Alice and Pip have been playing Off-Peak [download], a free game by Cosmo D. It's quite nice.
Alice: Pip, what's the best bit of the train station in Off-Peak? Is it the model blue whale suspended from the ceiling or the celestial fresco it seems to swim in?
Pip: You mean the best bit of the decor or the people?
Alice: Any of it. All of them. The station is made for its people. Maybe the eerie triplets are best.
Pip: My favourite bits of architecture are the digital tunnels that bleep and flash as you walk through them near the main platforms. My favourite clumps of people are the two giants playing Netrunner – ACTUAL NETRUNNER! – and the lady looking down at the whole station from a viewing platform on the roof.
Alice: Wait. My favourite thing was an action: stealing and eating everyone's pizza.
That's probably the intro banter, isn't it. The bants. The b-business, we say. We should explain this now. Off-Peak is a short and free game set in a surreal train station. It is great.
Pip: Most of it is great. Some of it involved me climbing a staircase for fucking EVER while listening to jazz electronica and my wrist started to get itchy from repeating the stair climbing so much.
Alice: Crawling up the stairs again, aye. That's Tuesday afternoon for me too.
But who are we in this station? Why are we here? The answers are: idk; to leave. But someone's offered us their ticket if we can find where they scattered the torn pieces. This calls for exploring!
Pip: I explored too much of someone else's pizza and got into trouble with security.
Alice: I, too, encountered pizza difficulties. Pip, look, this is a thing you know but I have to explain for the readers: different businesses are set up in this station, selling sheet music, vinyl, pizza, and other things we might casually pick up if we wanted to see whether the game would let us. I also stole pizza. And records. And ate every cookie.
Pip: I only ate one (1) cookie because of the security incident over the pizza and I ONLY ate it when they said I could. Then I stole all the vinyl.
The security incident did mean I didn't need to climb down all those stairs again, though. I got teleported to a replica of the turquoise double-headed serpent they have at the British Museum.
That's the thing – it kind of felt like a collage rather than a game. A collage of things connected to my own life – or at least the life of someone in my basic demographic and with an interest in gaming – the British Museum, Netrunner, boardgames, aquaria.
Alice: The station manager calls themself a "curator", creating a station they believe best suits their customers. Which made everything suddenly make sense to me. What seemed like a blast of familiar/cool things in a showy "and I like these bands and these beers and this artwork see isn't it cool?" way is supposed to be just that. It's meant to appeal to people like me. Heck yeah I dig whales, skulls, and pizza! I really like the idea of an everyday functional space being so heavily curated and specifically targeted with such a weird outcome.
Pip: Yeah – it's one of those things that was largely an enjoyable experience although there were a few moments where I dunno, it didn't quite work. The stairs were one of those. The game tipped too far into self-conscious oddness for me. I imagine it being infuriating if you don't quite intersect with what it's presenting to you as interesting or as selected for display.
Alice: The ceiling's high, Pip. How else are supposed to get up there? A reverse bungee? [Sidenote: Network Rail, if you're reading this and need a new station manager for King's Cross, I have a great idea.] Actually, the endless stairs reminded me slightly of the long ladder in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater [in retrospect, this was a terribly inaccurate and foolish comparison -ed.]. Given the target of the curation, that may be intentional.
I imagine without similar touchstones the game is all quite alien.
Pip: Well, I've never played Metal Gear Solid games so I wouldn't get that. Most of my experience with game ladders has been falling off them and dying. Day Z and the first like twenty minutes of Half Life. To be honest I might have found it funny with or without the references, it's just the accompanying motions made my wrist hurt so I lost patience.
Alice: Pip, if you want help getting TOTALLY RIPPED wrists I've got a great strength-building regimen of train-punching I can recommend.
Anyway, I really like how references in Off-Peak are so thick that it doesn't matter which I recognised or missed or didn't even know if they were real. It's coated in things which give it a tone, rather than being that usual awful "Cor do you recognise this? You're cool and clever if you do" that so many references come down to nowadays.
No, I don't know all the records at the vinyl stall, but their covers and the stall's very existence are clearly A Sort of Thing. Same with the skulls. And the planets. And the Alice in Wonderland. And the fish. It's curation. They're... wait, Pip, I can say this can't I, I can say this and use it and not just be a colossal arse: they're like a Tumblr.
Pip: I feel like it's closer to one of those Victorian collector cabinets or sort of home museums. It's sort of a cross between a boardgame cafe and a museum. I wouldn't be surprised to open a drawer and find some carefully preserved eggs and fossils.
Alice: I'm now thinking of the hilarious 'dive bars' I saw in the USA that all had the same half-car mounted on a wall somewhere and goofy signs like "Bikes booze and babes" hanging over cattle skulls. I do not understand why so many people thought they were EDGY.
Pip: Are we heading towards your traditional rant about nostalgia and chiptune because if we are I'm going to tap out IMMEDIATELY.
Alice: No! No! Right, so, back on track. Before you played this too and we decided to have a chat, I wanted to raise the idea of "getting it" and how people shouldn't worry or be frustrated about "getting it" but didn't know how. Now I can say this and bounce the idea off you. Pip, I am anticipating a few people saying they "didn't get it" and that's fine isn't it it's fine you can still experience something and enjoy or not enjoy it and that's fine isn't it so in short Pip my question to you is: what is art, yeah?
Pip: I'm leaving.
Alice: Oh you found all the pieces of your ticket?
Pip: I'll walk.