The story is already legend. On October 30th, 1938, listeners who tuned in to hear CBS Radio’s regular broadcast of Mercury Theatre on the Air were whipped into a frenzy by a series of increasingly calamitous news bulletins chronicling a Martian invasion of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. At that moment in history when Orson Welles staged his now-infamous radio drama War of the Worlds, the run-up to World War II was already in motion. The American public might as well have been collectively listening to the cadence of a wooden roller coaster clack-clacking inexorably toward the first of many stomach-turning drops.
In a twist that not even Welles himself could’ve anticipated, the small town of Concrete, Wash., experienced a widespread power failure at precisely the moment that the fictional alien invasion had begun spreading to the countryside. According to news accounts that emerged later, one man even urged his wife out to the car so they could drive to Bellingham to meet their priest for a last-minute absolution. After filling up their car with gasoline before setting off on the 50-mile journey, he sped out of the service station without paying, telling the gas-station attendant that paying for the gas “[wouldn’t] make any difference, everyone is going to die!”
We look back on the aftermath of Welles’ radio broadcast today and laugh. We envision the panicked listeners in cartoon hyperbole—a gaggle of dimwitted Neanderthals running around and bumping into each other like an episode of The Three Stooges. This perspective on history tickles our preening sense of modern-day intellectual superiority. But I firmly believe that any hysteria generated by War of the Worlds owes far less to the stupidity of American citizens in the late 1930s than it does to the incredible power of the radio-drama format itself.
I started playing Halo 3: ODST’s campaign the other night. The game’s story follows a group of elite United Nations Space Command soldiers known as Orbital Drop Shock Troopers as they investigate the ruined African city of New Mombasa, which was destroyed by a theocratic alien alliance called The Covenant. In the opening moments of the game, the drop goes very wrong and the team’s landing pods are scattered across the city. Playing as a character called The Rookie, you leap to the asphalt below from your decimated landing capsule and set out on a journey through New Mombasa to determine the fate of your fellow soldiers, playing detective as you piece together bits of evidence they inadvertently left behind.
At various comm terminals located around New Mombasa, you have the option of “downloading” audio logs that relate the serialized narrative of a civilian girl named Sadie who was separated from her father during the early stages of the Covenant invasion. Bungie is hardly the first developer to allow emotionally invested players to piece together aspects of the game’s backstory through these sorts of audio logs. Ken Levine’s dystopian epic BioShock peppered its world with reel-to-reel audio diaries recorded by a host of NPCs during the fall of the underwater metropolis of Rapture. Visceral Games used audio logs to chilling effect in Dead Space. While I’ve heard game critics moan about the audio-log trend, as if it were on par with tedious quick-time events in which you have to hit buttons as they pop up onscreen during cutscenes in a sort of whack-a-mole minigame, I find audio logs to be one of the most compelling narrative-delivery devices to emerge in videogames in years. It’s about time we found a way to bring the old-fashioned radio drama back into vogue in a mainstream fashion.
I grew up in a fundamental evangelical Christian home and I can remember my parents playing a radio show called Unshackled for us kids before we went to sleep. My older brother and I would climb into our bunk beds and listen in the dark, transfixed as the radio oozed chilling tales of witchcraft and demon possession and drugs and other Technicolor sins of the flesh. By the end of each episode, the struggling protagonist had found Jesus and listeners at home were urged to recite a prayer for salvation, following along after the narrator. I can still remember the quivering organ notes that opened and closed each program. I remember clinging to my covers, scared senseless. Even though I was too young to realize that Unshackled was simply Puritan hellfire sermonizing in the mask of golden-age radio drama, I can’t imagine the emotional disquiet experienced by those War of the Worlds listeners in 1938 felt any less real.
Radio stokes the embers of imagination and delivers a bracing intimacy, like hearing a family member’s voice crackling over a telephone wire. It’s the power of the quintessential human instrument. It’s the timeless heft of the oral tradition at work. You lean forward. Your brain twists and flexes to fill in the gaps between the words, paint inside the lines being drawn with the actor’s voices. I felt this last night while standing at a comm terminal along some desolate street in the fictional city of New Mombasa. Instead of church-organ drone setting the emotional atmosphere, Halo audio director Martin O’Donnell and his creative partner Michael Salvatori lay down a gorgeous soundtrack of moody, jazz-influenced orchestral themes that tip a beat-up fedora to classic Hollywood film noir.
I hold down the right shoulder button on my Xbox controller to download the comm transmission. Sadie’s voice crackles across the line, her agitated syllables fossilized in amber until now. She’s boarding a train. You can hear the world going to hell around her, but you can’t see it happening with your eyes. You’re forced to listen. Listening takes attention span. Listening takes effort. Listening takes empathy. During president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, people switched on their radios and engaged in such intently focused listening fireside. The developers of Halo 3: ODST have the blessed temerity to ask, ‘Why not encourage this sort of open-hearted listening between firefights?”
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can reach him online at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.