Kids today have it too easy. Nowadays you can jab randomly at Spotify for ten minutes and create a playlist of a hundred songs by Justin Timberland or whoever. Back in my day you needed a lot of patience, a radio and a cassette recorder to make a mixtape which I unfortunately concocted in about 1990 and which featured:
Bryan Adams – Can’t Stop This Thing We Started
Bon Jovi – You Give Love A Bad Name
Extreme – More Than Words
WWF Superstars – Slam Jam
Also, ask yourself this: when did the names of video games get so weird ? If your answer is “Hunt The Wumpus (1972)” then hush your noise because you’re ruining my point. When I told people back in 400BC that I’d been playing Horace Goes Skiing (1982), generally speaking their next question wasn’t “What’s all that about then?” The same goes for Hungry Horace (1982), Horace and the Spiders (1983) as well as other non-Horace based games. Yep, Trashman (1984) was about a refuse-collection operative, King’s Keep (1986) was about a Keep under the stewardship of the aforementioned monarch and Fat Worm Blows A Sparky (1986) was…er…not about an obese annelid performing a sexual act upon an electrician.
A further point against Small Radios Big Televisions is that the developer (Owen ‘O’ Deery) asked us to read some stuff before we reviewed his game. The temerity! I don’t read stuff, man. I don’t even write these reviews any more, having outsourced them to a Fijian reviewing sweatshop several months ago. This is hardly anything new – Nintendo Magazine System was written by Nazi War Criminals hiding out in Corsica throughout much of the 90’s and editor Tim Boone was nothing more than several pairs of old tights stuffed with butter. Viewers of much-lamented gaming show Games World will certainly attest to this.
In all honesty, the last (and only) thing I ever read apart from terrifyingly right-wing SubReddits was the book Hard Bastards by Kate Kray (3.9/5 on Goodreads). I expect I’ll read it again when there’s an unabridged Penguin Classics version. However, it’s not all words and non-indicative nomenclature as SRBT wins a point for being published by Adult Swim who have a reasonably enviable track record at this type of thing. Also, the game is this thing: Quite good.
It might be easier at the outset to explain just what SRBT is not. It’s not four jam sandwiches and a pickled egg. It’s not former Question Of Sport team captain Bill Beaumont exposing himself near a toothpick factory. It’s not Duran Duran eating warm offal out of Michael Gove’s hideous gaping maw. Neither is it a room escape game, though it features a series of deserted industrial complexes to be escaped. It’s not a point n click either, the puzzling being too light as well as distinct lack of other beings around to interact with. If anything it put me in mind of the unsettling solitude of underrated PS1 survival horror Overblood (1996), or the world of The Silent Age (2012) in which human habitations in the future have been reclaimed by the forces of nature.
SRBT is fairly light on actual story elements, plunging the player straight into a world of oil Derrick-like platforms where experiments appear to have been conducted regarding either virtual reality or altering human perceptions in some other way. In fact, you might well play this game and have an entirely different take on the story, so vague are the teased versions of events which are mostly gleaned during between-level cut scenes. This is just one of a few remarkably brave elements of game design. This is also the world of an alternate future where digital media never replaced analogue. See – the main macguffin here is a series of cassette tapes which stimulate an altered mental state where the user is transported to scenarios depicting natural environments such as fields, mountains and the Wolverhampton ring road (can someone check this – ed). It’s in these psychogeographical environs that the player must retrieve green crystals which open doors to new areas in the ‘real’ world.
Call this analogpunk or whatever you like but there’s something bittersweet about the humble cassette tape now being so old that it’s gone through an obligatory period of naffness only to emerge at the other end with some sort of caché. This is very much on-trend at present with any number of obscure Death Metal bands re-releasing classic albums on cassette and many a retro-gamer presumably hankering for the days when you had to wait through ten minutes of screeching just to crash the eponymous Horace into a tree. The game also exploits the effects that magnets have upon this sort of media, and cassettes can be magnetised in order to transform the virtual worlds within into strange, surrealistic landscapes where more crystals can be found. When I was seven years old, I stuck a magnet to the side of our old Grundig telly which completely ruined that night’s episode of The Entertainers (guests included Andy De La Tour, Ben Elton and Helen Lederer).
For an indie title the graphics are competent and not without charm, clear lines and muted colours suit the industrial style and are juxtaposed well with the dreamlike areas of virtual countryside. While the environments remain sterile and deserted, the game isn’t entirely devoid of humour with one particular tape featuring a wryly amusing infomercial. Mostly however the tone is one of desolation in the wake of a presumably extinct humanity. I mentioned before some of the bravery inherent in the design and that’s also reflected in the brevity of the game. SRBT certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome which shows commendable restraint on the part of the developer. However, I can say that because all I had to do to get my copy of the game was to wriggle into a latex body-tube and re-enact an X-rated version of Fat Worm Blows A Sparky with my editor. If you’ve forked out ten quid for around three hours of gameplay, you may well not feel quite so charitable.
Some of the puzzles are fairly obtuse too, and I solved at least one without ever really understanding how I’d arrived at the solution which isn’t good. This, plus the shortness of the entire experience is what’s preventing me from awarding SRBT a perfect score, although if you do have a spare tenner and want a novel gaming experience wrapped around interesting design and a compelling mystery, I can cheerfully recommend that you strap on your British Knights, don your NafNaf jacket and spend a somber few hours in Owen Deery’s dead world.
Small Radios Big Televisions was provided to us by Evolve PR via a download code for PS4.