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Quick Bites: A Collage of Feeling

Quick Bites is a series I’m starting on short games (typically an evening’s worth of time or less) where, each week, I highlight and examine a game and how it made me feel.

Off-Peak, Cosmo D’s hypnotic, surreal, jazzy collage of art plays like an interactable museum of inspiration. There’s something child-like in its anharmonic mish-mash of influences. Its sensory overload’s only guiding line is the sectioned-off musical tracks, localized to areas. Though, this too forms a sort of free-style montage guided only by your own eye and interest. Strange characters populate the recesses of Cosmo D’s train station. Each has his or her own short story to tell.

I first encounter a crowd congregated just beside the glowing entrance to the station spouting vague anti-authoritarian messages, “down with the system”. They are flanked by strongmen with pearl-white skin. There’s a charming silliness to the opacity of their anger. Entering the neon façade presents a god-ray-lit interior bursting with color, posters, sculptures, and mosaics. The crown jewel of the bustling, yet sparse space is a large sculpture of a blue whale hanging beneath the cosmos.

As I stroll down the steps to the right, I encounter a wall of fish. They’re impossibly huge and seem to disappear into the ether of the tank’s edges. Bubbles fizzle up the side of the glass and the out-sized proportions of the entire station and various inhabitants paint the space in a joyously absurdist light. I spy a ramen shop and stop to drool over a steaming bowl on the table. The chef reminisces that he wanted to be a violinist, dreams dashed by another who got the job, now his food is his orchestra, every bowl a symphony. I pick up a piece of a train ticket.

Down a staircase to the right, I find a lonely tunnel, cloaked in darkness. A sole train sits in the cavernous darkness and a cookie salesman stands dutifully by a pallet full of them. He says, “If you listen closely you can hear the sighs of old trains long abandoned.” I eat a cookie and the screen warps. Eating them in rapid succession turns the screen to a double, triple, quadruple-imaged nightmare. Around the corner is a tent and a shrine to musical inspiration. I find another scrap of ticket.

As I return to the main platform, I find a pizza stand. The Pizzaioli has had a falling out with a famous restaurant Blucali and his patrons whisper about the scandal as they scarf down slices. At least they don’t have to schlep it all the way to that restaurant they say. Nearby is a sheet music stand. A customer ponders picking up an instrument while buying some music for his wife. She’s playing for friends they’ll be entertaining. I find another scrap.

Strolling into a bar called Phantasmagoria, I find guests playing board games. Around them are paintings and pictures, all as eclectic as anything outside, in the main terminal. A poster hangs on the wall of Marvel comics’ Dr. Doom proclaiming, “Let me drink in the sounds of these Special Herbs!” Cards with descriptions of anarcho-syndicalism and Bach adorn the walls. A fireplace sits, curdling embers as patrons sit absorbed in their games. I find another piece.

I scale a darkened set of stairs with yet more eclectic posters. The famous poster from the Wajda film Danton hangs on the wall. A floor down a couple stands, making out in a corner. The posters become increasingly fleshy with each level as the bones and skeletal imagery of the lower floors become coated in sinew and bright pink tissue and eyes. It’s a bizarrely ominous section of the game where the bright, sundown-lit interiors become shadowy and opaque.

At the top stands a woman, peering in through the glass ceiling to the travelers below. She explains that she’s watching and waiting for a remarkable friend, adorned in bright colors and unmissable in a crowd. I wish her luck and snatch another ticket piece from beside her. As I turn around to go down the stairs, three women in shades and blue blazers (one of whom had sat surreptitiously in the central station earlier, watching me) confront me. They present a glowing bull totem and when I click it I’m teleported back down to the central chamber. Later they’ll accompany me on my exodus.

I finally have a full ticket and present it to the ticket master. She asks that I speak with the boss so I scale the set of stairs in front of me. At the top sits a man, perched on a regal throne, flanked by bodyguards. He waxes lyrical about his dominion, how he keeps all his customers satisfied and how the man I met at the start, who set me on this quest to find ticket scraps, is a grifter. I’ll have to stop relying on him to make my own way at some point. He stands as the first true antagonist of the game and the anti-capitalist message bubbling in the background slowly comes into focus.

He says he’ll let me go and I stroll down to the platform to find an utterly euphoric man dancing and skipping in the late-afternoon light. The game’s chirpiest tune — a jazz/electronic beat — blares as I get closer to him. I don’t know why, but this opens up my chest and eases my shoulders. I could sit here, watching this peculiar man’s animation cycles forever. And I do.

As I near the train, I hand my ticket over to the ticket-taker. But, before I can enter, I’m stopped by the king of the station. He forbids me from boarding and consigns me work as the Ramen chef’s protégé. But, before I can fully process what has happened, a mystical woman materializes and halts the hold-up. She holds up her hand and the screen goes white.

When I come to, I’m on a boat, being rowed by the ladies to a circus. I can hardly say what the game’s about, even if there’s a clear anti-authoritarian message to the game and a strong pro-union streak in the periphery of these spaces. Perhaps it’s about the toil of workers left hidden to a benighted consumer class. Perhaps it’s about the excesses of a hyper-consumptive society that doesn’t know when to stop eating even as it distorts their vision and makes reality undiscernible. Perhaps it’s about the din of the market, blocking out any and all thought.

Or maybe this is all bullshit and it’s just a collage of cool art that a developer liked. I don’t know. But, what I do know is that I was touched. The game, now after two playthroughs, has given me some respite. Some relief. A sun-kissed world to sit in and absorb. As I stood, framing the break-dancer in just the right light at just the right angle, I felt a weird peace in the poppy electronic jazz. His free flailing, not a care in the world, no audience save me, was a moment of transitory beauty. I have no grand takeaway, no message to glean. I’m just left with a feeling; a feeling of profound openness and freedom; the kind of feeling that hits like a warm cup of coffee in the early hours of a sleepy morning. And that’s something.

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