Oftentimes, if I want to play a video game, I’m going to look for something by a AAA studio with glossy graphics, a massive map, and a sweeping story in which I have to save the world from some threat. Sometimes, though, what I want in a video game is something more intimate. Sometimes I want video games in which you talk to the protagonist’s friends about small-scale issues with authentic dialogue and maybe a fantastical element used to underlay the game’s main themes.
I have the same tone cravings when it comes to podcasts. I love high-concept sweeping stories, but at times, what I want is something a bit more intimate–a bit more Night in the Woods or Oxenfree and a bit less Mass Effect. Audio drama Violet Beach is, luckily, here to fill that craving.
Violet Beach centers on a small cast of young adults in a beach town in which things have started getting strange:
A sci-fi/comedy show about a small Maryland town, where seven friends are dragged into something far bigger than themselves
This description from the podcast’s iTunes is minimal, but the setup is explained more in depth in the show’s first episode. Each episode is narrated by one of the seven protagonists who take turn recording their accounts of the events unfolding. The first episode is narrated by Theresa, who recounts a night several years prior when two other characters were injured on the beach. After one character hits his head and another gets pulled into the tide, Theresa explains:
“And the sky went bright purple. Not, like, when it’s a sunset, and the sky’s kinda magenta? And that’s blending into the night-sky color, but–like, highest saturation on Photoshop, highest brightness, makes-you-almost vomit ’cause your eyes are burning, that bright purple. And my skin, it felt like it was burning. I smelled salt, felt a breeze, and I tried to close my eyes, to breathe out, but I couldn’t.
And then there was nothing.
And then I woke up on the beach. I could smell salt, I was totally clear-headed–and [another character’] cut? It was gone. My watch said it was around 4AM. My phone was dead, but–it was the first, still. The sun was rising, in–in normal sky colors.”
As the episodes progress, more and more is found out about that night, the violent purple sky, the strange stops in time, and the interference that weaves into some of the protagonists’ recordings. What could easily turn into a larger-than-life, Stranger Things meets Riverdale, action-packed adventure, though, always stays deeply rooted in character. The narrative here isn’t about a mysterious, terrifying town: the narrative is about seven friends growing up in a town that is also kind of mysterious and maybe terrifying. The overarching story in regards to the ominous happenings in the town parallel the horror and existential dread of being a young adult on the precipice of such changes: it’s always there, and sometimes it’s the most important thing to discuss, but often, it’s treated as just a part of life that hopefully the characters will get through.
There’s a feeling of vulnerability and authenticity to the protagonists, partially due to their writing and partially due to their performances. The writing puts the characters in a specifically modern-day setting, but also feels timeless. There’s a combination of listlessness, nostalgia, and the desire to both hang on to things as they were and move forward present in each of the characters. The actors are given space to deliver their lines loosely, adding an air of realism to the dialogue that helps it sound less scripted and more like found audio.
The one major setback in Violet Beach so far is its minimal editing. While I back podcasts’ decision to leave in stumbles and stutters, there are often full line rereads left in the final episodes, sometimes accompanied with an actor commenting on their stumble. These moments are distracting intrusions to the otherwise immersive audio drama, but I found myself endeared enough to the writing and acting enough for it not to deter me much.
Having just started its second season, Violet Beach continues to add to its strange and intriguing lore while its characters continue to grow and mature. The audio drama has some room to grow–like its characters do–in terms of editing, but the writing and acting impress and delight enough for me to be excited for what’s on its horizon.