Morse code is hard and in Michael Luo’s Airwaves you’ll decipher a lot of it. You’ll need a pen, paper, and lots of concentration, but the reward is an intriguing interactive novella and an immense amount of satisfaction.
You play as three generations of radio operators, deciphering morse code messages and typing them into your typewriter. Each input unlocks the next part of a family’s sorry story, appearing on the page of your typewriter told against a backdrop of modern Chinese history and surreal hallucinations.
In each chapter you will decipher a handful of messages, each getting more complex than the last and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the relentless dots and dashes. Accompanying the game is a cheat sheet to help just experience the story, but I do urge that with patience, even adding one letter each time you play the message, the intrigue will deepen and the payoff will grow.
While many games are somewhat technical, your interface with the controls defining your progress, the challenge of Airwaves happens almost entirely outside itself. Deciphering each message happens on paper, this real space letting your actions connect you with the character in a physical way.
Maybe because of this connection the transitions can sometimes feel clumsy. The shifts in time and your character’s lucidity are sometimes jarring, in part because of their frequency, in part because of the directness of the writing, and in part because that physical connection only extends to the code breaking and not the character themselves.
Outside of these transitions, however, the writing is a mix of feverish, folklorish magical realism and state documents that meshes a politically bureaucratic world with a deep history. It can be hard to grasp the concrete elements of the story, but the vivid imagery carried me through any moments of confusion.
In each chapter you are placed in a new environment with objects to explore, each offering a panel of text that appears to offer historical context to it. With a story so drenched in fantasy it is sometimes hard to tell where the reality parts from the fiction, regardless, each detail is enticing outside of its potentially educational role.
Airwaves engages an unexpected skill in an effective way to draw you into a compellingly twisted narrative. It’s currently available on itch for you to name your own price. The rest of Michael Luo’s work can be found on his website.