Electron Dance
4Apr/197

Dabbling With… Doggerland Radio

The second episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

I heard the birth of Doggerland Radio three years ago.

Under the comments of Into the Black: The Movie, Amy Godliman picked up on my criticism of TheRaptureIsHereAndYouWillBeForciblyRemovedFromYourHome (Connor Sherlock, 2013). She wrote:

I’m glad you bought up TheRaptureIsHereAndYouWillBeForciblyRemovedFromYourHome as I had an interesting experience with that myself: I started playing not knowing exactly what it was so I found the spoken excepts fascinating, little surreal snippets of narrative with no beginning or end that added really well to the game’s atmosphere and gave this really well suited feeling of everything being suddenly interrupted. Then I realised I recognised one of the stories, and that they could all be collected one bit at a time by following the right colours, and all that atmosphere just evaporated.

Anyway, great video essay, and in my case useful video essay too as this subject is pretty much exactly what I’m exploring for my MA at the moment, so I’ll probably be re-watching this quite a few times over the next two years. Thanks.

I highlighted the key phrase. Two years later, Godliman hits me up on Twitter about her mysterious Doggerland Radio, produced for her MA degree, referencing our brief comment exchange:

It took a little longer than two years, but I'm done now.

You're welcome to attend the opening this Friday, or any of the five days the show is running. Though I'll be carrying it about to any games event that'll have me from here on.

I couldn't make it.

Fast forward to Rezzed this week. I'm talking to Alan Hazelden in the Leftfield Collection and, over his shoulder, I see a desk in a darkened corner. There's a radio squatting on it. My eyes spied the title above the table: Doggerland Radio. Oh my GOD. This is IT.

Okay, so I was excited because I knew what kind of project Doggerland Radio was. It was what Godliman wanted TheRaptureIsHereAndYouWillBeForciblyRemovedFromYourHome to be.

Power up the radio, slide on the headphones and turn that dial carefully like a safecracker to find broadcasts orphaned in the static. Maybe you'll catch a little opera, the sound of a steam train pulling into the station... or maybe even the shipping forecast.

On a purely personal level, it reminds me of childhood. In the UK, radio is now digital, and I'm not sure how many children these days play with radios. I had no television and certainly no computer when I was young, but I did have a tape recorder with a radio. I spent a lot of time twiddling with the radio, trying to find a station I hadn't heard before. Hiding underneath the crackle, I'd occasionally catch the semblance of something unfamiliar and, if I turned the dial just right, I might be able to make it out...

Godliman revealed, to my surprise, that the Doggerland Radio stations are always running regardless of whether you're listening. I expected the software behind the box to trigger audio files as you hit the right spot on the dial. No, it is much smarter than that, so it always feels like you're tuning into the middle of something, conveying a fragmented impression of the fictional Doggerland.  (There is a real Doggerland but don't expect to find clues from a submerged landmass.)

There's more. On the table is a map, some stones - and an old novel. I ignored the novel initially and, as I was ready to leave Doggerland Radio behind, I opened the book. It was out on loan from the Doggerland Library and... had passages censored. Wait, what's this? An envelope tucked in its pages? I half-expected it to contain some love letter from a dead age, "Dear Joan, My heart is bereft without you..." blah blah. Now there was something inside, but it wasn't a letter. If you happen to drive through Rezzed this weekend, I'll let you find out for yourself.

While I was a little sad that the radio needle did not move as I turned the dial, the work done by Paul Hayes on the engineering and coding here is superb. It effortlessly evokes the sensation of fiddling with an old radio; you come across these little spots where the static hums and roars violently - for no apparent reason. Wonderful touches.

Look, I don't know what I participated in but I loved it. And I'm afraid you won't be able to grab Doggerland Radio in the shops or even download it from Steam. All you can do is hope Godliman brings it to a games expo near you.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!

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  1. The radio concept is fascinating. I did the same thing when I was young, chasing radio stations across the dial at night, when AM signals skip off the ionosphere like billiard balls. We had an old short wave radio, but it was no real challenge to pick up stations from the other side of the world on that. AM radio was more fun. It worked best from my car radio. In Washington, DC, I would regularly listen to WABC in New York at night, 250 miles away, but the real thrill was visiting Mississippi and getting WLS in Chicago, a clear-channel station more than a thousand miles north in Chicago.

    I was most fascinated with surfing the TV waves, late at night when the local stations signed off. (They don’t seem to do that — sign off — any more.) I’m not sure I could get farther than Philadelphia, though, maybe 150 miles away. The picture was fuzzy and pointilistic. TV wavelengths don’t skip well.

