Pineapple belongs on pizza
In the fearlessly weird world of Cosmo D, sentient buildings, reality-warping conversations, a generous dash of anti-corporate spirit make perfect ingredients for a potent narrative brew. His latest title Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 plays like a multisensory improv jazz record – a love letter to place, music, and subculture – all within a surreal alternate reality.
On paper, the first-person exploration game has an odd, but straightforward objective: you’re a new face in town, tasked to steal a valuable saxophone while working at a pizza shop. In practice, it’s a cerebral adventure with several flavours of existential crises, set to a fantastic original score.
Like its predecessors Off-Peak and The Norwood Suite, Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 is built on a particular history of surreal narrative-driven games. For years, I’d wished for more games like Bad Day on the Midway – a 1995 puzzler set in a carnival that David Lynch tried (and unfortunately, failed) to make into a TV series. Created by The Residents, an anonymous music collective that’s been around since the 1960s, Bad Day was a childhood highlight that gave me high hopes for future slice-of-life stories about weirdos and their everyday weirdo lives. The game’s idiosyncratic visuals were done by illustrator and pioneering digital artist Jim Ludtke. Even today, few games have managed to nail the offbeat atmosphere of The Residents’ and Ludtke’s cult adventure.
Today, we have Cosmo D, aka game designer Greg Heffernan. No one has paid tribute to Bad Day’s off-kilter energy even half as well Heffernan, whose work bears its own distinct and exciting identity. I’m not the first to make a Bad Day comparison, and I won’t be the last.
In its simplest form, Vol. 1 is about wandering, observing, eavesdropping, and making wild conceptual pizzas for mostly-grateful customers (synthetic grey matter and flamingo meat, anyone?). In a nod to Off-Peak’s sea-borne ending, Vol. 1 opens with the player in a rowboat, accompanied by a pair of mysterious individuals. You’re told to get a job with Caetano Grosso – an accomplished ex-saxophonist who decided to open a pizza parlour – and find a way to steal his precious instrument. As you go about this covert operation, it’s clear that there’s much more to the neighbourhood than meets the eye – an ominous megacorporation that’s sucking up jobs (and possibly lives), a thuggish militia force, an experimental energy drink lab, and very relatably, locals just trying to get on with their lives.
Not a bored game
The metropolis of Off-Peak is an enigmatic cityscape devoid of straight lines, every pixel packed with character and attitude. But where Off-Peak was confined to a train station, Vol. 1 gives the player more room to roam, namely the small neighbourhood around July Ave and Yam St filled with small, intimate interactions. The Cowboy – a friendly resident who’s having a stoop sale – chats comfortably with his brick-faced friend, Building #35. Two fishermen make conversation by a storm canal while residents snorkel in the water. A group of friends bicker about pizza and work over a board game. A sharp-eyed resident tells you that the neighbourhood has big plans for you, and everyone seems to know who you are, especially Big Mo, who works for the sinister HRH.
After meeting the customers to whom you deliver your experimental pizzas, they dig into their food, and the scenes change dramatically – on one level, your pizza may not simply be pizza, but a metaphysical vehicle for change. Vol. 1 uses a dreamy, reality-bending technique that also featured heavily in the 2016 exploration game Californium, which was a tribute to sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. But where Californium moved between different dimensions and vast expanses of time, in Vol. 1, the player stays firmly rooted in the present. There’s no escaping the neighbourhood – it needs you.
Wholesome mother loving doom
Rather than literature, music remains the beating heart of Heffernan’s work, and his band, Archie Pelago, creates the music (and sometimes props) for his games. While Off-Peak had no spoken dialogue, Vol. 1’s characters “speak” in string riffs, with hints of noise and fuzz that add body to each “voice.” Jazz reigns supreme in the game, not as a genre but as a structure built on riffing, improvisation, and change; Archie Pelago also works in charming musical motifs that mirror the recurring visual motifs established in Off-Peak: pizza, cow skulls, and musical instruments. Scattered around the gameworld are pop culture nods to Heffernan’s love of music – for instance, Marvel villain Victor von Doom’s iconic mask, which was reappropriated by underground rapper (and frequent jazz sampler) MF Doom.
For fans of the oddball 90s game aesthetic – misproportioned bodies, warped perspectives, and bold colours – visiting Heffernan’s gameworlds is like spending time with an eccentric old friend. But in addition to some really great banter, Vol. 1 primarily unfolds through revealing conversations that touch on social issues like gentrification, corporate hegemonies, collective bargaining, and the complicated business of making a living; all of these topics are painfully applicable to current events, which makes Vol. 1 both visually anachronistic and thematically accurate. It’s meta-exploration through chat and movement – a thoughtful voyage through a community going through a slowly snowballing crisis. If you’re looking for confrontation and convention, this probably isn’t the game for you.
[Reviewed on PC]