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