    The game Oxenfree does something similar. A group of millennials visiting a deserted island find a radio that picks up signals from the past. You can go through the entire dial, past static, music, dramas, droning voices. Whether the stations run when you aren’t listening to them, I don’t know.

  2. This sounds intriguing. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to play this – I mean, you never know, quite a few Brightonians have come to Finland in recent years, but touring an MA project physical indie game is a bit of an ask – so it’s a pleasure to read about it. Also great to see Godliman’s work getting some coverage at Electron Dance!

  3. The idea of one-way, single-to-many transmission has a powerful hold in our psyche. Much of the web (especially the pre-‘live services’ web) is built on it of course, but it encompasses the whole of human history from radio and TV to sermons, speeches, proclamations, tape, vinyl, the printing press, oral tradition, architecture, monoliths and obelisks, stone tablets and cave paintings.

    Face to face, two-way communication allows people to understand not just what is said but also the ‘top layer’ of surrounding internal thought, through things like gesture and expression, so what we choose to verbally communicate is accompanied by a contextualising amount of non-verbal (sometimes involuntary) communication – the ‘intimation’ of ‘intimacy’, what Anna Burns refers to as ‘top-soiling’ in her novel Milkman.

    Stripped of that, one-way, transmissive communication always leaves us guessing, inferring, wondering as to a certain amount of missing context which we can only guess might have once existed – unknown unknowns. From wondering it’s but a short hop to wonder – to awe. Especially when the esoteric begins to creep in at the margins, when missives seem foreign in any sense of the word, when there is a blurring between the signal and the noise. And especially at night or in darkness :)

    It’s one of Oxenfree’s many small strokes of genius that these signals are displaced even further through the passage of time, suggesting a million historical and contextual details lost through the distance of history and the changing of the zeitgeist. Its secrets are made doubly secretive and its mysteries made doubly mysterious. Bugs Bunny sings a song about Nazis – familiar and iconic 20th century concepts on which we can seize, only for them to seem troubling, alien, not only because it’s a weird thing to hear on a creepy radio in an abandoned gymnasium, but because Bugs and the Nazis are meaningfully different things to us now and in whatever ‘then’ the signal is reaching us from.

    A game I perhaps shouldn’t admit to having played, Cross Channel, uses the radio as a central conceit in a representation of the distance, unbridgeable or only half-bridgeable, that exists between consciousnesses. I found it tremendously affecting, still do over a decade later.

    Finally an old quote from Ken Tout, who was a member of a tank crew in the second world war, on operating the tank radio during combat (recounted in his memoir, TANK!: 40 hours of battle, 1944):

    “The wireless waves continue chattering away. Messages from our own Regiment loud and clear. Distant messages identifiable only as human, but lost in the ether, their language, nationality or service arm indistinguishable. Nearer voices, mainly Canadian, messages largely comprehensible but audible only when our own stations are silent. Occasionally swift bursts of crackling Morse. And then, in the silences, almost the whisper of atmospherics, alive, varying, almost having a meaning – like the incessant traffic of the dead in battle trying feverishly to maintain contact as they drift farther and farther into the empty wastes of eternity.”

    Sorry for the long ramble.

  4. “The wireless waves continue chattering away. Messages from our own Regiment loud and clear. Distant messages identifiable only as human, but lost in the ether, their language, nationality or service arm indistinguishable. Nearer voices, mainly Canadian, messages largely comprehensible but audible only when our own stations are silent. Occasionally swift bursts of crackling Morse. And then, in the silences, almost the whisper of atmospherics, alive, varying, almost having a meaning – like the incessant traffic of the dead in battle trying feverishly to maintain contact as they drift farther and farther into the empty wastes of eternity.”

    That could almost be a mission statement for Oxenfree, where the goal is ultimately to get beyond the sounds of the past and locate displaced ghosts trapped in the ether.

    As a sidenote: When Marconi invented radio, it was seen as having one use: communication to and between ships at sea. Everywhere else was (theoretically) accessible by telephone and what need was there, anyway, for one-way vocal communication? It turned out there was a substantial need or at least a desire. Radio was a respite from the loneliness of the world, where we all huddled in our small communities or one-person apartments. It was the outside world speaking to you, almost as though it were speaking to you alone. The Lonely Crowd (1950) by David Riesman, et al, addresses that latter point at considerable length.

