Off-Peak City feels so big because it's built from tiny places and unknown space
A fragmentary world more alive than any Bethesda RPG
Most video games are too big. Their lands are too expansive, their histories over-explained, their playtimes too long. Most of everything is too long (songs, books, movies, everything) but it's especially felt in games, where the magical "What's next?" feeling of discovering a world often fades to leave the "What task must I complete now?" drudgery of playing a video game. So I hugely admire Cosmo D's Off-Peak series, which has built the feeling of a huge and fascinating city through only four tiny locations visited across four games with a combined playtime of under eight hours.
Off-Peak City is a New York-ish place with a skyline worthy of Joel Schumacher's Gotham City. Skyscrapers tangle and cluster as slowly congealing into a single vast spire. Bridges span buildings, roads strung between the legs of giant statues. Giant stone heads decorate many buildings, and some residents are themselves sentient buildings with giant brick faces. Many areas are flooded and even when trainlines are up, you might be safer travelling by boat. The city is at the mercy of organisations who exist somewhere between corporation and mafia, people are disappearing, and a counter-conspiracy runs in the shadows. Art covers the city and music fills the air but both are increasingly commodified and controlled while the artists themselves are pushed into patronage or pushed out of the city (if they're lucky). And pizza is a cornerstone of culture.
It's a city which lives in the back of my head, alive and magnificent and vibrant and dreadful, even though I've only seen tiny corners of it. Across four games, we've stepped inside barely as many buildings as a mutant could count on their fingers. We've escaped a train station in Off-Peak, explored a hotel in what was once a legendary musician's mansion with The Norwood Suite, delivered pizza to residents on one intersection in a half-flooded neighbourhood for Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1, and infiltrated a nightclub in a former coffin factory in Betrayal At Club Low. If you joined these spaces together, you could walk across the series in five minutes. But a large part of why Off-Peak City feels so vast and vibrant and unknowable is because we only see these tiny, unconnected pieces.
Each game fills out only one tiny dot of land in this vast unknown city, and each of these tiny dots is delightful. The surreal style already encourages you to experience Off-Peak City with your imagination as much as your eyes and ears, and the vast gaps in its landscape give your brain room to dream. Even if you never see any more, you can feel it out there just one block over because the series has built a strong identity right from the start. You know you would find: a bold and maximalist aesthetic big on digital bricolage; weird and dangerous conspiracy; little human stories; and banging beats from Cosmo D himself. And pizza.
I adore that the lurid décor, talking buildings, giant sculptures, oversized heads, exaggerated emotive animations, hidden dioramas, massive roulette wheels in city streets, skulls, musical voices, giant turtles, technorganic devices, eccentric collections, esoteric books, secret passages, tiny alive cows sat on a miniature mountain on a pizza parlour wall, energy drinks brewed with actual moose skulls, and all other surreal elements never feel weird. These games are neither wacky nor zany. They are so wholly themselves that they drag you in and don't offer any opportunity for doubt.
It's not whimsical, mind. The fantastical look is always cut through and by menace, counterbalancing it with a delightful tension. Off-Peak City is not a gentle place. You are always surveilled or hunted, often threatened, occasionally beaten, and facing awful fates like forced labour at a bougie noodle bar or being vanished then replaced with a robotic doppelgänger. Crime bosses, all-consuming corporations, and conspiracy are everywhere, with each new game and location revealing new ways their tendrils are hooked into the city. It's not entirely clear what the shadowy counter-conspiracy we fall into is planning either. Come to Off-Peak City to marvel at the otherworldly sights, but always watch your back.
If menace and conspiracy counterbalance the striking style of Off-Peak City, the human stories ground them both. Many of the people we meet are experiencing the range of sad, joyous, curious, gentle, vulnerable, and cruel moments of life, death, love, work, art, regret, anticipation, and plain ol' capitalism, baby. They're not long conversations and they're not the sort of luxurious writing that a twenty-something might get tattooed across their ribs, but they're solid. They capture little bits of life that often hit true notes even when the conversation might end with someone absurdly blasting off through the ceiling like a rocket.
This woman and her dad have come to this wild hotel in his dying days because this was once where he made music. These employees are sick of a crappy manager exploiting them. This crappy manager wants you to dob in dissenting employees. This woman in a nightclub is wearing an intimidating skull mask (which you can get for powerful stat bonuses) but it's only so the DJ, her son, doesn't spot her and bottle it. This teenager is desperate to get a job or join a band or anything to escape her dad's plans for her life. And sure, this woman will turn into a wargame miniature after eating the mozzarella & synthetic brain tissue pizza I've baked, but right now she's concerned with her pals judging her for pawning her trombone and getting a steady corporate job while they kept on playing—though one has to live in a van, and the other relies on money his parents made through dangerously (murderously?) unethical jobs. One common concern is music, and the personal and financial difficulties of its creation, its role in society, and its exploitation and perversion, which isn't much surprise considering Cosmo D is both a game developer and a musician.
Music is more than a subject of interest, it's a huge part of Off-Peak City's identity. Cosmo D provides the tunes himself, everything from pulsating club music to moody noir piano, with a lovely bit of cello as the backbone. It's quite good, quite striking, and very ununusual for adventure games and RPGs. It demands attention, refusing to fade into the background like oh so many orchestral scores. Hell, the music is even visible, playing from boomboxes and speakers whose cones pump and throb exaggeratedly along with songs. Like mozzarella on a pizza, Cosmo D's music is both delicious topping and vital binding agent, offering joy in each bite while making the pizza more than a hot open-face sandwich.
All these aspects come together to build a world which feels so large and alive even though most of the city is a mystery and its residents stand rooted to the ground as they dramatically emote. It draws me in more than any game which encourages you to trudge across every simulated inch of a vast virtualand filled primarily with boring people, boring sights, and boring quests. These Bethesda and Ubisoft games have an initial sense of exploration, discovery, and wonder which quickly fades when it becomes clear that the answer to "What's over the next hill?" is "Busywork." I cannot see those worlds as living spaces because they're so insistent that I treat it as a collage of video game systems to engage with, a landscape formed of side-quests to tick off, bases to loot, and crafting resources to collect.
Off-Peak City couldn't work the same if were one giant intricate city arriving as a single seamless lump, like Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V. Its surrealness could too easily become wackiness or, worse, unremarkable. A visit to Off-Peak City needs to feel fleeting, magical, a treat that ends before either you settle down or someone vanishes you.
It also helps that for me, at least, my visits have been spread across four games and eight years. It's had time for me to start missing it, to exist in a world where people don't chug energy drinks filtered through moose skulls, and to start really craving a weird slice of pizza.
Wherever Cosmo D chooses to continue the conspiracy of Off-Peak City, I want to see it. Imagine how exciting a bodega must be in Off-Peak City! A park! A bus station! A bus! An office! The DMV! A greengrocer! I note with great interest that Cosmo D has started posting screenshots of a subway station on his blog. But I don't even need to see these places to know they're out there, somewhere, lurid and lively and thrilling and menacing. Next time you hold a hot slice of pizza, close your eyes and listen for distant cello. It's calling to you.