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Video games and the romantic yearning for nature

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Small Radios Big Televisions warns of environmental damage

There's a trend emerging in game development, most particularly indie games, which leans towards a wistful appreciation for nature. Games like Firewatch, Oxenfree, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and The Witness take place in verdant, bucolic surroundings, outdoors places of trees and beaches, albeit touched by menace and modernity.

Even Far Cry Primal sought to pull the player closer to nature through its stone age setting. though with a reliance on slaying creatures willy-nilly.

Perhaps it's a reaction to gaming's long-standing love of post-industrial dystopia, its grim backdrops of decay, annihilation and rot. Like the Romantic poets who rebelled against the dark satanic mills springing up around them, game developers are looking towards an age of innocence for inspiration.

Small Radios Big Televisions is set in an abandoned factory complex, but it's also about natural spaces and most particularly about wanting to find a way back to those spaces. Due to be released on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC on Nov. 8, it's a short, gentle puzzle game that takes climate change as its theme.

Small Radios Big Televisions
Owen Deery

The player explores the abandoned rooms of factories, seeking out the meaning of their abandonment. Much of the game involves looking into different rooms and searching for cassette tapes. When played on a Walkman device, these tapes act as a kind of virtual reality portal to forest groves, idyllic beaches, fields of swaying corn.

Some of these visions of loveliness also offer up gem keys that can be used as puzzle solutions in order to progress in the game.

Mangles can also be utilized to corrupt the tapes, so that when they're played, their original destination is changed, dirtied and compromised. This also yields solutions.

"In any game, you can just say, 'oh aliens came and they destroyed the Earth'," says developer Owen Deery. "But climate change is a tangible issue facing human civilization right now."

Small Radios Big Televisions
Owen Deery

The external builds of the factories are inspired by one of Deery's favorite games, Fez. Internally, they have a pleasing art style that relies on primary colors, simplicity and visual clues about the absent workers. Puzzles are generally a matter of looking for objects and making use of them to effect change. There's a heavy reliance on cogs.

Deery says he wanted to make a game that suggested a narrative theme, rather than one that spelled out its message. He’s also keen on relatively short, easy-going games.

"I'm getting older," he said. "I have less interest in coming home at the end of a work day and having my adrenaline go up to 120 percent. I don't want to sit on a couch and watch TV for seven hours, I want to play a game that's relaxing and enjoyable."