Alt-Frequencies: A Lot More Than Static

An update to this article: This game is available on Android, Windows, and Mac as well, and is accessible to the blind on Android and Windows, with an update to the Mac version coming soon as of this writing.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it another thousand times if I need to. Accessibility is happening. This is a solid fact that becomes readily apparent every time a developer takes on the task of making their game or app accessible. Every time a new experience is opened up for us because a developer wanted us to share in it as well, I am reminded again that it’s a great time to be a gamer. This was true of Alt-Frequencies, a game by Accidental Queens and Arte, and published by Plug in Digital, with a truly awesome concept behind it. Let’s get into it, shall we?

Imagine, if you will, that there existed a time loop. Imagine that bits of time keep on resetting and repeating over and over with seemingly nobody the wiser. Now, imagine what radio would be like in that scenario. That’s the first part of what Alt-Frequencies is, but with a gameplay addition that proves to be quite unique. More on that later.

You are someone unaffected by the time loop. This puts you in a unique position to affect the loop. You are not the only one, as an underground organization strives to get your attention, begging you to alter events and end the time loop for good. An intriguing story, to be sure, but how does gameplay work? That is where this game truly shines.

Earlier, I mentioned radio. This is because the radio is entirely how this game’s story is conveyed. You have access to several radio stations which you can listen to. These stations play different content every chapter, and each has their own unique flow and presentation. Each one is full of information and lore. Some of it is very important, some of it isn’t, but even the unimportant bits are presented in an authentic way that keeps you interested. More on that later as well.

Gameplay works like this. You do your very best to find bits of information that are relevant. Things that, if they got out, would change the flow of information you’re hearing on the radio. You can record clips from any radio station with a simple downward swipe, and then send them to another station by swiping left or right to that station, then swiping up to send it. DJ’s will react to your submission, even if it’s something they can’t use, and some of those reactions give you hints as to whether or not anyone else might be able to use it. If it’s something they can use, you will progress in the game, having altered that particular instance of the loop. New information might come out as a result of your interference, something you could send to another channel during the same chapter, or maybe you’ll have solved that chapter, and automatically move onto the next. That’s not all, though.

This mechanic allows for a unique way to present player choice, which the game takes full advantage of. Imagine being given the choice to send an important bit of information to one particular station or another, but only being able to send it to one. Imagine having multiple pieces of important information that you could send, but needing to choose which is more important. Both these scenarios, and more, are presented to you throughout the course of this game, and I personally love this. Here is a way to provide player choice without interrupting the flow of the game for a menu of choices, and without even necessarily being super obvious about the fact that there are choices. The potential for a thing like this is huge. I don’t necessarily think the developers went this far, but there could very easily be hidden, not at all obvious choices you could make. Some choices are hinted at, but why not toss in a surprise third option for the really clever? That doesn’t mean choices like this exist in the game, but I look at this game and I see possibilities. I can’t help it. I almost think that was part of the intent of the developer.

The only game mechanic I didn’t mention in that description is the ability to jump quickly through audio clips on a station if you know what you’re looking for, but that is basically all you need to know in order to play this deceptively complex game. What I want to talk about now, though, is presentation. In a game composed entirely of radio stations, presentation is basically the backbone. So, how’d they do?

They… did… perfectly! That is the best way I can put it. Each station has exactly the feel that station is supposed to have, and they didn’t do anything halfway. The voice acting is perfectly cast, and everything down to the microphones they use makes it all seem real. The news station, the morning show on Fresh FM, and talk radio station are extremely high-quality, complete with professional-sounding station identification bits. Meanwhile, the college radio station is, realistically, a bit lower quality, with some very basic identification and simpler presentation, because a radio station like that wouldn’t have the fancy budget. Even that, though, is something you need to take care to make sound right. If they had used the same super high audio quality on the college station that they used with, say, the news station, I may not have been as immersed. Great care was taken to ensure they got it all right, and I can’t stress enough how well they did. I got attached to these radio hosts. Ennis, who runs the talk radio show, has a genuine sort of talk radio host charisma, and while he can be a bit opinionated, that’s kind of his job. If his show were real, I’d probably listen to it because he is legitimately entertaining. The morning show hosts act like your typical quirky morning show personalities, and I liked them as well, though I think Old Bob really could tone it down just a notch. That’s not a criticism of the voice actor, though, it is the kind of thing one might think about any morning show personality who can’t approach anything without doing a silly voice. Anyway the point I’m making here is that the presentation is spot on.

Now let’s talk about bugs. Yes, unfortunately, there are a couple, though not many. I encountered one game crash when skipping through audio clips, but fortunately no progress was lost in that instance. I only found one thing that may be considered a major bug, and I will attempt to explain it without spoiling any of the story. There is a moment where you must send a very, very important piece of information to the news station. I did so, and multiple other stations including the news station reacted to it. I thought that maybe it would benefit me to then send the reaction of another station back to the news station. What happened was that the news station played the new message I had sent containing the reaction, but their reaction was still the same one from the original clip I had sent. I then experimented with this to confirm it was a bug, and sent the news station a clip of morning show host Michelle coughing. Hilariously, the news station then played this clip, but acted as though I had just send them the original clip they had reacted to. I’m not sure how a “good morning” cough conveyed that information, but apparently it did. The fix is pretty simple here I think. The news station needs to ignore incoming clips after the first one has been successfully posted. Nevertheless it’s a bug that does kind of break the magic a bit, so I’m mentioning it here. The only other issue I found involved the game’s accessibility, which is my next topic.

