Don’t Touch that Dial
Whether it’s driving down the Los Santos highway or scrabbling through the ruins of the Capital Wasteland, having a radio to listen to as I wile away the hours exploring can help bring a games world alive. Listening to some great music (and some not so great) music and learning a little bit about the world from the DJs behind the mic.
The trend for having in-game radio stations started ( I think) with Grand Theft Auto 3, licensed music had appeared in games before but it was with GTA 3 that having in-game radio purely to play music and listen to various DJs talk really became a thing. The GTA series has of course continued with its radio services and many other developers have followed suit to various degrees of success, so what makes a good in-game radio and what makes a bad one?
Well, as I’ve already done twice already I’ll start by talking about GTAs radio. Since GTA 3 each game has had a range of radio stations for the player to listen to. With genres ranging from rock, Pop, R&B and country the player has always been spoilt for choice. My tastes always drew me to stations like Los Santos Rock Radio, The DST and maybe a little Non-Stop Pop FM (For Lady Gaga and Queen). These are just the music stations I regularly listen to, you’ve also got the talk radio stations which are a whole other realm of bizarre and where a lot of GTA’s nihilistic satire comes from outside of the in-game narrative. Programs such as Weazel News (Guess the Spoof), the Fernando Show about a man who sounds like a horny Antonio Banderas, and of course we’ve got Lazlow.
The GTA series are the kings of the in-game radio while the series has always had decent to good writing most of the radio material comes from Lazlow. Lazlow Jones is both a real-life American radio host and one of only a few recurring characters across the series. In every GTA game since 3, Lazlow has been a long suffering radio DJ whose on air-life seems to be a constant downward spiral of misfortune and missteps. He’s been threatened with a gun, indoctrinated into a cult, been beaten up several times, all live on air. If American superficiality and whole celebrity obsessed culture are (One of many) GTA’s target, then Lazlow is their punching bag. He’s pretty much the series official mascot at this point, and with GTAV we finally got to see what he looks like in person, only to have Trevor and Michael take turns in torturing him.
Next up we have a game which makes radio stations a key part of world building. The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a quiet place, a silent, radiation swept tundra, with the only cracks in stillness being outbreaks of brief and bloody violence. Exploring the wasteland silently is a bleak thing, luckily for escaped vault dwellers then that Three Dog is on standby with Galaxy News Radio. More than most in-game radio stations, the content that the show offers can help you find whole new missions, character and environments for the player to find. Three Dog also reports in on what you as the player has done. There is something immensely satisfying in walking to Galaxy News while you meander through the wasteland only to have the DJ talk about all the good (and bad) deeds you’ve left in your wake.
The music on offer for Galaxy News (And Mr. New Vegas’s show) is also part of the station’s charm. From the Inkspots “I don’t want to set the world on fire” to Cole Porter with “Anything Goes” It’s hard not to get swept up in the Alt-history tinged nostalgia. Apart from the main radio stations in each game there isn’t much in the way of choice, with President Eden’s patriotic rhetoric or the deranged rants of the Black Mountain radio station. But these stations are only meant as brief curiosities, after listening to Eden for about twenty minutes you’ll hear everything he has to say (It’s well done by Malcolm McDowell of course). So what of the bad radio stations? The ones phoning it by just putting the audio guys Ipod on shuffle?
As I’ve done on this blog so many times before, it’s time for a bit of Watch Dogs bashing. Apart from having a downright offensive story, bland gameplay and one of the worst new protagonists we’ve seen in years, the game has one of the most forgettable in-game radio stations I’ve ever heard in an open world game. Since the quality of the games writing was already so poor to begin with, I doubt giving the ‘Writer’ (Or word-shitter as the writer for Watch Dogs should be called) more work to creative several different radio personalities with a few hours of dialogue would have ended well. As with most parts of Watch Dogs, the inclusion of in-car radio strikes me as ‘Well GTA had it so we need it’ The music choices on offer are also pretty poor for my tastes, a few highlights include the Smashing Pumpkins and Alice Cooper but none of their greatest material.
As with Watch Dogs, the inclusion of in-car radio in Saints Row always felt like something did because GTA had car radio. I’ve written before about how Saints Row has changed as a series over time, and once the series reached Saints Row the Third we began to see a changed attitude to how they used music. With in-game levels that had licensed songs from the likes of Bonnie Tyler and Kanye West, the game started to form its own identity. Once the No.4 came out and the player was given super powers, using cars became pointless, with the designers clearly realising this we were given the option to listen to music while on foot. This has always been one of my biggest wants for a GTA-like a game to have, let me listen to the radio while walking about!
There are of course other ways to use radio in games than just pumping out music and hints about possible events. Last years PT, used the radio to drip feed the player with hints about what was going on. The DJ sounds like a typical mid-western late night DJ with those catchy clichéd lines of “Don’t touch that dial, we’re just getting started” which thanks to the horrifying setting became perhaps one of the creepiest elements of the entire experience (That and literally everything else).
So what’s your favourite radio station in a game that you love to tune in on? Is it just the music that you like or does the DJ themselves keep you listening? Gives us* your thoughts below in the comments.
*P.s there is no Us, it just sounds better than saying me. Isn’t that odd? Leave Us your thoughts on