ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Greg Heffernan, a.k.a. Cosmo D, about Off-Peak, a curated glimpse into one artist’s mind.
Greg Heffernan is, first and foremost, a musician. He performs and records with his band Archie Pelago in New York City, and Heffernan didn’t take time off from that over the nine months during which he singlehandedly created Off-Peak. The game became his primary focus, but there were still “occasional gigs here and there,” he said.
Off-Peak is suffuse with Archie’s music, bursting at the seams with it. The soundtrack changes from one step to the next, as you enter a display-case forest of mushrooms or a hallway of bleep-blooping computer walls. It’s jazzy and electronic, but like the rest of Off-Peak, it’s not set in stone. For a game so technically small, it does a surprisingly good job of making it feel like anything might happen.
Set in a train station inspired equally by Grand Central and Alice in Wonderland, Off-Peak begins with an offer: Find the pieces of my shredded ticket, the earthy busker outside the station tells you, and you can ride the train away. The search doesn’t last long; half an hour at most. But you’ll pore over every nook and cranny of this weird world, exploring high and low, meeting strange characters and stealing lots of pizza.
Off-Peak is not Heffernan’s first game. He began his development career with Saturn V, a game based on a song from an Archie Pelago EP. But as his latest production gig wound down in early 2014, Heffernan decided he wanted to devote his newfound free time to creating something great—”something I wanted to put all of myself into,” he said.
He hung around the well-known Game Center at NYU, his alma mater, attended talks on game design and explored game jam events, doing his homework. He taught himself to code gradually, and built his games from the ground up. Off-Peak is simple—it’s really just a space to explore, like a museum or an art exhibit— because Heffernan is aware of his own limitations as a designer.
For the most basic design cues, he looked to games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., System Shock and Thief, older PC titles rife with atmosphere and exploration. He also mentioned an old Japanese game called Gadget—a more obscure title set in a train station. “I appreciate the philosophy of those games,” Heffernan said. “I appreciate the way that those games trusted the player to find their own way and intuit a space and figure out what they need to do and draw their own conclusions about what’s going on.”
Heffernan grew up in a commuter town in Connecticut, and Grand Central Station has always seemed a special place to him. “Knowing that I had a connection to my family, seeing them now taking the train out of Grand Central, knowing that my dad commuted in—and still does—into New York to work, it has an interesting meaning,” he said. “It’s a gateway for people coming from out of the city in, it’s a gateway for people to get away, and it’s a gateway for people to, like, sell their wares. You know, Apple has a store there.”
Off-Peak’s station is filled with artisan vendors; a guy with a rolling pizza oven, a vinyl record seller with a meticulously curated collection, a Ramen chef who compares his bowls to a symphony in a lengthy monologue. People speak to you and chat with one another. Giant humans from a resident circus sit listlessly at a piano or drink at the bar, playing board games. The station is not crowded, and it’s much larger than life, but that makes it feel more grandiose than empty. Ads for craft beers—Heffernan’s nod to a friend’s obsession—adorn every wall, alongside countless other knick-knacks, signs and sights. The giant blue whale from NYC’s Museum of Natural History hangs from the ceiling for some reason. It’s a cacophony. Heffernan said designing it was “like making a DJ mix, or making a collage of influences.”
The meaning of all this is up for interpretation. “A lot of it was just, like, taking things in my life that are really important—or at least that I cared about, that I wanted to celebrate in this space,” Heffernan said. And that’s exactly it: Off-Peak is a curated journey through a few corners of the designer’s mind. This is the one thing that’s spelled out quite literally in the game: the station’s manager, a mysterious and powerful man named Marcus, is himself a curator. He oversees the vendors and installations in his domain with an eye for detail and a heavy hand; a dark current runs under most of the game’s interactions, its characters universally angry with Marcus or afraid of pissing him off.
Everyone except the busker outside—the one who offers you the quest to find his ticket. “He loves it. He doesn’t want to leave. He’s sort of attached to that place,” Heffernan said. He, too, is attached to it. “There’s still adventure there,” he said. “The train station is definitely a place of possibility.”
Off-Peak is available for free at cosmoddd.itch.io/off-peak.