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“It‘s kind of depressing”: WB Discovery pulls indie game for “business changes”

Enlarge / In Small Radios Big Televisions, you get the sense that workers trapped inside a series of siloed factories rely on ephemeral, easily distorted media to escape their realities. In the game, that is.

Fire Face

Warner Bros. Discovery, as part of its ongoing effort to stretch the definition of “entertainment company,” recently told a solo indie developer it would be “retiring” his 2016 dreamlike puzzle adventure game Small Radios Big Televisions from the Steam and PlayStation stores. The developer, in response, has made it free to download for PC, giving us a rare chance to actually experience the thing that a giga-corp has determined to be not worth your time, before it is wiped from the archives.

In a thread on X (formerly Twitter) Tuesday, Owen Deery, a self-described “small Canadian game developer” who works as Fire Face, provided a few details in replies. Deery doesn’t control the sale price of the game but will still get royalties from the games while they’re up. Otherwise, you could purchase the hard-synth soundtrack as a show of support, which in this author’s opinion is very good music for working or feeling a combination of nostalgia and magnetic dissolution at the same time.

Gameplay trailer for Small Radios Big Televisions, from October 2016.

Ars reached out to Deery, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Adult Swim Games for comment and will update this post with new information.

“Nothing is going to stay around for very long”

In an interview with Game Developer, Deery clarified that the game will be pulled in the next 60 days. Deery noted that Adult Swim Games “hasn’t really been a thing for many years now” and that most of the people he worked with had moved on. “When you’re working with purely digital products nothing is going to stay around for very long,” Deery told Game Developer. “It’s kind of depressing, I’m very proud of the game, but I can see why they did it.”

The reason given by Warner Bros. Discovery, as seen in the notice that Game Developer also reviewed, was “internal business changes.” “Thank you for your contribution to our game library and understanding during this transition,” the notice concludes. “We are available should you have any questions.”

Warner Bros. Discovery executives said late last month during a financial call that its gaming business was due for a “tough” year-over-year comparison. That is largely due to Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, a live-service shooter that arrived to largely indifferent reviews from critics and failed to grab its audience from the numerous other live-service shooters currently running. Warner saw great success in 2023 from the long-running success of Hogwarts Legacy. Adult Swim Games does not appear to have published a full game since Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time in 2020.

At a higher level, the merged Warner Bros. Discovery entity has shown no hesitation when it comes to folding known names and removing content. The firm killed the fully produced Batgirl and a Scooby-Doo film prior to release as a reported tax strategy. It struck the HBO and Discovery brands from its merged streaming offering, “Max,” and may have sought to push users toward its new app by pushing Sony to strike more than 1,300 seasons of content from its PlayStation Store. The firm has seemed eager to cleanse its archives of recently canceled shows and adored animation and kids’ shows. WBD most recently dropped a head-scratching attempt at a merger with similarly debt-laden firm Paramount, while also initiating a 2024 crackdown on password sharing.

Magnetic tape distortion and existential questions

It would be hard not to appreciate Small Radios Big Televisions, given the context. As a now-free game that you might have missed, it’s original, intriguing, and unbalancing yet engaging in a way that reminds me of Kentucky Route Zero.

You are given no pretext or explanation. You are exploring an abandoned chain of factories. You move through it by clicking doors and solving small puzzles, akin to Myst. You find cassette tapes, play them, and each puts you in a single kind of biome or scene, with a limited view. You can retrieve door-unlocking polyhedrons from these scenes, but not always.

There are magnetic field generators that will mess up your tapes in bizarre ways but also sometimes unlock those door keys. The environment and some expository cut scenes give you some clues as to what’s going on here and what you’re exploring, but not too many. The style is distinctive, and the music, inspired by Boards of Canada, all but demands a late-night headphone session. Other gaming sites liked it, and it seems to take no more than two or three hours for most people to finish.

It’s hard to imagine how much it would cost to maintain storefront support for this sub-$20 game from 2016, but it was apparently too much for Warner Bros. Discovery. Developer Deery told Game Developer that he had already retired from game development after wrapping his latest game, Radio Viscera, which “basically disappeared on release and left me totally burnt out.” Hence the reason the notice from WBD seemed more “depressing” than shocking to Deery.

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