Wot I Think: Tales From Off-Peak City Volume 1
So, let’s be real up front: I was dreading playing Tales From Off-Peak City Volume 1.. For whatever reason, my brain has barely any appetite for unlocking locked doors, solving mysteries, unravelling conspiracies or piecing together intricately implied backstories. A lot of adventure games just ain’t for me, because I’m a brute and a philistine. Added to that, I’ve got an abiding fear of being outed as intellectually inferior, and nothing makes that anxiety tingle like high-brow stories about music, a subject that makes me feel like a complete, trudging dunce.
And here was this first-person point and click game, set in an intellectually formidable surrealist landscape, about stealing a famous jazzman’s saxophone and getting sucked into a shadowy world where all was not as it seemed. Our Adam Smith described Off-Peak’s predecessor, The Norwood Suite, as being about discovering the secrets behind a hotel, but really being about “learning about music and the creative process”. I knew I was going to hate it, not because it was going to be bad, but because it was going to expose me for the idiot I was. And if you can’t already tell by how heavily I’ve set this up, I ended up loving it.
Well. Nearly. I still don’t like games about searching fruitlessly for door keys, cos I do enough of it in real life. And however much you dress it up, that’s what point and clicks, and the first-person walkabouts that have evolved from them, will always boil down to. No matter how interesting its environment (and good lord, I can’t wait to be done moaning so I can talk about how interesting it is), Off-Peak’s world is topologically identical to a rope with knots tied along its length. The rope is the story, and the knots are the business of arbitrarily seeking out items, that must be unpicked before you can progress.
To me, it’s like being stopped every few minutes through a film I’m enjoying, and forced to rummage around a dark room for some meaningless household object, that happens to be the only thing that isn’t inexplicably superglued to the surface it’s resting on. I’d rather just watch the film. And OK, you might argue that these convolutions don’t just slow down the story for the sake of it - they encourage you to spend time exploring the world, getting lost in its details, and then happily stumbling upon the widget-nozzle you needed for the nozzle-free widget two doors down. Well, maybe I’m just particularly uptight, but that never works for me.
On the contrary, I ended up rushing through this mind-wreckingly interesting game world, and blasting through its chunks of story too quickly, because I just wanted to be done with the fetching and carrying of objects. It’s a criticism I’d make of a thousand games with the same nuts and bolts, but it’s one I’ll make especially hard here, because Off-peak deserves a format that’s as unique and creative as its design, even if I don’t know what that format is. If developer Cosmo D puts together an RTS game, I'll be all over it.
But now, onto an otherwise glowing review, which should glow all the more since the love I felt for Off-Peak had to be squeezed, like a duvet into a box containing an anvil, around the fact that I didn’t enjoy the actual playing of it much at all.
As per my intuition, Off-Peak does come with a lot of the highbrow, super-cool brainfreight I thought it might: it's set at a crossroads in a weirdo, perma-twilit city that forever seems halfway to invoking NYC or Philadelphia or San Francisco or any one of a number of US metropolises, until you realise that every component part of the scene you're looking at is impossible. It's an aesthetic that's noir-adjacent, americana-adjacent, and big-S Surreal - by which I mean, surreal in the sense of words like ‘portentous’ and ‘oneiric’, rather than ‘cheese’, ‘random’, and ‘of doom’.
And yes, there is a lot in there thematically about music. and not just any music, but Jazz. The universal talisman of refinement. The music that, if you listen to it, shows the world you exist at a cognitive height where music, mathematics, poetry and philosophy have all blended into a grand unified theory of being cool and smart. This is what I was really freaking out about before I played - what hope did I, an outsider to music culture, an uncool man and an actual warhammer author who listens to deafening drum n bass to help the speed go down in the mornings, have of comprehending this game?
All became clear within eight seconds. Because that was how long it took after the game’s soundtrack kicked in (I know because I went back and timed), for my eyebrows to raise in that sort of reverse-frown you do when something’s growing on you rapidly, and for me to find myself saying, out loud, the six words that could easily have stood in for this review: “this fucking slaps, to be fair.”
And yeah, Off-Peak does slap. Off-Peak slaps harder than a mid-90s Tango advert, and as relentlessly as E Honda. Cosmo D is a musician, you see. And you’d know it within seconds, even if the game's theme had nothing to do with music, purely through the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’. Honestly, I’ve never known a game make me so utterly aware of sound before, to the point where it often registered with me more powerfully than the (extremely striking) visual design did.
And when I say, “it slaps,” I mean that in a holistic sense, rather than just saying it has some good tunes in it.
Sure, the game’s opening title track is a plain and simple banger - it’s barely more than a bass line, in fact, but what a bass line: as you cruise into the game world through its weird urban twilight, it swaggers along in the dark with you like a psilocybin-conjured panther. It sets the mood more perfectly than I could use words to describe - and in my opinion at least, that's what music is for.
There are a couple of other pieces on the same level, too. But to repeat, I’m talking about more than just a good OST, here. Sound is deployed constantly and creatively in every form you can imagine, from tiny bits of foley work to sweeping ambient intrusions, in order to shape - and relentlessly shift - the city's atmosphere.
