The RPG Scrollbars: Voices In The Air

There’s something oddly comforting about radio. Comforting because it’s so familiar, so natural. Odd because it’s a comfort that most of us don’t really use all that much these days, at least not in the ways that games just casually assume. It’s a little like the whole audio diaries thing – it makes a vague sense that everyone in a city like Rapture might record their daily crimes and schemes onto audio tapes, even though in reality that whole idea became obsolete when Facebook/Twitter added status updates.

But I do love in-game radio. It’s an amazing narrative tool, a great way of filling in the gaps the screen can’t show, a constant companion in the loneliest of situations, and not a bad way of making music diegetic – a term that translates to ‘let’s see who now sneakily Googles diegetic’. Forget Spotify. Never mind video. In RPGs, nothing can kill the radio star, unless of course you walk up to them and shoot ’em in the face. Then, sometimes. Though usually nature still finds a way of keeping them on the air.

Grand Theft Auto 3 really brought the radio experience to the masses, not just as a vector for its licensed music, but for the awesome Chatterbox station and ability to weave the passive audio experience in with the action. Most of the callers were unrelated to anything going on, but every now and again there’d be something like Toni Cipriani calling in about his mother, and giving us a perspective we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, as well as painting a picture of the wider city politics and entertainment and pressure groups and other elements that made Liberty City feel like a real place (circa 2001, of course) rather than just a lot of boxes where bad people shot other bad people in the cock while listening to the Scarface soundtrack. It was even used as the audio equivalent of gang signs, with each of the game’s factions having a preferred flavour.

It’s no wonder that later games doubled-down on this element with more stations, more chat, and more tie-ins to the main game, like news reports about your recent activities to create the illusion that the city gave a damn, even though the sandbox itself obviously didn’t. The same trick was later used by Saints Row, Watch Dogs, many a sandbox, though increasingly feeling odder that nobody ever seems to think the maniac running naked through the streets with a rocket launcher warrants a mention between Music Sounds Better With You and Everything She Wants.

In RPGs though, radio tends to be even more grounded than that – sometimes a vector for music, as with Fallout, but more often focused on world-building – specifically, the illusion of a bigger, more active world. Fallout 3 for instance used Three Dog’s announcements to spread word about the Capital Wasteland, while Fallout 4 uses it for both that and to create the illusion that the shopkeepers in Diamond City and its surrounds are actively marketing their wares instead of just sitting around and hoping that a confused 200 year old in a Vault suit drops by and liberates them of their Fusion Cores. Other things too of course, like tapping into military broadcasts, listening to episodes of a The Shadow type radio serial, and constantly re-establishing the vibe of Fallout as being rooted in the 1950s even when you’re out in the desert fighting giant scorpions with laser guns. People often call out sound as one of the most important parts of horror. Accurately, too! It’s just often forgotten, or at least not as well discussed, that it’s equally important for just about any setting.

At the same time, radio inherently feels different to many narrative techniques in that it’s not only passive, but deliberately background. You can have it on while doing something else, like fighting for your life against bandits, without being distracted by video. You can switch it off and not feel like you’re missing anything, which you can’t always do when staring at a dry looking book of lore or getting important messages from whatever your Mission Control is. It’s important, but it doesn’t feel important. You can listen intently or ignore it or switch it off, but still enjoy its benefits.

One of my favourite examples of this is, inevitably, from Vampire: Bloodlines. The opening does a great job of setting the basic World of Darkness ambience, and one of the most important parts of that is that when you first appear in your shitty little vampire apartment, the radio is playing the sultry and spooky Deb of Night – a perfect little encapsulation of the game’s dark, self-confident sleaze, off-beat sensibility, lies and monsters just slightly under the surface – and much like the GTA example, a call from one of the game’s secondary characters and hints that Deb herself may be Kindred and helping cover things up. Not least because her final caller straight-up nails much of the plot, only to be quickly shut down and the conversation moved on.

