[Indie Game Review] Off-Peak: Explore a Musical Train Station, Soak in the Ambience

I’m usually the first to speak disdainfully about so-called walking simulators. There have been a few worth playing, but many more which were just attempts by lazy developers to pass off the bare minimum of effort as a deliberate artistic choice. Never has that been further from the truth than in Off-Peak.

This is not a game you should speedrun. Technically there is an objective, to collect the pieces of a torn-up train ticket so you can continue on to Rowayton. But if anything, this is included only so you don’t mistakenly rush through the game without seeing and hearing everything it has to offer.

The train station you’ll explore in Off-Peak is an explosive artgasm. Every square inch is occupied by some sort of artwork, and every environment features a different track from an album which Archie Pelago wrote just for this game. Some were too oddball for my taste, but a few tickled my ears, and the song from the train departure platform moved me to tears.

It’s about more than just the music. It’s about musician culture. There are a lot of little references and jokes that I expect are best appreciated by professional musicians, like a kiosk selling sheet music which cannot keep up with ravenous public demand.

This is in addition to various other elements I expect came out of Archie Pelago’s personal life. One area is a bar in which everybody is playing some sort of card or board game. Board games and their pieces appear elsewhere, larger than life sized, in the main area. If I were a betting man, I’d say he and his friends prefer these particular ones.

One of the lines of thought this game provoked in me was how effectively an interactive digital collection of images, animation and sound can capture the idiosyncrasies of an individual. Long after the artist’s death, those who knew him might play this and be touched by how thoroughly representative it is of his taste, mannerisms and so on.

The characters in the game are all unusually human. They have their own quirks, their own ambitions and goals. If you stick around to listen, they will even tell you their stories. This is the real chewy nougat of the game, as it were. Immersing yourself in the rich humanity captured here, absorbing the unique qualities and thoughts of the various train station inhabitants that I suspect were based off people the artist personally knows.

For example, if you’re diligent and keep your ears open, you’re liable to learn that the station has come under new management recently. Harsher, more profit oriented management. There is rebellion against this among those who frequent this place, but also those who go about their lives indifferently, content to weather the storms of change so long as they can pursue their individual passions.

You may learn as you progress that the rebellion, an artist troupe known as The Circus, conspires to undermine the new regime with what seem to be supernatural powers in their possession. Glimpsed only in passing until, eventually, you will rely on them for your very salvation.

It’s exceedingly difficult to quantify Off-Peak. It’s not really a game so much as it is a place to inhabit. A neat, eccentric little world that I still return to from time to time, often noticing certain details for the first time. As a promotion of the artist’s work, it’s phenomenally creative and effective, as I wound up buying the game’s OST on iTunes soon after playing this.

Very few games have stirred me in this way. Specifically the over-the-top authentic humanity of Off-Peak, which smacks of reality. The raw individuality and genuine qualities of the characters in this game could only have come from real people. Imprints of what make them unique which will live on after they die, like so many digital ghosts.

It feels weird to give Off-Peak a rating, because it doesn’t compare to anything else. To gauge how well it succeeds at what it’s trying to do, I’d almost need to personally know the artist behind it. It was refreshing though, and evoked a variety of reactions in me that I never thought a computer ‘game’ would be able to. If that isn’t art, then the word is meaningless. I give Off-Peak a 9/10. Download it for free right here.

All images courtesy of Archie Pelago and Cosmo D

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