In the video game Off-Peak, you’re trapped in a train station that’s a surreal concoction of New York City architecture: a whale swims above the terminal, and instead of Grand Central’s constellation ceiling there’s a swirling galaxy of stars. The otherworldly digital adventure released for free last month is the second game from Greg Heffernan, aka the cellist Cosmo D of Brooklyn-based electronic jazz trio Archie Pelago. Through a short narrative of play, it mixes original music with fragments of a dream version of New York.
“I made the game in very much the same way I create music,” Heffernan told Hyperallergic. He explained that as a student of jazz and “an improviser at heart,” the game was made as a sort of “riffing” — except instead of on notes it riffs on architecture, objects, sound effects, and dialogue. A slide guitar player who’s left a train ticket in pieces around the station greets players with brooding notes as they enter a cavernous space inspired by the New York Public Library, the Campbell Apartment, Grand Central, the American Museum of Natural History, and the city’s armories. Strange visuals are everywhere, including a garden of mushrooms encircling a version of the Aztec double-headed serpent at the British Museum and a couple making out in an endless dark stairwell, one of them clutching a skull in hand.
The music by Archie Pelago already existed in drafts, and Off-Peak turned it into a user-determined playlist that varies based on which space you’re in, whether sunset-lit tracks or a gloomy subway tunnel. Similarly, Heffernan previously took the Archie Pelago song “Saturn V” and created a gaming space in which movement and interaction change the track.
Playing Off-Peak doesn’t take long — I accomplished the central goal of piecing together a train ticket in about half an hour. The real draw is in exploring and collecting bits of information. Subway service advisories ominously advise that you’re better off swimming or getting a boat than waiting for a train, and while art and music are everywhere, the artists and musicians seem to be stuck in limbo. Heffernan explained that he channeled many of his feelings about how New York does and does not economically support its artists into the game, along with the constant need for relocation. With its dizzying collage of the bizarre, Off-Peak might not be for everyone, but it’s exciting to see a cellist experimenting with the creative process of making music as a way to riff on gaming.
Off-Peak is available for free download online.