Artistic expression. Capitalism’s tyrannical grasp over artists. This is the thematic structure of developer Cosmo D.’s off kilter and inspired Off-Peak, a short first person exploration game about uncovering the trials and tribulations of working class people, specifically musicians. It’s a game confident in letting players loose to explore and learn from this surreal space, rather than pander to them like the stale first person mystery game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Yet, despite never sinking into the kind of narcissism and self-pity that stories about artists usually have, Off-Peak’s cold and static nature sadly undersells its thoughtful characters and themes.
To the rhythm of Archie Pelago’s brilliant and energetic trip-hop, electro-swing, and neo-jazz soundtrack, you explore an eccentric train station with the express purpose to take a ride to the city where your family lives. Immediately, the game uses this setup to present its understanding and concern towards working class people, specifically musicians. A lap steel player greets you at the start, giving you the objective of searching for the ripped pieces of his own train ticket. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. Figuratively chained to this station, he is an example of the tragedy behind the many characters you meet. Whether it’s the tired hope of a record album saleswoman, or the melancholy of an ex-viola player turned ramen cook, you are presented with poor souls whose current professions are merely an imposed mask, hiding their true dreams and desires. The cook compares the technicality of viola playing with the craftsmanship of cooking ramen. An old bartender, his back basked by the setting sun, somberly relates the arcane nature of board games. A giant pianist, scared, unable to do his job and play music, while his supervisors look on with confused resentment. There is frustration brewing within the station.
Lack of success or critical backlash isn’t the issue that plagues these denizens, it’s the commoditization and suppression of artistic expression. What may sound cynical is actually deeply compassionate and perceptive. Characters express their stories and thoughts through natural and introspective dialogue, never veering into pretentious monologues like in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a film that confused artistic struggle with privileged egomania. For a game so surreal, there’s a groundedness to everything. Everyone’s desires and woes are relatable and human. A refreshing and sincere cure to video games’ current obsession with impersonal melodrama and flashy nihilism. It asks of the player to stand back and listen (or rather, read) to other people and understand them, with no amount of dishonest manipulation standing in the way. And in an era where impoverished artists still fight to make a living within systems that prize consumerism and hype over imagination and craft, Off-Peak’s teachings feel relevant, rooted within our own reality.
However, Off-Peak’s biggest failure is its art gallery presentation. It does make sense thematically: a nearly untouchable, immovable space that represents capitalism’s effect over people, freezing them in a form of social class limbo. But this cold presentation robs the warmth and tragedy of the characters you encounter. You are distant in this unmoving habitat, separate from everything, and the little you can do to affect it feels like cruft. Besides being able to pick up scraps of a train ticket, you’re given the chance to tamper with some people’s establishments. An attempt to be playful and reactive to the player’s actions mostly deflates the game’s underlying purpose: listening and understanding struggling working class people. But hey, here’s a chance to gobble down a chef’s last reserve of pizza and steal a woman’s only hope of getting paid for the month. Of course, you can avoid doing these things, and there is an insignificant end game consequence for doing so, but it feels like a contrived way to create humor and reactivity rather than anything substantive. Off-Peak’s static execution establishes glass walls between the world and the player, leaving one desiring for environmental vibrancy and more considerate interactions that took advantage of the game’s humane surrealism.
Off-Peak ends with salvation. The implication is that you’ve been saved from a fate similar to those experienced by the train station workers. What lies ahead in the sunset horizon is uncertain. But the lasting impression is clear: Off-Peak’s celebration of visual art, architecture, and music is beautiful and insightful. If only if it could break away from its cold hard shell, it’d be transcendent.
Thanks to Jackson Tyler for their guidance and advice.