This Trippy Video Game Lets You Time Travel Using Cassette Tapes

In "Small Radios Big Televisions," analog tapes are your DeLorean.

Dec 1 2014, 12:00pm

The forest you're transported to. Image: ​YouTube

If I can't find a video I saw online, it usually means I haven't found the right search term. A tweak here and there—something more specific or some alternative wording usually does the trick—and bam, there is that anime ​music video I was hunting for, so that I may cherish it once again.

But if I can't find a tape with some old video I loved on it, I've likely lost all the media forever. It's a lost world, banished to some attic full of other unused home videos.

Those are the lost worlds Ottawa game maker Owen Deery wants to explore in his analog homage game Small Radios Big Televisions.

"There's sort of an analog fetishism to it," said Deery. "You know, I grew up in the 90s so there was a lot of transition periods between tapes to CDs, VHS to DVDs. It's kind of cool to go back and look at these technologies with some hindsight to them. Sort of notice all these little bits of details that you didn't account for when you use them in your everyday life."

The game's world is a high-scaling, low-rent industrial hutch. Metal doors and surgical piping. Streaks of primary colours as uniform as the stripes on a track suit. To proceed through the building, you have to find gems in the form of analog tapes that won't be found between these sterile walls.

You are equipped with a Walkman, the retro piece of tech modded with wires and gear, in the same way the DeLorean was modded to travel through time. You will find cassettes to play, and when you do you'll be transported to another strange place, in this demo a forest, that hums and sways like a happy drunkard. Here is where you'll find the glittery keys to open doors, though you can also take in the scenery and pull on the trees like rubber plants. 

One of the analog tapes transporting you to another world. Image: YouTube

In the full version of the game, Deery said (while knocking on wood) there will be more kinds of puzzles, mechanical ones, physics based ones, instead of just gem collecting.

He also said there'd be more than just forest worlds, though they'll likely still be grand, natural environments to contrast the stale, cramped fortress they're hidden in.

Deery said he was influenced by things being made for the Oculus Rift, which is made obvious in these moments. Inside the tapes are tiny worlds, woozy snow globes that have the answers to keep moving through the complex game environment.

Sometimes you'll have to warp these tiny universes with a magnet—one of the quirks that Deery finds most interest about old analog media—in order to reveal the items you need inside the tapes.

If you damage or scratch a CD, it's probably not going to function at all, but if you warp a magnetic strip, it will transform in strange and unpredictable ways.

Before you think Deery is some sort of devout nostalgic, he refuses to actually collect these trinkets himself, or allow the band he plays in to release cassettes, as hip a gesture as that would be these days.

"I won't discount that they're a really interesting medium and there's a lot of cool stuff," said Deery, "but I have no purpose in owning them."

The faults of old media seems to be what sticks out for him most, or at least the thing he can't get over. He likes found footage collectives like  Everything is Terrib​le. He rolls with the aesthetics, weary of their faults while still finding them cool, like a parent half-heartedly telling their teen to stay away from weed.

The industrial game world. Image: YouTube

When we moved from cassettes to CDs, we did the logical thing and relocated to a format that is immensely easier to back up. In that same gesture, we created a cult of people who would one day obsess over finding the long lost treasures for all their glory and embarrassments.

"It would be one thing to view found footage and it's perfectly presented to you, and there was no distortion, and in HD quality," Deery said. "But the part that I enjoy the most is the fact that it's not. The colour's saturated, the tracking goes off, the sound warps in and out. That's why there's so much visual noise in the game. That's the part of the tapes I really wanted to enjoy a lot."