You might be asking why I took this long to get to the accessibility portion of the review. This was actually intentional. You see, it is important for me to highlight how quickly and easily a game can flip from being completely inaccessible to being fully accessible. Sometimes it really is the smallest things. This game was made, I believe, with Unity. By default, Unity is a completely inaccessible game engine. The Voiceover screen reader would read absolutely nothing in your standard Unity game. Think about this for a second. The in-game interface for Alt-Frequencies would likely have been accessible anyway, without modification, by the very nature of its simplicity. However, none of that would have mattered, because thanks to Unity, we wouldn’t even be able to start the game. Remember, Voiceover sees nothing in a standard Unity interface. Our stumbling block in Alt-Frequencies would be… The main menu. Crazy, isn’t it?

Fortunately, there exists an accessibility plugin for Unity, and I believe it is this that Accidental Queens and Arte took advantage of. Once they made this decision and used the plug in to implement voice over accessibility, we were off and running. So while it’s true that it may not have taken much work, as only those front menus had to be made accessible to us, that’s also not the point. Accidental Queens and Arte were willing to remove a barrier to access to allow us to experience their game. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what accessibility is.

Onto the very slight accessibility bug, though. When I finished the game, I was presented with the credits, however I didn’t know this for several moments as these were not read aloud. While I could flick through them just as I did the main menu, Voiceover didn’t read any of them except at one point where it attempted to decipher the text. Occasionally, voiceover will manage to pull some text out of what it’s trying to read, and say “possible text,” followed by whatever it manages to decipher, and this happened once, which was enough to tell me that I was supposed to be looking at the credits. While this isn’t a major issue, and what needs to be accessible certainly is, I do hope it’s fixed only because we deserve to know who to thank for this masterpiece of a game.

I think that pretty well covers it! Guys, if you’re on IOS, android, Windows, and soon Mac as well, and you haven’t tried Alt-Frequencies, do so. It is wonderfully written and performed, and has some moments that just made me smile with utter delight. One such moment was being able to listen to an ongoing event through 3 synchronized perspectives. I 100%, absolutely, completely want more from this developer, and hope they make their next game just as accessible for us. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

You Vs. Weird: A Discussion of You Vs. Wild

Throughout the course of the last few months, I’ve written multiple blogs about Netflix’s interactive experiences, and so far, I’ve basically loved them all. I even enjoyed the experimental Puss and Book interactive adventure, if only because I saw the potential in it for so much more. That potential was realized in both Minecraft Story Mode, and Black Mirror Bandersnatch. I was so incredibly delighted with those experiences that I simply had to write about them. I feel I have to write about this new one as well, but for a very different reason.

To me at least, even the description of You Vs. Wild is off-putting. It basically tasks you with helping Bear Grills survive in harsh environments by making decisions. This sounded utterly silly to me. Bear Grills may sound like the name of a movie action hero, but he’s a real person, and a celebrity survival expert. The idea that we could even help him survive unless we were also experts was ridiculous. There were other reasons this struck me funny as well, but I’ll get to those in a moment. For now, I’ll say that I still decided to try it, given the awesomeness of the previous interactive experiences Netflix had released. Unfortunately, all my worst fears were proven correct.

I find it difficult to fully explain the problem I have with this experience, but I will do my very best. Firstly, I’ll again mention that Bear Grills is an actual person, not a character in a story or video game setting. Therefore, the unrealism of this experience becomes blatantly clear right from the start. Supposedly, we are going on missions to save this person, or find this medicine, but all the banter and all the hype cannot make the experience feel any less staged. And because it feels this way, the illusion of actual choice is shattered. When you play an experience like this, you should feel like these choices are yours, and that you’re controlling a narrative. However, the clearly faked cenarios here ust make it all the more clear that Bear Grills has already done all of the things you could potentially choose, because he would have had to do them for those choices to exist. A well done experience hides this simply by being so well done that you don’t think about this truth.

Unfortunately, another detractor from this experience is Bear Grills himself. He may be a survival expert, but an actor he is not. His performance when trying to uphold this paper-thin plot is sort of awful, and completely unbelievable. It is just the topper on what is already a strange and unsatisfying experience.

Believe it or not, there actually is exactly one thing I did like about this experience. Netflix has clearly done work to make the flow between the videos that play when you make a choice a seamless experience, and this shows in You Vs. Wild. When you make a choice, you actually get a little sound effect indicating your choice is locked in. Meanwhile, Bear will be explaining the merits of both choices as the timer counts down, done in the same way a major moment of suspense would be built on a standard survival TV show. When this moment ends, the video hen almost seamlessly flows into whatever choice you actually made. The split between video files is actually quite hard to detect unless you’re really listening for it, which is quite an achievement if you ask me. This is something that has gotten progressively better over the course of all of the interactive experiences. The cuts in the original Puss and Book experience were quite long and easily detected, Minecraft Story Mode cut down on the time, but the cuts were sudden, made the moment you pressed the button, and taking away from the video game feel of the original. Bandersnatch did a decent job of interweaving long enough pauses into its narrative that the choices seemed to flow pretty well together, though the cuts were made obvious by the audio describer mentioning first one thing, then the other. The way the interactivity is handled here is, I will admit, probably the best it ever has been. It is unfortunate that this is the only positive I have, though.

My conclusion is this. Interactive experiences are still wonderful in concept. My opinion here has not changed. I simply feel that this particular experience didn’t fit the format. However, if they apply their nearly perfected method of handling the interactivity to future experiences, I have complete faith that they’ll be able to create some really spectacular things. I honestly don’t know if this was critically well-received or not, but if it wasn’t, I hope it doesn’t discourage Netflix from pursuing other types of interactive experience. Thanks for reading all, and I hope you were able to make sense of my thoughts here. As always, continue to be awesome!