  5. “Radio was a respite from the loneliness of the world, where we all huddled in our small communities or one-person apartments. It was the outside world speaking to you, almost as though it were speaking to you alone.”

    As a radio lover and occasionally lonely person this resonates with me :). Perhaps a similar need explains the tremendous rise in popularity of podcasts, especially ones where the listener gets to feel as though they’re a silent participant in a conversation between friends.

    It also makes me think of Fahrenheit 451; Ray Bradbury, through one of the thinnest membranes that ever passed for fiction, railing against the people he saw as vapid and silly for treating the televised ‘Parlour’ personalities as their friends. Surely he’d have never gotten away with it if he’d aimed his sights at the radio. But then maybe he did, with the ‘seashells’ that people walked around with in their ears, deaf to the real world.

  6. Chris

    I was deeply into watching the TV outside the normal broadcast hours. Maybe you had static. Sometimes a test card. Occasionally an unscheduled programme! It was always fun to watch the TV stations start up with sunrise. Of course, one by one the stations began to expand into the early morning and into the late night until they became a complete circle. It was amazing at the time but, now, I realise it was the first sign of the death of downtime. The Internet, of course, would prove time is a flat circle.

    I’m afraid I cannot comment on Oxenfree as I still have a copy I bought yonks so but haven’t played it, but I do recall the radio mechanic from the trailers. Ori/Salty Horse also pointed out another game that uses a radio mechanic, Transgalactica. I haven’t checked it out.

    Shaun

    It isn’t the first of Amy’s works I’ve played, I believe she had a slot on the Bitsy Arcade last year (although for the life of me I cannot remember anything about it).

    I’m never quite sure to report on exclusive pieces like this, because they remind me of those over-exuberant essays you’d read about installation games as if they were the future of gaming and that used to get my back up: as if the writer were the blessed one and the rest of you can all wallow in normality. *shrug* But Doggerland Radio was a bit special for me – probably my personal favourite of Rezzed – and I wanted to raise its profile while the show was still going. I think mission accomplished? This post was retweeted a bit and Amy told me there were definitely visitors who came on the back of reading this post.

    CA

    I’m not sure I have anything really useful to add to the discussion between you and Chris except to add this: perhaps the net effect of trying “increasing audience engagement” and diminish the broadcast paradigm in favour of two-way communication is to make you feel more lonely? That is, you couldn’t expect any more from a radio unless you participated in a call-in, but in these days of aggregating conversations under hashtag and creators responding to “fans” can make you feel distinctly second-class if you’re not involved in the conversation. Is it your problem for not engaging? Did you not try hard enough to get noticed? Are other people more interesting? I don’t want to stress this too hard but this is nothing like the personal attention radio affords you. It asks nothing. It does not want to be shared virally.

  7. I think you’re on to something there Joel. There’s something about the incessant pleas for listener involvement that shakes said listener out of their sense of communion – at least in my case! It doesn’t help that this strange third party of willingly involved listeners, respondents and correspondents, interjects itself in exactly that space where the ‘personal attention’ you mention once resided.

    It’s probably worth mentioning, to get back to the Games Themselves (tm Jonas Kyratzes), that game design (especially level design) is sometimes referred to by critics as a conversation between developer and player. That’s a notion I’m happy to subscribe to, but if it’s true then it’s one of these one-way, one-to-many types of broadcasted or transmitted conversations that we’re discussing as per radio.

    Also on games I think that Twitch arguably has facilitated the emergence of an entirely new paradigm of communication, distinct from one-to-many transmission or two-way face-to-face, with its ‘broadcast plus chat’ model. The streamer forms one party, doing the bulk of the communication, the expression, while on the other side a swirling multitude of users form the chat, providing a continuous current of feedback which can crucially be reacted to and folded back into the broadcast by the streamer.

    This isn’t necessarily a positive because the culture and character of a chat can be good, friendly, and communal, or bad, mocking, and abusive. It can be all sorts of things and to avoid the worst of them usually requires continual attention and an element of (almost always unpaid) moderation. As the crowd grows, disruptive voices tend to be emboldened. I’m sure many streamers feel ambivalent about their relationship with their chat.

    But I was struck by something a streamer I watch said the other day, that although he’s reclusive and doesn’t often see other people, because he streams he has chat and that makes him feel less alone. And on the other side Twitch attracts an absolutely enormous number of lonely people, some of whom pay huge sums in pursuit a stronger feeling of connection and involvement. So there’s definitely something in that process which seems to have amplified that sense of ‘personal attention’ in a way that the methods of the traditional broadcasters have failed to realise.


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