A few nights ago I was on a message-board for fans of particular tabletop role-playing games. Glancing at the ambient conversation from time-to-time, I ended up “over-reading” (as opposed to “overhearing”) a conversation about a two-player tabletop role-playing game called Our Radios Are Dying by Aura Belle.
Aura Belle, 2014. Belle’s patreon can be found here.
It sounded interesting, so I looked up the the description. And almost immediately burst into tears.
In the game, two players assume the roles of lesbian lovers floating in space (in the game, the characters are aliens with some set backstories) talking to one another for an hour before their oxygen reserves run out. They had been alone on a space station they had sneaked into for a night alone, it had broken, and the two had been flung far out into space.
The game’s premise is similar to Gravity, the 2013 film starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. In Gravity, the two play astronauts also stuck in space and their attempts to return to Earth. (I don’t know if Gravity influenced Caitlynn Belle’s Our Radios Are Dying, but it was first published one year after Gravity, so I’d wager a guess that it was.)
(I assume most people reading have either seen Gravity or have no interest seeing it – but! – spoilers ahead.)
The difference between the two settings is that in Gravity there is hope of returning to Earth, and indeed Sandra Bullock’s characters does survive and return to Earth. Our Radios Are Dying, however, is specific: there is no chance for these two lovers. This is it. In the “How To Play” section of the rulebook, Belle is clear: there is no hope, and no part of the game should be spent trying to escape the inevitable:
You are deep in space with no hope of salvation, so make sure both you and your partner are aware: at the end of the game, you both die. There is no hope.
My friend and colleague, Donovan Schaefer, has written how Gravity can be read as a feminist and embodied re-imagining of 2001: A Space Odyssey in “Dad Wanted a Boy: Feminism, Transcendence, and Cuarón’s Gravity.”
[O]ver the course of the film, bodies recede further and further into the background, replaced by high-tech space suits, voiceless, empty space, computers, and then, in the film’s climax, a long sequence of abstract geometric color forms and tinted, lifeless planetscapes.
2001: A Space Odyssey presents this move away from bodies as a teleoligical kind of evolution: the monkeys in the first scene of the movie become humans, who become space-faring humans, who become transcendent energy-beings who no longer require a body.
No such evolutionary theme runs throughout Gravity: bodies are never transcended. In fact, as Schaefer points out, the characters become more bodily, human and animalistic as the film progresses. Gravity
begins with bodies encased in bulky spacesuits but ends in an overwhelmingly incarnated body rising to her feet on earth. Near the midpoint of the film, when Stone enters the ISS, we see her body taking on a dancer’s pose, a body on display as a body. We see the form of the body–limbs, joints, muscles–a human body with its architecture of limits and possibilities, the inverse of 2001’s body progressively divorced from the earth and its own animality.
This understanding of 2001: A Space Odyssey as being inherently anti-bodily and Gravity being pro-bodily helps me orient my thoughts about Our Radios Are Dying, and in particular my emotional reaction to the premise of the game.
Most of my academic work uses affect theory in some way. Affect theory is a body of work which analyses the ways in which emotions, affects, and sensations are passed to and from bodies. It’s a tricky and slippery thing to define, and many theorists do not agree with one another — but generally understood as pre-linguistic: We feel affects before we can explain these feelings with words, even to ourselves.
And we can transmit these same affects to others before being able to explain them. The origin of these affects (some common ways affects are explained: micro-expressions, pheromones, subconsciously remembering past experiences) is less interesting and important to me than what they affects do.
Many people have had the experience of walking into a room of people and being sure the people in that room had just been very, very angry with one another. But it’s hard to say why — the sensation and realization of the anger happens quickly. The affects in the room – generated by the feuding people inside of the it – had been “picked up” by your own body, making you feel alarmed and on-edge.
But are there any affects in space?, I thought to myself, once I had started to cry after reading Our Radios Are Dying.
What affects can be communicated in the dark, without air, enclosed in a spacesuit? How horrific, to be with someone you love, so close to them — but also so far away?
I wondered, and am still wondering, how this is any different than a situation where two people are dying while talking on the phone or over the internet.