As a game mechanic though, I don’t think anyone’s done radio better than Dead State (from former Troika designer Brian Mitsoda). There’s no music element at all, or at least none that we get to hear. Instead, he’s the voice of the outside world in the survival/RPG mix, with each in-game day unlocking a new broadcast where the DJ tries to keep his sanity through music, to pass on information to the outside world, to talk with his handful of remaining listeners as they call in, and to show the effect of prolonged survival in impossible odds. He has about 50 broadcasts before leaving the station, going from moments of optimism to deep frustration and aggression, often mitigated or sparked by what happens off the air, like having a huge rant about how humanity deserves its current fate, then getting a call from one of his regulars just checking on how he is and hoping he hasn’t given up – leading to his next update being quieter, slightly more hopeful, and promising to cut down the swearing.

Wasteland 2 occasionally ventured into similar territory, though I don’t think it quite went far enough – like a lot of the game, the good stuff like the impossible choice between Ag Center and Highpool, two crucial towns under simultaneous siege that you have to pick between – was too front-loaded. Even when you get to California, there’s nothing quite like the horrific early game scene of saving one town at the same time that the other is on the radio in your ear, begging and pleading for help that absolutely isn’t going to arrive because of your alternate choice, until finally giving up all hope and just going quiet. Likewise, it never makes the most of being in contact with your home base via radio, reinforcing your status as Wasteland lawbringers backed (supposedly) by an organisation instead of just random do-gooders.

Its radio mechanics are definitely worth stealing though, as they’re crazily effective when they work. In many ways, it’s proof that radio is the logical next step that games ripping off System Shock’s audio logs never bothered making the jump to – a form of feedback that can be passive or active, doesn’t distract from the action, and offers a solid reason why you can’t interject or argue or do anything except accept the world’s perception of your latest choice regardless of your original intent.

Something I was always sorry about though was that radio never truly got to flourish with what always seemed like its ideal genre – MMOs. There are MMO radio stations out there of course – Eve Radio, Radio Free Gaia (The Secret World), and past ones like City of Heroes’ Cape Radio, which this year decided to go ‘game agnostic’ after its game got shut down. It’s not that people aren’t willing to make radio stations, combining talk and music and cool background info for players. As a genre though, MMOs went in the wrong direction for it to truly work. Players not being able to make much real impact is one problem. Everyone being scattered to a million different shards and regions was another. Genuinely one of my biggest disappointments about the World of Darkness MMO failing is that it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make something that would not only have fit the setting like a glove, instead of being overlaid onto it in the way of fantasy games, but allowed for cool RP elements and breaking news that you need a single-shard setup for, and players doing their own Deb of Night type stuff. I’m sure a lot of it would have been awful, toe-curling dreck, yes, but the potential was there to do something really special. Bah. Maybe some day.

When it comes to the more scripted stuff though, my only real complaint is a logistical one. It’s impossible to license enough music that something like Fallout 4 or GTA V isn’t going to start almost instantly repeating, and that gets very old. I’ve been finding it a particular problem in Fallout 4, with Bethesda’s realisation that there isn’t that much ironic 1950s music leading to its stations pretty much just playing the Fallout 3 soundtrack on a loop. God, do I never, ever want to hear Civilization or Butcher Pete ever again. Incidentally, if you’re bored of the music, there’s already several plug-in stations available – CONELRAD, made for Fallout 3 and ported, and More Where That Came From being a couple of the most popular over on the Nexus.

Relatedly, I know there’s a million licensing and logistical reasons why this would be a problem, but I’d love the next step for radio in these games to be the ability to plug in services like Spotify to keep things interesting. I don’t mean that you’d play your own music, but that something like Diamond City Radio in Fallout 4 or the pop station in GTA would pull from a central playlist of carefully curated songs, with pre-recorded bumpers from the DJs. The discoverability side of actual radio, the same embedded atmosphere and careful selection that the pre-chosen tracks got for fitting the mood of the game… it’d be a great evolution of sticking MP3s into a folder, albeit one that would still need a ton of licensed tracks for if the music service went down or wasn’t available in your country. It’d be pretty awful being stuck with a silent game because, say, Pandora never managed to get its arse out of the US and Australia.

