Escapism isn't everything: You should be playing Small Radios Big Televisions

What is it?

Explore a series of virtual worlds hidden inside discarded cassette tapes in an adventure game that's as chilled out as it is haunting

Play it if you like...

Artful puzzle games, retro aesthetics, synthesizers

  • Format: PC / PS4
  • Price: $11.99 / £8.99 
  • Release date: Out now

Something bad happened. 

You won't know this when you first boot up Small Radios Big Televisions. It opens on a simple, industrial building resting on top of stilts, wind tossed across the bright blue sky as warm analog synths hum in the background. You're here because… well, you don't really know why you're here. But you move through hallways, clicking on doors, and picking up cassette tapes along the way, your curiosity getting the better of you.

Once you pick up a tape, you'll slot it into your tape deck, a virtual reality machine ripped right from a future envisioned by the 1980s. Suddenly, the tracking picks up and you're whisked off to a virtual forest, looping synthesizers droning on. Trees sway, birds flap in the distance. The skyline appears distorted, as if it's tuned in between television channels. You feel like you could spend a lot of time here. But something seems off. It's peaceful, but it doesn't feel… real.

There's a hovering green crystal inside the tape. You grab it, taking it with you back to the world outside the tape where you can use it to unlock a door up ahead. Here are a series of magnets. You throw your collected tapes on them, and the magnets work their magic, distorting and shaking loose the hidden contents inside. You hop back into one of your newly-magnetized tapes, and suddenly a whole new world is inside. But this one is different. Darker, more twisted, music distorted like it's echoing down a long hallway. It's like all the hope's been sucked out of it. Another crystal hides here. You grab it.

This is how you move through Small Radios Big Televisions, an independent game by Fire Face and published by Adult Swim. It's as much a retrowave art installation as it is a well-crafted little puzzle game, a statement on the nature of escapism and its intoxicating pull. Small Radios Big Televisions doesn't just feel prescient given our current climate; it feels necessary.

It's easy to find ourselves adrift, clinging to nostalgia and wanting to disappear into our consoles or virtual reality helmets. Technology is giving us more and more opportunities to dissolve into our entertainment, to forget our problems, put blinders on and submerge into a world that, while not perfect, is ultimately fixable by our own hands.

But you have to come up for air some time, and those problems that were nagging at the back of your mind are still going to be there, no matter how many demons you slay or how many kingdoms you save. Escapism, as comforting as it is, is fleeting. It's peaceful, but it's a false peace.

That's ultimately the heart of Small Radios Big Televisions. You'll come across distorted conversations between two individuals describing the reason why you're finding tapes everywhere, why people made them, why the world is the way it is. None of it is good. And you'll wonder if maybe people in this world spent a little less time making tapes and more time trying to work together to fix things, we wouldn't need the tapes in the first place.

Art is important - it builds empathy and gives us understanding of worlds and cultures that differ from our own. Escapism is important - it gives us an opportunity to re-center ourselves when hope seems lost, to help us feel empowered when we're at our lowest point. But escapism to an idealized version of a bygone era shouldn't be humanity's end goal - action should be. Because without action, all we have are tapes.

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David Roberts
David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.