utilitarian worlds gone awry– collapsed under the weight of their own pragmatism– set to the backdrop of a looming synth-pop soundtrack, as players travel through different color-coded venues to collect all the tapes. Upon finding these tapes, players are then transported to a virtual world (within the game…), each of which represents a different type of climate or environment (i.e., forest, road, tundra). Players are expected to retrieve “keys” located within the virtual world in the form of green gems that they can transport back to the dystopia after exiting the tape, and use to unlock doors to further travel through the buildings upon their return. If a gem is not present for taking upon initial entrance into a virtual realm, the cassette tape must then be distorted through exposure to vertically- and horizontally-oriented magnetic fields located in the abandoned factories. Doing so alters the content of the tapes (the virtual world itself), allowing players to then find the necessary "keys."

A basic reading of the game might focus more on the pure exploration aspects of Small Radios, Big Televisions, toying with the idea that close examination potentially leads to unexpected discoveries. While this notion is certainly true, one must also observe that the game plays with the alteration of organic environments, or the stripping of the earth of its natural resources (represented by the gems in the virtual worlds found on the cassette tapes) for use in industrial factories (represented by the greater dystopia). Without necessary resources, such as the gems, the game cannot progress, and, therefore, players must obtain them at all costs. Thus, the distortion of the tapes via magnetic fields offers a meditation on how the environment essentially becomes distorted, as well, following man's (often crude) removal of its resources.

Consequently, tapes cannot be “unwarped” after being exposed to the magnetic fields, just as with real cassette tapes. Again, environmental concerns are brought to light in the sense that natural resources are limited, and the earth cannot truly be restored to its previous condition once humans take from it. However, the inability to restore the distorted tapes also references the fragility of analog media compared to digital media, noting the physical limitations and distortions that can so easily arise in cassette tapes that are not properly cared for. Though physical threats still exist for electronic devices in the digital age, Small Radios, Big Televisions acknowledges the shift from external components of media (such as cassette tapes) to internal components (digital downloads, such as the game itself), and how each is handled differently when utilized. The theory behind analog glitches is a prominent aspect of the gameplay, and the idea of being able to further examine these glitches digitally shows an overlap that has recently arisen as part of the 21st Century’s fascination with nostalgia and older technology.

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