The surreal, Kafkaesque dream space of Off-Peak 1

Train sta­tions are strange places, a tran­si­to­ry space for count­less trav­ellers on the way to out­ly­ing des­ti­na­tions. They tell sto­ries of lone­some fig­ures seek­ing warm, human con­nec­tion as in David Lean’s film Brief Encounter, the sta­tion offer­ing the chance for escape and per­son­al free­dom from the shack­les of domes­tic­i­ty and gen­der spheres. They can also tell sto­ries of fig­ures com­bat­ing the fas­cist under­tones of rigid­i­ty and cold mod­ern infra­struc­ture that train sta­tions epit­o­mize, as in Jiří Menzel’s WWII movie Closely Watched Trains.

Off-Peak, the first-person adven­ture game by jazz cel­list Cosmo D, blends ele­ments of both these kinds of sto­ries and much more. Released free for down­load on itch​.io, Off-Peak revolves around the sur­re­al occur­rences and imagery housed with­in a roomy train sta­tion as you freely explore its inte­ri­ors. The game begins with an inter­ac­tion with a lap steel gui­tar musi­cian who offers you a free train tick­et out, albeit after find­ing its scat­tered scraps hid­den through­out the build­ing. This basic setup prompts you to explore the train station’s ser­pen­tine pas­sage­ways and to inter­act with the bizarre fig­ures that pop­u­late it. In this empha­sis on the sim­ple act of walk­ing and look­ing, Off-Peak more close­ly resem­bles the styling of a first-person walk­er than a typ­i­cal adven­ture game with com­plex puz­zles to solve. Instead, the game’s inter­ests lie in steep­ing the play­er in a net­work of strik­ing visu­als and cryp­tic sto­ry­telling while rais­ing shrewd ques­tions on the cre­ation and con­sump­tion of art and the cap­i­tal­ist frame­works that such works oper­ate with­in.

Immediately upon play­ing Off-Peak, its aes­thet­ic stands out as out­landish and evoca­tive. You begin out­side the front entrance of the train sta­tion, the street­lights just twin­kling on under an orange-purple twilit sky. There’s a great sense of sur­re­al atmos­phere sus­tained through­out the game, lend­ing the pro­ceed­ings an off-kilter and qui­et­ly mes­mer­iz­ing feel­ing. Part of this atmos­phere comes from the jazzy, deep house score by Archie Pelago, of which Cosmo D is a mem­ber. The game is set to their propul­sive, zest­ful music that com­bines ele­ments of jazz and elec­tron­ic music that’s both unclas­si­fi­able to one genre but expres­sive­ly lush and some­times spooky.

The game also brings togeth­er dis­parate artis­tic influ­ences under one roof, des­ig­nat­ing the cen­tral build­ing not only as a train sta­tion but as a kind of curat­ed muse­um. Upon entrance, you’re greet­ed with count­less pieces of art­work hang­ing on the walls and a colos­sal whale hov­er­ing above the main lobby like a sus­pend­ed piece of instal­la­tion art. Light pours down from cathedral-like win­dows, cast­ing a celes­tial aura to the odd set­ting. Indeed, there’s a pal­pa­ble sense of big­ness inside the build­ing, a feel­ing accen­tu­at­ed by its ceiling’s painter­ly depic­tion of a milky cos­mos. While inside this com­plex, you can con­verse with the enig­mat­ic over­seer of the train sta­tion who tells you that his inten­tion is to curate an expe­ri­ence for com­muters, offer­ing the indul­gences of renowned food ven­dors, jazz record­ings, and sheet music deal­ers.

The kooky, Mafioso-esque over­seer him­self is vivid­ly imag­ined, reclin­ing on a throne atop Persian rugs and amidst placid cat­tle and body­guards over­look­ing the train plat­forms below. The world he lives in is cryp­tic and vague­ly near future, evok­ing the occult imagery of film­mak­er and poet Alejandro Jodorowsky (psy­che­del­ic mush­room gar­dens abound) or the sur­re­al­ism of film­mak­er David Lynch (in the form of mys­te­ri­ous cow­boy iconog­ra­phy). It’s a world in which giants live amongst humans, includ­ing one frozen in exis­ten­tial cri­sis and gos­sip amongst numer­ous com­muters of a mys­te­ri­ous cir­cus that employs these giants.