There are the little garbled instrumental samples that stand in for peoples’ speech, but which are so much more effective than what is usually a cute trick to save on voice acting costs. There’s the traffic sound that was so compelling, I looked around from the conversation I was in just to see if there was a car, only to find an empty street yet again. There’s the game’s single moment of pant-shitting horror, in which nothing actually happens to you, but one sound in particular does all the work of watching a tiger lunge out of your fireplace with a loaded gun.
The onslaught is at once both meticulous and overwhelming; like being drowned via the squirting of a million pipettes. Even walking a few steps down one of the crossed streets that define the game environment can trigger a fundamental change in mood, as if you’ve moved to another space entirely without anything changing visually.
Just like Hunter Thompson once memorably said of acid, Off-Peak shifts gears on you. And given the profoundly bloody odd nature of psychedelics, that’s not a comparison to be made glibly. Off-Peak is a vanishingly rare example of a game which includes a massive (growling) stone dog, a tenement building that’s just a colossal, weeping face lying on its side, a dressmaker’s window which is a void full of distant whales, etcetera etcetera, but of which you can say, with informed sincerity, that it’s “like playing video games on acid”. Specifically, like playing a high-concept half-life mod from the weird end of a magazine demo disc in 1999.
And yes, those are all very strange images. But it's the sound that makes it all so legitimately trippy - without that, it would all be so much less. I don’t meant to dismiss the sights of Off-Peak, by the way, as they’re worth a review's-worth of enthusiasm in themselves. But I’m less familiar with being ear-wowed than eye-wowed, so it feels like I should concentrate on that. But yes: as has been written about Cosmo D games before, you can look at pretty much anything from any angle, and feel like you’re in an art gallery.
And was it all crushingly, intimidatingly intellectual? Well, yes and no. Actually, if I’m being honest: no. It was extremely clever, but never confrontationally. It was clearly rammed full of symbols and implication, but it never made me feel like I was missing out if I didn’t grasp any of it. Indeed, it seemed very clear that that it was “enough” just to enjoy the game on a purely abstract sensory level.
In the end, Off-peak did actually suck me into a few extremely thinky thoughts - but it did it craftily, while I was too busy enjoying the surface-level elements to notice my slip into worthy pondering.
For example: There’s a very odd little minigame involving making pizzas, in which customers’ orders are just oblique statements. You have to interpret what they mean, in terms of what toppings to put where, and then the customers actually critique your efforts on delivery. Like that one puzzle from Zoombinis, but coded by Camus.
I had one order that simply read “right in the chest”, and as I was making the pizza - a ghastly mound of marinara sauce and flamingo meat - I got thinking about all the different interpretations of the phrase. Depending on what meaning you assign to each component word, "right in the chest" could mean "the correct things are in the storage vessel", or "I just shot that dude in the heart". It could refer to both, if you linked the two interpretations via the interpretation of "chest" as "coffin". And so on.
From there, I thought about the many, many strange and amusing book titles that appear on the game’s shelves, and then the imaginary record titles as well. This got me thinking about the relationship between the title of an instrumental song and its content (such as in the game’s... jazz). And then I started to examine the fundamental concept of titles, what their existence signifies, and the fundamental impossibility of translating verbal language into music, and vice versa. I even started to wonder about the nature of subjective meaning.
At this point, I audibly cursed, because after all my worrying, Off-Peak had ended up tricking me into feeling smart. It’s good like that, this game: It tends to be clever with you, not at you.
But again, analysis and chin-stroking is not a compulsory part of play. Cosmo D has put a wild level of effort into creating atmospheres, and it’s enough just to enjoy them. Funnily enough, this brings me back to the exact same point I used to explain why I liked Frog Detective 2, the other point and click game I’ve played in the last year. I was relating something my dad, who was an abstract painter, explained to me when I was a kid and - funnily enough - anxious about not understanding non-figurative art:
“Dad took me to the next room and showed me one of his paintings – a big, rough triangle, swimming in a sea of glossy, blue-black paint smears.
“What does it mean?” I asked, thinking it was painted in some secret semiotic code that only the Learned could unravel.
“I dunno,” he shrugged, “do you like looking at it?”
“Yeah, a bit,” I said, truthfully, because while it was pretty, I would have liked it better objectively if it had been a cool picture of Darth Vader.
“That’s what it means to you, then. It means I did a good job.”
I don't know anything about Cosmo D beyond the extent to which you can meet anyone by playing their game. And having done so, I'm pretty sure they're one of those rare and beautiful folks who knows a ton about really cool, smart stuff, while having zero investment in coming across that way. I think they might just be really cool.
And yes, Off-Peak deserved to be something less arbitrary than a point and click. Or it deserved a player with better taste than me. But given how much I’ve had to say in praise of both this and Frog Detective 2, the only two point and click games I’ve played in the last couple of years, I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps I just don’t dislike as many things as I thought I did. It’s always good to shed your prejudices, and Tales From Off-Peak City helped me unload a good few.