It’s not often that you’ll find me saying this but Adult Swim’s Small Radios Big Televisions should have been a VR game, or at least given players the option. Not only would it have made sense from a narrative perspective as the stylish adventure game see the player character don a VR helmet that allows them to be transported to weird and wonderful worlds via mysterious cassette tapes they find while making their way through the empty halls of abandoned facilities, it’s other issues would have been lessened, or even nixed with the implementation of VR.
Despite this the game’s air of mystery, intriguing premise and stylish presentation just about carry the game, despite some rather onerous control issues.
Gameplay is incredibly simple with the player pointing and clicking through a myriad of doors within each empty location, the main objective to unlock the path to the next set of rooms. The indoor environments aren’t that visually distinctive, comprising mainly of concrete walls decorated with graffiti and other industrial accoutrements, but differentiate themselves just so that traversing each complex does not become confusing. The layout of each building becomes exponentially more complex with each cleared complex. However, none of Small Radios Big Televisions five levels were particularly taxing. Puzzles generally consist of finding the key to open a locked door, and this is where the mysterious cassette tapes found in each level come into play.
The player character’s VR helmet uses the cassette tapes to transport them to various virtual dioramas, and each building has three tapes for the player to find. Once transported to these virtual areas, which offer very limited interactivity, the player then needs to fins green gems that act as keys for the bulky, locked doors back in the building. The virtual world presented to the player range from forests and mountain ranges, to more abstract spaces such as the flying shapes found in the ‘Alpha’ or ‘Beta’ tapes.
However, some of the tapes don’t initially reveal the location of the key and require a little ‘studio engineering’. This is mostly achieved by exposing a tape to a magnetic field which distorts the world contained within, then once viewed again the key will be revealed. This is essential for uncovering enough keys to progress, and seeing the once picturesque landscapes all discoloured, glitchy and warped is rather cool, while the rough and ready graphics, add to Small Radios Big televisions retro sci-fi presentation, as well as the unsettling nature of the abandoned worlds the player enters.
As well as the tapes, tucked away in each level is a lens, which use does not reveal itself until you’ve left the building and entered the story segment in between. Initially the dialogue in these sections is extremely fuzzy, and hard to follow, but by placing each levels lens in their respective stands all becomes clear. Even with the lenses in place though, the narrative remains vague, leaving lots of room for interpretation and never allows the player to have a firm grasp of what exactly has happened, for good or ill.
Unfortunately, controlling your cursor feels incredibly elastic and incredibly awkward with it. It instantly re-centres if you let go of the analogue stick and and will only travel so far. It also feels incredibly imprecise creating frustration when trying to complete puzzles or even when just trying to open a door. If a VR option had been included to have the cursor controlled by the player moving their head could have added an extra layer of interactivity and reduced frustration (likewise they could just stop the cursor pinging back every time you let go of the left stick)
The puzzles are also not very challenging at all, and barely change or evolve throughout the course of the game. You simply find a tape, give it a play, appreciate the scenery, then find a way to mess it up, then jump back into the virtual world and bag the gem. Rinse, repeat.
Like with the controls the feeling of diving into the worlds and looking around for gems could have been improved with VR. Get tossed into a virtual worlds and hunting for things works brilliantly with VR and considering the limited levels of interactivity VR would work perfectly.
Despite its missteps and missed opportunities, I was still engrossed for the duration of Small Radios Big Televisions, thanks in most part to it’s mysterious, eerie atmosphere and increasingly abstract and vibrant virtual worlds. The juxtaposition of the industrial trappings of the ‘real world’ and the weird world of the tapes works well, while the soundtrack is simple yet effective.
Though incredibly, short and often difficult to control, Small Radios Big Televisions is a bizarre yet oddly compelling adventure game. Its presentation its greatest draw, offering moments of blissful tranquillity and complete bewilderment. Unfortunately, the puzzles never evolve beyond their initial design, as the premise of playing with tapes to create new worlds is one that could easily be expanded upon. At its core, there’s the blue print for a great game here. However, it’s brevity, simplicity and the feeling that it would be much better served in VR, result in a game that is more single, than much loved mix tape.