'Alt-Frequencies,' a radio drama video game for the social media era

Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times
The audio-based game "Alt-Frequencies," developed by Accidental Queens, revolves around radio stations that reset every three minutes.

Midway through "Alt-Frequencies" — think of it as a modern, interactive radio drama — a character offers a cynical yet salient observation on what humanity too often desires when it comes to the dissemination of information.

"I like it when you are rude to people," a caller says to the host of a radio show.

Feeding this craving has propelled media for decades, from the early days of tabloid journalism to the shock-jock heyday of the 1990s to the political pundits who have dominated TV news to our anything-goes social media present.

"Alt-Frequencies" plays with this timeless tension. Players vacillate between amplifying the drama or searching for truth. It's a critique of media but also of what we want from our news sources.

Each radio station in the game — players on mobile phones will swipe rather than turn a dial — brings us to another opinionated viewpoint. Even the respectable journalist is caught lamenting that too often his job is rewriting press releases in the hunt for ratings-boosting commentary.

Each station essentially represents a Facebook group or curated Twitter list. These channels give the audience what it wants rather than what it needs while the populace is at one another's throats amid talk of a rigged election.

Thought provoking: Created by the thought-provoking French studio Accidental Queens, whose previous games, "A Normal Lost Phone" and "Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story," tackled themes of sexual identity, bullying and domestic abuse, "Alt-Frequencies" takes aim at fake news. But it ultimately wants us to think about how we're all perhaps complicit in its spread.

"The central theme of the game is context," says Miryam Houali, one of the game developers. "The fact that when there is no context information changes and it gets transformed is not something that's new. It's just the impact has changed and twisted a bit by the way we interact with media today."

The game: The game puts the player in the role of a sort of media manipulator. To try to get to the bottom of the conspiracy in the game, we listen to various radio stations and record brief snippets of key conversations. What we record is short — tweet length, if you will — and devoid of any surrounding commentary. We then send these soundbites to other stations in the game and watch how an old-fashioned game of telephone shapes, distorts and drives the broadcasts.

While an all-news station will often flat-out reject the more salacious audio submissions, other outlets such as a Top 40 destination, a college outpost and an all-talk (all-rant) frequency don't have such standards. We'll maybe hear brief on-air debates about the responsibility of broadcasting such info, but the desire to lead a conversation often will win out over common-sense restraint.

Throughout the game we'll encounter statements that at times feel uncomfortably close to what passes for political commentary today. Prepare to cringe or toss aside your phone in disgust.

"Feminism is so overrated," says one radio host proficient in the art of rage-inducing trolling. "I'm just pro-humans in general."

Other times, we simply witness the effects of a media-saturated environment: "Let's not bore people with voting stuff on here," shouts a DJ sick of all the political lecturing.

Technology: "Alt-Frequencies" at times feels inspired by "Black Mirror," the Netflix series that recently released its own choose-your-own-adventure narrative. The game also continues Accidental Queens' desire to explore our relationship with technology — its "Lost Phone" titles, after all, looked at how our smartphones could become an extension of our own fears, secrets and pleas for help.

"That is, I think, the DNA of Accidental Queens, to talk about subjects that we think are important to talk about," says Diane Landais, a lead developer on the game.

Some of the debates the characters have are similar to those our culture has been conducting. When a pair of students get their hands on a list of alleged criminals, they debate between publicizing it or whether they need more facts.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire. They're bound to have doing something wrong," says one student, ignoring the plea to maybe wait before destroying someone's life by public shaming. The player can then direct other outlets to investigate the list.

"For this game in particular, we started development by the end of 2017, and by this point it was one year of fake news and the discussion was concerning," Landais says. "We wanted not to tell people what you have to think or believe but to please stop and think and reflect before sharing stuff — and maybe don't take anything you read on the internet for granted. Have some critical thinking."

Conspiracy: Yet "Alt-Frequencies" isn't necessarily a ripped-from-the-headlines game. The voting conspiracy that sets off the work has a sci-fi bent. Residents will vote on placing themselves in a time loop to unknowingly relive the same day over and over. It's far-fetched, yes, but it has an altruistic goal of stopping humans from further destroying the environment.

That narrative, however, never really feels front-and-center. Or perhaps it's because the bulk of the game is such a dead-on media critique that we focus our interests there rather than trying to analyze the pros and cons of a time loop.

Or maybe that's a commentary in and of itself — that the more ridiculous aspects of "Alt-Frequencies" still feel topical and metaphorical must say something about our current age, no?

"We took inspiration from things happening around us," Houali says. "It just seems reality has crossed us on some parts along the way. Because some things we just meant as jokes or fiction turned out to be a bit more true than we would have expected."