Digital Dérive

By Keith Allison

Exploring the World of Off-Peak, The Norwood Suite, and the NYU Game Center

You’ve arrived at a train station. Exactly where it is, who can say? Exactly what brought you here? That’s unclear. Maybe you’re searching for something, or running away from something. Maybe you just felt like wandering. As you stand on the platform, a guitar player attracts your attention. He seems to know more about you than you know about him, or about yourself, and he makes you an offer: find the missing pieces of his ticket, and it’s yours. Ride the train anywhere. And so begins your journey through Off-Peak, a game designed by musician Cosmo D (aka NYU Steinhardt alumnus Greg Heffernan) that draws influence from sources as varied as jazz, club DJing, old architecture, and psychogeography (the art of becoming absorbed by wandering around an urban environment 1).

As the player, you have a goal: find the pieces of the ticket. But finding those pieces takes a back seat to poking around in the shadowy corners of the world Cosmo D has built. It’s about ambiance more than achievement, a focus that places Off-Peak in a growing group of video games in which soaking up the atmosphere is as important (if not moreso) as attaining specific milestones. This attitude is becoming increasingly manifest in high-profile games (Bioshock, Fallout, and Dragon Age, for instance). These games present players with vast “open worlds.” There are missions to be accomplished, an outcome to be sought, but one can become so immersed in directionless exploration that one forgets there is an actual objective beyond just wandering while listening to old Ink Spots songs. They incorporate into gameplay the idea of dérive — drifting without a specific goal, like a character in a Michelangelo Antonioni movie; Susumu Terajima’s newly unemployed factory worker Blessing Bell; or the segment in the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, in which Ringo Starr loses himself on the streets of London.

Off-Peak is built upon a similar philosophy. It is reminiscent in a way of Bad Day on the Midway, a game crafted in 1995 by musicians The Residents and featuring design by artist Jim Ludtke. Bad Day… put the player in the shoes of a young boy who has wandered onto a circus midway after hours and meets its various performers. Through a combination of music and stylized animation, the absurd, tragic, and at times unnerving story of each of the characters is relayed.

When Cosmo D decided he wanted to design a game, like the Residents he came at it from the direction he knew best: music. He was a cellist and a member of the electronic music group Archie Pelago and had experience with visual arts related to musical and stage performances. As a member of an electronic music group, he was also familiar with creating art on a computer. Initially, it was scoring movies that made him think about creating a world.

“While studying music at Steinhardt, I had the opportunity to pursue film scoring and computer music classes with Ron Sadoff and Luke DuBois, respectively. Working on music using computers to ‘create’ and ‘score’ things for the sake of larger narrative world-building was something I was always keen on.”

He decided to present his music in a more dynamic environment, much like performing in a shared public space such as a plaza or subway station.

“I was thinking about multi-channel sound installations like La Monte Young’s Dream House in TriBeCA and I’d always wanted to try something similar in the digital realm. Specifically, I wanted to use a game engine as a means for me to put my music into a 3D world and explore songs spatially, using a process called ‘vertical mixing’. Wherever you were in the space, different aspects in the song would fade in and out.”

During a period in which he was nursing an injured leg 2 and relying in part on online tutorials, he began to tinker with the game making software Playmaker, a visual scripting tool he found conceptually similar to music software package Max MSP and which he used to plot game logic. He used Blender, a free 3D modeling tool, and Fuse (now part of Adobe CC) to create the game’s characters.

Roughly one year later, the hard work yielded Off-Peak, an exploratory game set in a train station, a massive urban space that serves as a place of arrival and departure, as well as a canvas for artists and a stage for performers and merchants. The player wanders amongst them, sometimes interacting directly and other times simply eavesdropping on snippets of conversation. Music is woven throughout the experience and changes as one moves through the space. The walls of every room are decorated with art and advertisement. As one collects pieces of the ticket, something stranger and more sinister is hinted at, comments here and there about the nature of the station management, an unseen someone a young woman fears.

