off-peak

Off-Peak splits the difference between a videogame and a mood board

When you hear it, it can sound like jazz.

When you see it, it can look like tapestry.

When you play it, it can look a little like Second Life.

In games, we’re used to seeing the artist wear their influences. Deadly Premonition and its Twin Peaks, Grim Fandango and its Humphrey Bogart, Metal Gear Solid’s one Snake Plissken to another. But what does it look like when a game wears the influences to a deeper extent, when it’s a calamitous interpretation of things its creator both likes and pursues. Cosmo D., a cellist, has made Off-Peak, and whether or not this is a videogame, a music video or a mood board is a question with no incorrect answer.

In static panoramas it looks fun and mysterious, but in action it can get a little gaudy

You approach the monolithic train station in a frozen twilight, a glowing night, being told by a lone musician that you’re welcome to use his ticket if you can find all of the pieces. This quest will take you through the building in every direction, from big halls to secret narrows. You’ll encounter the locals, vendors who seem surprisingly down to earth amongst literal giants and creepy agents.

There’s neon and graffiti, there’s iconography at once vaguely religious and vaguely literary, there are board games you can’t play and goods you can take, but not pay for. There’s a little bit of David Lynch in the one-way dialogue. There’s a little bit of Rinse Dream in the sleazy overstimulation. There’s literally Charles Mingus, Arkestra, Davis, Coltrane, their records cooling on a vendor’s table.

Cosmo’s game is a little hands-off with you. You’re mostly left to your own devices, your own gumption. There’s a conspiracy to unearth on the management of the behemoth train depot, an anxious relationship between the station’s manager and a visiting circus, but everyone, including those at the top of the pyramid, is more than willing to yammer about it. It can feel a little like settling into a new job only to learn about the devastating office politics that pre-date you.

There are very few times that the game interrupts you with something dramatic, which is a shame, because it’s one of the game’s signature moments when Cosmo does this, suddenly abducting the player by sun-sensitive versions of Robert Palmer’s backup dancers. Even the music, for which the game feels a like pedestal, feels a little timid, too chill to really grab you.

Off-Peak seems to be an experiment, on top of being many other things. In static panoramas it looks fun and mysterious, but in action it can get a little gaudy, spewing graphics all knotted together like a rat king. It’s interesting to explore, and the kind of teasing scraps of the environment are entertaining. It’s clearly a love letter from Cosmo to a lot of things—to films, to song, to artists—and even if this can feel rough smushed together, you can’t fault someone for expressing their love.