Either way, while audio diaries have absolutely had their day and should be burned out of games with an arc welder, radio lives on. It’s at once a classic concept and one that’s still bursting with potential, with the wonderful twist of being about the cheapest gaming content it’s possible to make in bulk. A good performer with a good script can create a whole world with nothing more than their voice. Having that world available to see and touch and explore doesn’t make that irrelevant, it just gives developers the chance to make it even more real… more reactive… more human. To make a good world great, simply by sitting down in front of a microphone.

33 Comments

  1. VeNT666 says:

    It’s got to be saints row 2. All classic. Also the random infomercials are brilliant.

  2. dethtoll says:

    Combination of GTASA and Bloodlines. Maybe it’s just ‘cuz of the West Coast thing.

  3. SpiceTheCat says:

    This is RPS; your readers know what “diegetic” means

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      I didn’t, but I do know enough to just chuck the word in to google and find out, but now I’m still pretty confused.
      So, it means, “story”? Sort of?

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        Diegetic music, as an example, is music that is taking place within the world of the story. Like a radio playing or someone busking or whatever – as opposed to incidental music that’s not part of the scene.

    • slerbal says:

      It’s also the second time in two days that RPS has used the word and questioned our understanding of it. Though I’m not a fan myself as it is a very obscure term and a bit elitist.

      Also Richard: I disagree (politely) that audio logs should be burned out with an arc welder. I don’t think *any* game play elements should be off limits to a creative and intelligent game designer. Doing so only weakens future games.

      Bad use is one thing, but even then I’d rather have the bad and occasional excellent than nothing.

  4. Philopoemen says:

    Spec Ops: The Line – it was a play on the Conrad/Apocalypse Now theme, but it worked well I thought.

    • Philopoemen says:

      Also Vice City – as soon as I hear Flock of Seagulls I think Tommy Vercetti

      • Syt says:

        Vice City was indeed awesome. Whenever I hear the intro to “Broken Wings” I get flashbacks of driving a not-Ferrari around the quiet city at night. And the parody-ads of 1980s pop culture were hilarious. Vice City and San Andreas make me wish Rockstar would do a past-based game again, maybe set in the 70s in Liberty City or San Andreas.

  5. Zorgulon says:

    A special mention should be made for the singing along to the radio that would sometimes happen hen sharing a car during missions in Saint’s Row 3 (and 4?).

    My personal favourite virtual radio station was GTA4’s Liberty Rock Radio. Iggy Pop talking between the likes of Genesis and Iron Maiden while tiring through the streets was a highlight.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Oh yeah, it’s in 4. Pierce and the Boss sing to Opposites Attract during one of his loyalty missions, with the whole cast doing the same in the credits. He tries to do it again with Biz Markie, but Zinyak joins in and ruins their fun.

    • LionsPhil says:

      It’s also as an event during a mission in 3, using What I Got.

      Boss will also sing along to the radio randomly in 2; I think for several songs, of which one is Take On Me. It’s actually handled as much more of a natural amateur background thing that’ll just happen, rather than being all front-and-centre awsum.

      • Bugamn says:

        Yeah, it would happen randomly and it would be awesome. There were also a few moments during missions when someone (I forgot his name) would try to change the radio and it just felt natural.

  6. RedViv says:

    Euro Truck Simulator 2 wouldn’t be just right in this aspect without putting in a bunch of streams of local radio channels. Switch them when you get to a different country, spend 30 minutes traveling its entire length while bathing in its local top tunes.

    • ffordesoon says:

      Exactly this. I have no idea why more games haven’t slapped a bare-bones radio tuner program in, especially ones set in the modern world like GTAV. Sure, give me the usual complement of in-game stations, but when I’ve exhausted those, why force me to drag MP3s into a folder manually if I wanna hear anything new when you could let me stream actual radio stations? I don’t have to pay for new MP3s to listen to songs legally, and you don’t have to worry about cramming the history of recorded music into your game. Everybody wins.

      Granted, you could theoretically break the fiction by, say, listening to an LA radio station while driving around Los Santos, but who gives a shit? I can do the same thing now by streaming radio stations on my phone while I’m playing GTAV. Why not save me a step?

