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The RPG Scrollbars: Voices In The Air

Videogames saved the radio star

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.

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