The Polish School poster for 'Alien'

The Polish School poster for ‘Alien’

Along with these fan­tas­ti­cal ele­ments, Off-Peak pep­pers the train sta­tion with rec­og­niz­able ref­er­ence points to real­i­ty, mix­ing an odd­ball brew of unre­al and real. A pop-up retail­er sells Schirmer’s Library sheet music, while across the way aisles of jazz vinyl records sport cov­ers of Sun Ra and Charles Mingus. And in anoth­er cor­ner of the train sta­tion, a seem­ing­ly infi­nite stair­well exhibits cryp­tic posters on each floor. Any sea­soned cinephile could iden­ti­fy these posters as belong­ing to the icon­ic Polish school of movie posters minus their accom­pa­ny­ing text. Off-Peak’s set­ting, then, is a dream­like and oth­er­world­ly locale but still tied in many respects to real­i­ty. It’s a lim­i­nal space between worlds: sort of like a train sta­tion, a tem­po­rary place some­where between where you came from and your ulti­mate des­ti­na­tion.

The many artis­tic, cin­e­mat­ic, musi­cal, and lit­er­ary allu­sions in Off-Peak lend the game a cura­to­r­i­al sen­si­bil­i­ty that sug­gests the over­seer as a kind of stand-in for the devel­op­er, Cosmo D. I haven’t encoun­tered a work so abun­dant with ref­er­ences since the sim­i­lar­ly vibrant worlds of Jazzpunk or Thirty Flights of Loving, but what’s frus­trat­ing is the lack of crit­i­cal analy­sis on what these allu­sions mean for the game. What does it com­mu­ni­cate, and what does it mat­ter that there are direct inclu­sions of real-world art?

Let’s take a clos­er look at the afore­said Polish movie posters as an exam­ple, which no arti­cle I’ve yet to find has even iden­ti­fied in the game. The posters in Off-Peak include those for movies like Vertigo (a repli­ca of which hangs in my home, which is how I iden­ti­fied it in the game), The Legacy, Alien, No End, and many oth­ers. Though the game removes the text from these posters, they’re still visu­al­ly evoca­tive enough to be rec­og­niz­able.

The Polish school of movie posters was part of a larg­er phe­nom­e­non in 20th cen­tu­ry graph­ic design brought about by state-regulated art dur­ing the Cold War. As such, artists had to employ oblique meth­ods to depict American cul­ture, often turn­ing to min­i­mal yet expres­sive imagery that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed absur­dist and iron­ic themes. The whole phi­los­o­phy of the Polish school of poster design was expres­sion­ist sym­bol­ism and allu­sion via play­ful imagery meant to sug­gest grander themes, con­dens­ing the tone and iconog­ra­phy of an entire film in one strik­ing mar­ket­ing image. Off-Peak par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoys dis­play­ing posters wrapped with images of inner bod­ies, includ­ing images of skele­tons, ner­vous sys­tems, eyes, and mus­cles. These visu­als con­tribute to the game’s eerie, sur­re­al qual­i­ty. Bodies are put on dis­play with­out con­text, depict­ed as evis­cer­at­ed and in a means unfa­mil­iar to us.

Off-Peak’s per­va­sive sense of sur­re­al weird­ness cre­ates an alien­at­ing atmos­phere because it’s dif­fi­cult to make imme­di­ate sense of its world. The game resists easy inter­pre­ta­tion, instead pre­fer­ring ques­tions with­out answer and visu­als with ambigu­ous mean­ing. Nevertheless, I think one of the keys to under­stand­ing — or at least bet­ter appre­ci­at­ing — this game comes in the form of the giant door that leads into the train sta­tion. This set of tow­er­ing dou­ble doors recalls Orson Welles’s cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a sur­re­al story in part about a bewil­dered man strug­gling to under­stand a cryp­tic, author­i­tar­i­an world around him. The film adap­ta­tion of The Trial plays with size as a means to con­vey author­i­tar­i­an oppres­sion and alien­ation in ways sim­i­lar here. In the film, the door lead­ing to a cour­t­house is impos­ing, sug­gest­ing tow­er­ing, incom­pre­hen­si­ble hard­ship with­in. Moreover, end­less­ly dupli­cat­ed rows of office desks in the protagonist’s place of work con­vey the alien­at­ing effects of mod­ern work, mak­ing him indis­tin­guish­able from count­less office drones.

Off-Peak could just­ly be called a Kafkaesque game, a sen­si­bil­i­ty informed by the sur­re­al writ­ings of Franz Kafka and similar-minded visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions like the afore­said film by Orson Welles but also Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Kafkaesque works empha­size a sense of per­son­al alien­ation amidst an illog­i­cal, unre­spon­sive world resis­tant to pro­vid­ing answers. Cryptic power struc­tures are set in place that pre­vent indi­vid­ual bet­ter­ment, reflect­ing the emerg­ing fas­cist polit­i­cal con­texts of Franz Kafka’s time. Moreover, the works of Kafka and his imi­ta­tors have a con­cern with duplic­i­tous dop­pel­gangers, sur­re­al urban spaces, and dis­tor­tion of sizes, all of which are present in Off-Peak.