I think what makes the concept of people in space suits so maddening is precisely that – it’s not like interacting with someone over the internet, or over the phone. They are physically close to you – but not bodily close. Nothing can interact from one body to another – no pheromones, no sweat, no skin cells. Human bodies are porous. As uncomfortable it can be to think about our bodies consistently leave a think film of our presence on any surface we touch: skin cells, pheromones, hair. At the same time, we pick up things from our surroundings: couch fibers, the skin cells of others, bacteria, parasites. Bodies are jungles, ecosystems of their own. And we need to be jungles, ecosystems, animals. We can’t be anything else.
And the idea of putting these jungles into a sealed-off suit and throwing them into the vaccuum of space is, well, chilling. Bodies cannot be so… alone.
Donovan Schaefer’s book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power discusses how solitary confinement cruelly separates prisoners from their affective communities. He writes:
To extract animal bodies from the buzzy, blurring sources of meaning that surround us is to violently sever the ligaments of our affective economies. Bodies cannot be switched on or off by our sovereign selves.
We cannot decide to not be animals, no matter how much we think or how smart we are convinced we are. We’re embodied creatures, full of potentialities and possibilities.
To my knowledge, Schaefer has not connected his interest in solitary confinement to his interest in the lost-in-space narrative of Gravity. But here I suggest they are similar: both scenarios describe the torture of being violently separated from the affective, emotional world which normally surrounds bodies.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey this violence is rewarded by transcendence: the final character has no need for a body, no need for affects. The pain is subjugated and tossed aside. In Gravity, the torture of space is endured and escaped: the movie ends with Sandra Bullock’s character embracing the earth beneath her feet as she washes up upon a sandy shore.
What happens to the violence of space in Our Radios Are Dying?
Nothing. There isn’t any escape. That’s the basic premise for the game.
There isn’t even any happiness for the players: the rulebook continues by giving a list of prompts each character is supposed to talk to the other about in their final hour. Topics range from “Remind them of something they never apologized for and ask them why” to “Tell them why they ruined you.” Not happy topics.
Who would do this? I wondered, still crying. Why would you want to bring up all this horrible stuff when you know you are going to die? Wouldn’t you just want to remember the good times?
But what good times have these two had? The two characters are described as being from two different warring communities, where the punishment for fraternizing with the enemy is incarceration. And, significantly, the punishment for same-sex relationships is death. Their relationship has always existed within a confine of violence and psychological torture.
In fact, my immediate psychological insistence that it would be more “appropriate” for these two lovers to remember “the good times” before death may be a misguided one based on our society’s adoration of happiness. In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed discusses how happiness can be weaponized to stop people from deviating from social norms. Discussing the antiracist and feminist movements, she writes: “We might even say such social movements have worked against rather than for happiness.”
“Why do you always have to talk about politics at Thanksgiving?”
“It was just a joke!”
“Oh, jeez, can’t we just get along? I was just complimenting you…”
All of these are iterations of the same theme: Why won’t you be happy? Why can’t you just be happy?
Happiness can therefore be weaponized: it can be a tool of control and manipulation.
So who am I to say these two “should” try and be happy in the face of their death. They’re not happy, they’re dying. Because of their shitty society which forced them to meet secretly in dangerous locations.
The whole game can therefore be read as an allegory for the violence of casting out some relationships to the margins of society where they are discouraged from flourishing. No escape. Horror. Homophobia and racism violently cut off or demonizes the affective ligaments which connect people in interracial or homosexual relationships.
And by forcing people to enact this horror and violence, Our Radios Are Dying makes (intentionally or not) an ethical claim: work to end these violences in our society, or you are complicit in the torture and death of this lesbian couple.
 Aura Belle. “Our Radios Are Dying.” 2nd Edition, 2016.
Aura Belle’s patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/auramakesgames
 Donovan Schaefer. “Dad Wanted a Boy: Feminism, Transcendence, and Cuarón’s Gravity,” Religion Bulletin. January 30th, 2015. https://bulletin.equinoxpub.com/2015/01/dad-wanted-a-boy-feminism-transcendence-and-cuarons-gravity-film-review-essay/.
 Donovan Schaefer. “Dad Wanted..”
 Donovan Schaefer. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, Power. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2015), chapter 4.
 Sara Ahmed. The Promise of Happiness. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), 2.