The finished game garnered a cult following that inspired Cosmo D to begin work on a follow-up, The Norwood Suite, currently in the final stages of production and developed in part at the NYU Game Center Incubator, part of the Tisch School of the Arts.

“I had been following the NYU Game Center happenings since they started hosting Netrunner meetups back in 2014,” said Cosmo D. “Last year, I found out the Incubator was opening up their program to non-students. Dylan McKenzie, who teaches at the Game Center and serves as their program coordinator, was a fan of Off-Peak and my band Archie Pelago’s music, and he encouraged me to apply.”

The goal for Dylan McKenzie and the Game Center Incubator is to nurture promising developers and help them take a great concept and turn it into a finished game. This means searching for ideas that are interesting but still have commercial potential, and developers who have a realistic understanding of what they want to do and what it takes to do it (“You can’t build a gigantic MMO with two people,” says McKenzie). Once accepted into the program, developers receive a living stipend and access to the Game Center facilities at 2 Metrotech Center, which they can use as an office. They also have access to peers and professionals, including lawyers, journalists, marketing experts, industry veterans, and financiers.

Says Cosmo D, “I had to put my game and the business plan around it up to scrutiny and constructive criticism. The program pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me aware of potential challenges as I got closer to releasing the game. A year ago, the Norwood Suite was in an amorphous state, mainly broad-strokes again. After the Incubator, I could clearly define the game’s structure and scope moving forward. Robert Yang made me think critically about my level design. Clara Fernandez-Vara and her husband Matt Weise made me think critically about my storytelling, and my use of sound and text within the game.”

Reflecting his growing experience as a game designer, The Norwood Suite is planned to be a more complex experience. Like Off-Peak, it’s set in a place of transience and commerce. In this case, a hotel that looks in initial designs to be a cross between The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel and Twin Peaks’ Great Northern (or perhaps the Black Lodge). Like a train station, hotels collect varied types of people, and once again the basis of the game will be drifting amongst them and exploring the environment. Heffernan has expressed an interest in places that seem haunted, and few places can seem as uncanny as the cavernous ballrooms, dimly lit hallways, and ornate lobby of a hotel with echoes of faded glory long past their best days. Off-Peak was an engrossing but brief journey to/through a strange place. The Norwood Suite promises to be a similar, even richer experience.

The Norwood Suite is inspired by trips taken to upstate New York, in areas like the Catskills or towns like New Paltz, Beacon, or Poughkeepsie. There are whole pockets of weirdness up there and I wanted to create a fantasia around the headspace I get into when I’m up there. Narratively, I had this idea of setting the game in a place (the Hotel) where people in the city could ‘retreat’ and feel free to fully commit to their creative endeavors. Aside from being a hotel, it’s also an ‘overlooked’ cultural mecca, once the mansion of a great musician for a bygone age. In its current run-down state, it’s ripe for redevelopment, attracting inevitable corporate interests indifferent to its cultural heritage. All in all, it’s a place that’s different things to different people – and navigating all these contrasting, at times conflicting perspectives on the place is where the player comes in.”

The Norwood Suite is on track for a summer 2017 release. Many of the games being fostered under the developmental umbrella of the Game Center Incubator, are exploring new ways of creating visual, musical, and narrative art within the structure of “video games” — a term that sometimes seems as ill-suited for what’s being created as “phone” is for a device that can display videos, connect to the internet, order your dinner, or help you navigate an unfamiliar place during your next dérive.

NOTES

  1. Introduction a une critique de la geographie urbaine,” Les Levres Nues, #6, Brussels, September 1955 (reprinted by Plasma in 1978 and by Allia in 1995); translated and published by Ken Knabb as “Introduction to a critique of urban geography,” in Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets (Berkeley, 1981 and 1989).
  2. Smith, Ed. “How Indie Dev Cosmo D Is Humanizing New York.” Waypoint. Vice, 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

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