Time loop mechanics in video games intrigue me so I was curious when Alt-Frequencies appeared in my Steam recommendations. I added it to my wishlist despite not having heard anything about it before and spent just under two hours with the game a few weeks later.
What I’ve found out since is that it was made by Accidental Queens, the developer of A Normal Lost Phone. I should have guessed because it has a similar feel and they’ve once again made use of an unusual mechanic that’s worth talking about. In their latest project, there’s no conversation trees as such or any of the other elements you’d usually recognise from a narrative title: all gameplay takes place in a single screen through a radio set. Stay turned to find out more (pun intended).
Alt-Frequencies’ central plot revolves around the implementation of a time loop. The government is asking people to vote at the end of the week on whether they want this to happen, the justification being that life will continue on for us but the planet will be given a chance to heal. Is there something more underhanded going on though? A mysterious person named Winston has contacted you through your new radio set, pleading with you to seek out the truth amid the political tensions and spread this throughout the country.
You can do this by listening to various radio stations and recording clips from their shows. For example, your first task from Winston is to ‘find somebody who knows about all secrets’ and ‘ask him the right question’. Tuning into Talk Radio by cynical presenter Ennis B. reveals a conversation with his favourite conspiracy theorist who apparently ‘knows about every secret there is’. Take a recording of a host from a different station asking a question as part of his morning introduction, send it to Talk Radio and you’ll get your answers.
There are four main stations to tune into and each has a different outlook on the time loop situation. Aside from Talk Radio, News One is hosted by Fred Peterson and shares global news, reports and interviews; Michelle looks after Fresh FM and focuses on lighthearted conversation and music; and Campus Radio is staffed by wannabe-DJ students Kaya and Jenni. The voice-acting is varied with some characters being more over the top than others, but this really fits in with the radio setting.
Each station has around three minutes of content during each of Alt-Frequencies’ five chapters so figuring out what it is you’re looking for can be a little daunting at first. The time loop narrative helps here though and is effectively used in the gameplay. Every so often the screen will turn white to indicate that time is being rewound and you’ll find yourself back at the start of the show you’re listening to. You can skip forward through sentences with simple button-presses, so you don’t have to sit through everything all over again.
The title’s highlight for me was the story. As mentioned above, I enjoy time loop narratives and mulling over the implications that come along with them; and the political element gave it a new twist which meant that the plot wasn’t reduced to the normal science-fiction tropes. I may have written previously that I don’t enjoy character-switching in video games but the station-switching mechanic here really works, and I found myself eager to discover what each characters’ view on the government vote was and why.
At some points I was even caught off-guard though because, as unbelievable as Alt-Frequencies’ premise is, its story echoes political tensions going on in the world right now. Some of the characters are disillusioned with the government, thinking there’s no point in voting because all politicians lie, while others believe its your civic duty. The time loop vote has split the country into two and each side feels the other is unable to see through the lies they’re being told. For anyone who lives in the UK right now it all sounds rather familiar.
In a post published in July 2017 shortly after I’d played A Normal Lost Phone, I wrote that I thought it struggled with trying to fit its subject matter into a game that lasted little more than an hour. Sadly, Accidental Queens have hit the same stumbling block with Alt-Frequencies as the plot has the potential to be such an intriguing and complex one but it’s over far too quickly. I was left wanting more when the end came and, although that’s not always a bad thing, my more in-depth questions about what was going on weren’t answered.
Despite this however, I did sit back while watching the end credits and say to myself: ‘I enjoyed that’. It’s just a shame it feels as though the game is a teaser, or a pilot for a much longer title. If the developer did decide to go down that route and make use of the same mechanic in a future release, they’ve already got their first listener here.