Along with the dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly sized giant door, ele­ments like the train station’s prison-like labyrinths, guards that look more like anony­mous secret police, and fortress-like archi­tec­ture all con­tribute to the game’s Kafkaesque style. Even snaky secret pas­sage­ways lined with what looks like com­put­er servers remind me of a sim­i­lar shot from The Trial. A group of voyeuris­tic triplets also recur through­out the game, silent­ly stalk­ing your moves like the Lutece twins of Bioshock Infinite (and some­how also shar­ing a row­boat sequence sim­i­lar to that game).

Perhaps most redo­lent of Franz Kafka is the the­mat­ic con­tent of Off-Peak. Though the world of Franz Kafka is often plagued with inde­ci­pher­abil­i­ty, Off-Peak sneaks in snatch­es of dia­logue that slow­ly pro­vide a sense of place and con­text to bet­ter under­stand what Cosmo D has to say. Like Kafka, Off-Peak pri­mar­i­ly con­cerns the ten­sion between indi­vid­u­als and shady author­i­ty fig­ures, a theme visu­al­ized early on in the game with a brew­ing protest out­side the sta­tion. More specif­i­cal­ly, Off-Peak is about the rela­tion­ship between artists and the over­bear­ing urban spaces and author­i­ties that seek to sup­press it.

Numerous char­ac­ters through­out the game reveal them­selves as strug­gling artists and musi­cians. The lap steel gui­tar play­er you’re mooching a tick­et off of admits that he’s giv­ing away his pas­sage because he knows he’s not going any­where any­time soon. A ramen cook with­in the sta­tion con­fess­es a pre­vi­ous voca­tion as a viola play­er. Indeed, many char­ac­ters find them­selves stuck in a cycli­cal limbo of frus­tra­tion and idle­ness because they seem unable to rise above their sta­tion because of author­i­tar­i­an forces or even some unseen cos­mic force, a favorite theme of Franz Kafka.

offpeak_mainhallThis is the rela­tion of art and con­sumerism under cap­i­tal­ism: the sub­sum­ing of the cre­ative process because such endeav­ors are inim­i­cal to entrenched notions of per­son­al suc­cess and sta­bil­i­ty. In Communist Poland, the afore­said graph­ic design­ers made a liv­ing out of art but only under the stric­tures of the state. Off-Peak deals in the sac­ri­fices made by artists, and an unre­solved ten­sion between the work­ers and the despot­ic over­seer lingers. Although employ­ment as cooks or cashiers may not be what these artists envi­sion pur­su­ing as careers, the implic­it sug­ges­tion is that such work is only a tem­po­rary hia­tus. After all, train sta­tions are tran­si­to­ry places, espe­cial­ly for trav­ellers like the pro­tag­o­nist, but the artists pop­u­lat­ing it seem more and more per­ma­nent the clos­er you look. The char­ac­ters you encounter are affixed to the space, con­vey­ing the sense that they’re less like humans and more like objects stuck with­in an envi­ron­ment. Alongside the art­works, you often sim­ply look at them rather than mean­ing­ful­ly inter­act with these NPCs, lend­ing their cir­cum­stances a down­beat tone.

The uncar­ing train sta­tion over­seer only aspires to be a big-shot tycoon, obsess­ing over num­bers rather than the plight of artists squan­der­ing their true tal­ents for com­pul­so­ry wage work. The gulf between the supe­ri­ors and the work­ers proves to be ever widen­ing, a thought neat­ly visu­al­ized in the afore­said giant in exis­ten­tial cri­sis and refus­ing to play the piano. While he dole­ful­ly bows his head in his hands, unsym­pa­thet­ic supe­ri­ors con­de­scend to him from a dis­tance like aloof spec­ta­tors eye­ing a piece of unfa­vor­able art­work.

Those who resist these supe­ri­ors like the pro­tes­tors out­side the sta­tion are still few in num­ber, and the gen­er­al pop­u­lace with­in the build­ing sim­ply keeps their mind off these issues. They don’t join those seek­ing col­lec­tive action or mobi­lize against the over­seer, instead casu­al­ly munch­ing on piz­zas or play­ing board games in a somat­ic lull. Our abil­i­ty as play­ers to freely nav­i­gate the world of Off-Peak allows us to unveil the infra­struc­ture and ide­olo­gies at work, even if the pro­tag­o­nist can’t desta­bi­lize its power struc­ture. Maybe the answer lies in escape; if the artists can’t break free from their cir­cum­stances, we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty — and the tick­et out — to change ours.

One thought on “The surreal, Kafkaesque dream space of Off-Peak

  • Bogdan B.

    Greatly writ­ten! In the con­text of today’s video game land­scape, it seems that Off-Peak is such a quin­tes­sen­tial game, yet qui­et­ly so…

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