Most pieces of art and media are created with the intention of mass consumption. You have your Marvel movies, reality TV, and televised sports covering that base. They mostly fulfill their purpose and the large majority of people enjoy them. But if you stand far enough away and squint at them, any Marvel movie, reality TV show, and any sport competition largely look the same, indistinguishable from any other example from their respective categories.
That sameness is the core drive that pushes creators to thrust themselves outside of the boundaries of profitability to create things that are weird. They aren’t usually enjoyed by a large number of people for whatever reason, but they’re different, and that alone justifies their existence in a sea of sameness.
I said all of that to say this: I played a free indie game on Steam called Off Peak. It’s not going to win over absolutely every person who picks it up to try it, but it’s f***ing bizarre and I am so happy it exists.
Let’s get into it.
Off Peak is a game that kind of defies categorization, but some of the Steam tags applied to it include “free to play”, “indie”, “surreal”, “adventure”, and “horror”. I would say all of those are accurate at some point in the game’s estimated twenty to thirty-minute runtime (I played way past that just walking around to look at things), but none of those tags tell the full story.
The bizarre interactive experience was developed by Cosmo D, a game designer/creator and also the bassist for a band called Archie Pelago. Kind of an unexpected mix of professions, sure, but why judge? It also perfectly explains why the music of Off Peak fits the game so perfectly. Its sounds are simultaneously discordant and confusing, but then those sounds are layered with other sounds that soothe and entice you into wanting to listen even closer to determine how deep the sonic rabbit hole goes. It’s a really impressive feat, and I went from not knowing the band Archie Pelago existed to being a big fan after my time with Off Peak.
But this isn’t a music album, it’s a video game. So what’s the gameplay like? Well, if I had to boil down Off Peak to a sentence, here’s what I would say: “It’s Slender: The Arrival in the craziest train station/ art museum you’ve ever seen.” But that’s just to get people to actually download and play the game. Yes, the core “gameplay” revolves around exploring the various areas of the station to collect scraps of a train ticket, but Off Peak is more than that.
From the moment the game loads in, you’re immediately dropped into a world that looks familiar but doesn’t feel quite right. The red-tinted, hyper-realistic skybox, the black void surrounding the platform you stand on, and the strange person sitting on a bench playing an instrument called a Lapsteel (which is completely real, I looked it up) contribute to an inviting sense of mystery and also an uneasiness that persists throughout the experience.
You have an entire conversation with that person (who you later find out is named Luuuke, yes with three U’s), and he lets you know he wants to gift you a ticket out of town. Great! This place is weird and creeps me out! But there’s a problem: the ticket he has for you was somehow ripped to shreds, which have then been scattered all around the station. If you can find all the pieces, you’re free to go!
That’s obviously easier said than done, and the surprising vastness of the station and its hidden areas occasionally made me forget what it was that I was actually supposed to be doing. However, It seems like that might have been Cosmo D’s intent.
Walking up the path and into the station provided a visual that was very nearly breathtaking. A massive whale is suspended from the ceiling, and set against a backdrop of space (or the cosmos, as a subtle nod to the creator). Panning around the rest of the area reveals a handful of NPCs, fascinating pieces of art spread across every wall, and entrances to even more places that hide untold wonders.
All in all, a very, very solid introduction to a game that cost me nothing. I hate to take a potshot at a game that most people have already forgotten about, but I enjoyed the opening to Off Peak much more than the railroady, semi-interactive intro to Atomic Heart
When you start to explore the station, the strangeness that was present just outside is amplified by orders of magnitude. On one side of the entrance, there are regular-sized people watching a giant man play a giant piano next to a wall that could either be windows that peek into an aquarium with giant fish, or TV screens displaying an aquarium scene. Given how everything has been presented so far, I would consider the former to be true. There’s also an inexplicable mobile pizza parlor, a ramen stand, a mushroom garden and more! However, I think the best part of the experience was walking up the seemingly endless staircase to reach the roof of the station, and stopping at every floor to take in the art piece featured at the beginning of each new flight of stairs. The art ranges from entrancing to deeply disturbing, and I wish I had each piece in my own house, they’re all fantastic.
Depending on how you feel about “walking simulators”, Off Peak might not be for you. As a person who generally enjoys those types of games, I think it might be among my favorites of the genre due to its undeniable, unwavering dedication to the identity it establishes from the beginning, the incredible music, and the story being told both through metaphor and through the scattered instances of text dialog.
However, if you’re the kind of person that can enjoy a thing just because of its strangeness, things rarely get as strange as they do in Off Peak, and that’s definitely worth something.