  7. Syt says:

    While GTA 3 was the break out game of the series, radio stations were already part of the first game. Of course at the time, the stations were included as CD tracks on the CD-ROM, making switching stations a bit stupid, and IIRC you would always start from the beginning of a track. And the music was, uhm, less known, like the funny “Ballad of Chapped Lip Calquhoun” by Sideways Hank O’Malley and the Alabama Bottle Boys. :D

  8. Sin Vega says:

    Radios and phones are bizarrely absent from so many games. I’m a bit biased as I’d love a scavenger game where I could set up and work with a network of people, communicating and co-ordinating over radio (assuming you’ve found enough, obv).

    But then, that’d get ruined because gamers would immediately just use third party comms instead. Sigh.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      ArmA’s various incarnations have a pretty nice diegetic radio comms mod – ACRE – that does cool stuff like make it go all crackly when interlocutors are going out of range and suchlike, but it’s always been fiddly to set up and intensely flaky, in my experience

  9. Darth Gangrel says:

    I just wanted to point out my amazement at seeing an RPS Feature by Richard Cobbett that doesn’t feature Ultima, but then again, radios aren’t exactly something one associates with fantasy worlds.

  10. Geebs says:

    Silent Hill contains the best in-game use of radio, of course.

  11. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Every so often, I wish that games like GTA would go one step further and have television broadcasts that aren’t just reactive, but actually document your actions by replaying bits of the action. During a mission, the game would record key fight sequences (or whatever’s most visually appealing), ideally from an alternate perspective. Then, after the action, the player could relive the experience, along with all their small victories and cock-ups along the way, in the form of a news broadcast. Extra points if the show provided closeups and slow-mo of kills.

    I’m not sure how technically feasible it all is (it’d probably depend on the engine/game, I’d think), but damn, wouldn’t it be lovely?

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      I just saw that I used the word “action” twice in one sentence. I’m sorry, internet. :(

  12. Monggerel says:

    All you need is Bandit Radio.


    A NU CHEEKI BREEKI

  13. Canadave says:

    Vice City has made it really tough to drive when an 80s pop song comes on the radio. I just want to slam my foot down on the gas and drive on the sidewalk.

    • LionsPhil says:

      BREAKING NEWS: GAMER CONFIRMS LOSING SEPARATION BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY — GTA “TAUGHT ME TO KILL”

    • apa says:

      I have the same reaction, only with more GTAs. Have to be careful what radio station I play IRL.

      Also, Deb of Night was great background stuff at work, found it on Bloodlines soundtrack (unofficial collection of MP3 files).

  14. Bugamn says:

    In the defense of Fallout 3 and other games with high repetition of radio music, normal radio around here already feels like that.

  15. Henas says:

    Couldn’t you argue that the lack of variety in musical tracks in Fallout 3/4 to be diegetic, in that the selection is all that had been saved / scavenged after the bombs dropped?

  16. Twisted says:

    It seems utterly mad now, but I used to park the car in GTA3 and listen to the glorious insanity of Chatterbox, the talkback station hosted by Lazlo (because he got kicked off the rock station, from prequel Vice City). I never made any significant progress in the game, but did not care. I burnt that station to its own CD so I could listen to it in my own car, because it is brilliant.

  17. zipdrive says:

    I want to see a Nightvale expansion to The Secret World, where Welcome to Nightvale is the ever-present radio station.

    • Buzko says:

      @zipdrive – logged in to say that WTNV was excellent background to my recently completed first playthrough of New Vegas.

      And the fact that the music selection in Fallout is likely limited by the apocalypse doesn’t make it any less irritating when you hear “Johnny Guitar” for the fiftieth time. What would be awesome would be a side quest to find a hard drive or crate full of new tunes. Modders, see to it.

  18. vahnn says:

    There are a couple cool third party radio stations for the Elite: Dangerous community. Radio Sidewinder and Lave Radio. Although Lave Radio is actually a weekly podcast that neither plays music nor stays rooted within the Elite game universe (as far as I have seen, anyway. )

    Radio Sidewinder is especially good, playing tons of music, ads, brief bits by djs, galactic news, and occasionally irl news related to the game. And it’s up 24/7. Or at least it was. I haven’t played ED or tuned in for a very long time. I hope it’s still around!