In Alt-Frequencies, you have no voice of your own. Instead, you gather information and the soundbites of others, spreading them carefully across the airwaves and hoping desperately to implement social change. Alone with your radio, switching from station to station, you learn how in this age of misinformation and preference for opinion over fact, exposing the truth might just be an impossible task.
Developer Accidental Queens is best known for A Normal Lost Phone, which offered up an insightful coming of age story presented as a found-phone puzzler. This penchant for finding new ways to tell affecting stories is once again the backbone for Alt-Frequencies, which tasks players with uncovering a government conspiracy armed only with a radio.
In terms of actual gameplay, it’s a wonderfully streamlined affair. You’ll swipe between a selection of radio stations hunting for soundbites that you can use to progress the story. Once you’ve found the information that you need, you need only swipe down to record it, saving it for later. By listening to the brief, three-minute segments on each frequency, you start to find opportunities to share your recorded soundbite. Swiping up sends your clip to the radio host and in what feels like real-time, they respond. At the end of the three-minute timer, everything resets, giving you an opportunity to delve deeper and learn more about each host.
There are five chapters, each a puzzle in itself. One may task you with posing difficult questions to a so-called ‘expert scientist’ being interviewed on air, while others will require a little more thinking to crack. Despite this novel approach to puzzle-solving, it's all extremely intuitive and I never found myself stuck on a certain chapter for too long. The real joy comes from the small selection of radio stations that you’ll spend most of your time listening to. The developer boasts a voice cast made up from a diverse range of voice performers, including TV, podcasts and YouTube personalities, and it really shows. Each channel has its own host, playlist, jingles, and place in the game’s troubled political landscape. There’s the asinine talk show host, the blissfully ignorant duo steering a popular morning affair, and a shabby, grassroots student radio club.
Each radio show offers a different perspective on the main issue which permeates the narrative in Alt-Frequencies. You see, the country is on the verge of a historic vote, one that will impose a time loop on its citizens. It’s an interesting concept, in that it chooses to look at the socio-economic impact that a time loop would have, rather than focusing on the usual time-travel sci-fi tropes we’re used to. As the story progresses you start to learn how this time loop is being exploited by those in power, and how a rogue police force is helping them to do so. Everything from the crackled pirate radio which you tune into to get your day’s orders to the news bulletins filled with blatant doublespeak, helps set up a political struggle which is compelling from the outset.
Alt-Frequencies will only take you around two hours to complete, and this is its main downside. The story it tells is grandiose, but over far too quickly, stumbling before it has a chance to truly flourish. Mostly, this is evidenced in just how jam-packed the final chapter is compared to the ones preceding it. Not only is it made up of multiple parts, it attempts to resolve the character arcs of each and every radio host, and honestly it just falls short. An extra chapter would definitely have helped Alt-Frequencies stick its landing, as there simply isn’t enough here to carry such a heavy plot. What is there though, is painfully relatable. As you learn more about the very real risk to human life threatened by the upcoming vote, you become determined to spread the truth, to anyone who will listen. A study of the role that the media plays in influencing the important political votes of its listeners is front and center in Alt-Frequencies. As is the notion that most revolutions often start from the bottom, a point punctuated by just how instrumental the student-run radio station is in enacting real change.
Alt-Frequencies holds a mirror up to the state of the Information Age in 2019. Facts are becoming drastically less useful in the fight against fascism, and having an expert on your failing radio show is likely to draw in fewer listeners than a deluded sensationalist. It’s these parallels between the story of Alt-Frequencies, and the very real issues facing us today that make it so easy to recommend. The key plot device of the time loop is merely a red herring, something for the people to vote on, a means to justify the core gameplay mechanics. Alt-Frequencies is not the sci-fi story it may seem on the surface, it’s one about corruption, censorship and ultimately, whether or not finding the truth is as valuable as it once was.
While A Normal Lost Phone gave me invaluable insight into the struggles of certain marginalized groups, Alt-Frequencies hits uncomfortably close to home. It would be foolish not to acknowledge the similarities between the vote at the game’s core, and the one which is currently tearing my country apart. Alt-Frequencies releases at a time when Brexit has devastated the United Kingdom, splitting it right down the middle with little hope of any resolution any time soon. What’s starting to become perfectly clear is that those currently making large gains in support are those that know how to manipulate voters using the media, a notion which is perhaps the main takeaway from Alt-Frequencies.
Waking up and scrolling through the news every morning can leave anyone feeling hopeless. Being able to change things, even in some small way is absolutely a fantasy amongst many, but often the road to making a difference is long, exhausting and fraught with potential pitfalls for failure. Alt-Frequencies plays on this fantasy, reducing an otherwise monumental effort to a simple swipe on your phone screen. There’s something deeply satisfying about hearing an opinion you disagree with, and sending a rebuttal which is instantly answered. While it may be fairly simple, the record and send system at the core of Alt-Frequencies steals the show. Accidental Queens once again manages to use non-conventional gameplay systems to tell a story that is grounded, relevant and compelling. I just wish I had a little more time with it.