There’s a childlike sense of wonder to radio. Making an ocean of the sky, radio waves broadcast out like the tide, songs and voices carried out like messages in bottles.
AM frequency signals bounce off the ionosphere, travelling thousands of miles. With that wonder, there comes the macabre, as the airwaves play host to the darker recesses of the public consciousness. As Kenneth Tynan once wrote of the CB radio boom of the 1970s, “The sleep of reason, to quote Goya’s phrase, brings forth monsters, and the anonymity of CB encourages the monsters to emerge.”
He was speaking then of masturbatory fantasies and illegal demi-mondes swirling through the ether, whispering to each other through the night. Oxenfree deals with a different kind of macabre: its central notion is of radio frequencies as cosmic strings, plucked by forces from another place. In the short story From Beyond by H.P. Lovecraft, a scientist by the name of Crawford Tillinghast creates a machine that emits a resonance wave; stimulating the pineal gland, this wave causes its subject to perceive planes of existence outside of their accepted reality.
It was Lovecraft’s response to the Golden Age of Radio, which in 1934 – when the short story was published in The Fantasy Fan magazine – was at its zenith. The narrator in the story sees an alien plane, whose ghoulish denizens overlap with his own reality. It’s clearly something Night School Studio had in mind when developing Oxenfree.
The radio is a conduit, a tool picking up signals from another world… or another time. When Alex tunes these planes together, she tears a hole between realities. The crew on board the USS Kanaloa in 1943 are trapped in an inter-dimensional rift; struck by friendly fire in American waters, the 85 crew and 12 passengers are confined to purgatory – sonic ghosts, echoes of the past lingering like burnt toast on a spectral plane.
In Lovecraft’s time the technology was being used for exciting new things: Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, and a great migration of vaudeville stars like Abbott and Costello and Jack Benny. It was progress, technology fused with the arts.
The Order: 1886 has a fascinating relationship with radio. Developed by their very own Victorian Q, Nikola Tesla, the knights of the order use radios well ahead of their time to keep in communication with each other in the field. Its copper coils and exposed, glowing fuse paint it with a rustic pseudo-science veneer, but these are instruments of power – they unite a disparate platoon of knights on London’s streets, calling in air-support from looming zeppelins.
The most striking set-piece in The Order is when one of these luxury airships catches fire, and comes sinking to earth in a tidal wave of flame. It brings to mind one of the most haunting images of the 20th century: the LZ 129 Hindenburg swept up in a rippling inferno and crumpling into a charred, skeleton. To conjure this imagery is to conjure, too, the infamous live radio report by Herbert Morrison in which he cries, “Oh the humanity!” It’s a harrowing moment of history immortalised on the airwaves, technology uniting the world to stare on in horror.
The power of these waves, and their beauty, is in their emptiness: they are merely a vessel. This is something Campo Santo keenly understood with Firewatch. Aside from chirpy wordplay and sarcastic banter, Henry and Delilah forged one of the more memorable relationships in games, one of knowing and warmth, without setting eyes on one another.
The walky-talkies were hot with emissions of raw emotion – anger, paranoia, joy – all soaring through the air above the Wyoming wilderness. The radio in Henry’s hand is just like the piton he drives into the rock face. His tower is tethered to Delilah’s, so many miles away, as if by rope; the vast expanse is belted and constricted by the comfort of a friend’s voice on the wind.
In that vein, who can forget glaring through the yielding darkness of the Bright Falls woods, as Alan Wake cast his torch beam through writhing shadows and whipping branches, and chancing upon a radio? It was a small beacon of comfort out there in the shadows to hear the voice of Pat Maine on his regular slot at KBF-FM.
There’s one moment in particular as you’re struggling to get back to Bird Leg Cabin. The wind howls and the trees shake to their roots, and you happen on a small wooden shack nestled between the trees. The radio in here is like a sip of something hot, a fellow traveller nodding his head as you pass on the same trail: “I just stepped outside to catch a breath of fresh air, and let me tell ya, the weather is getting heavy. Nights like this make me especially glad that I’m here talking to you…”
Even though Pat couldn’t come and lend you a hand, his voice was a comfort, like a boatman tugging the signal rope on a diving bell – one of the game’s reoccurring motifs.
In this way it’s easy to see the radio as a rope around the waist of the explorer, the diver. Bioshock Infinite distorts the image into something otherworldly. Leaving diving bells behind, it instead flew players up to the clouds to the floating city of Columbia. It was here that some familiar tunes came in on the breeze.
Jeremia Fink’s exploitation of Elizabeth’s power, to rip tears in the fabric of space-time, is revealed to underpin the industry, the tensions between regime and cabal, and the leaps in scientific endeavour. But these songs, plundered through portholes into other worlds by his brother Albert, aren’t just a show of hubris (“The music of tomorrow… today!”); they are a show of fear.
Those songs out of time, streaming in to Columbia through its radios, become the musical accompaniment for the tear – the frequency a split seam, a chance out between two worlds. Through his marvel and excitement at the idea of other worlds, Fink’s fear stemmed from what he saw through the tear: himself. A chance for glory that wasn’t his, for recognition as a composer, money, adoration: these all form his own narcissistic reflection. He wants to be recognised.
What so haunts us, beyond the romance and possibility, is that we hear only ourselves – our fears, our desires, our anger. The fear, as Lovecraft knew even then in 1934, even as this exciting new technology was binding the world together on shared frequencies like children round a campfire, is that we were, as ever, alone.