Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1
For the last few years Cosmo D has been crafting some of the most distinctive worlds in the video game medium. These are places both dreamlike and familiar, where player curiosity is continually rewarded. We spoke with Cosmo D about their latest game, Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1...
Pixel Primers: It was an interesting experience playing Tales from Off Peak City Vol 1 in 2020, as the sense of neighborhood and location that the game evokes has been harder to access in the real world. Despite the surrealism, the streets of the game still carry a feeling of authenticity. How do you go about creating a sense of location in your games?
Cosmo D: I think for me it's a mix of literally walking around the block in my neighborhood and looking closely at the buildings I see, picking up all the details of their architecture. A lot of it is Google Street View as well.The canal is inspired by an actual canal in Brooklyn the Gowanus Canal which was notoriously deemed a Superfund Site for its historically bad pollution problems.The cathedral is based on a church near where I live, too.
The authenticity you’re talking about comes from me really enjoying the feeling of “the stroll”. Literally just walking down the street, strolling through the neighborhood taking in the architectural detail, the history and all the Brooklyn grandeur on offer. I wanted that feeling to come through as you moved through my own digital street corner.
PP: Your games feature some wonderfully dreamlike imagery, and I particularly enjoy the hidden objects and sights you leave for the players to discover. What’s your process for designing the imagery in your games?
Cosmo D: I start with the basic shapes, very rough outlines, “greyboxing” in level design terms. Then I slowly work over those shapes again and again until I get something I’m satisfied with. Blank grey areas become rooms. Those rooms get furniture. The furniture gets interactivity. Floors become textures. Textures get decals. Everything gets lighting. The entire scene gets post-processing via a camera effect. It’s all layers. The buildings themselves get ‘tweaked and pulled’ in a 3d editor. Their building faces get rain-soaked textures to simulate rain aging each building.
And if something needs to change mid-way through the process and that involves a lot of re-doing a section of the map from the beginning, so be it. As ever, I leave room for spontaneous detail, or flourish, simply to show that not everything is so laborious, It’s all part of the drama of creation for me - the duality between the slow and steady, spiked with the fast and improvised.
PP: Do you feel that your background as a musician influences your creative process as a game designer? And do you feel there are any important differences in the way the two mediums force you to work?
Cosmo D: Artistically, cello playing taught me to be expressive and emotionally truthful as part of my practice. To make it in the business required discipline, and a no-nonsense, problem solving attitude. A head-down-in-the-practice-room mentality.
Game development isn’t dissimilar, but it can definitely be less social, since much of the music work I did was with bands or music writing partners. But playtesting my game is where that element of collective work comes back. Playtesting is a collaborative performance again.
The scope and pace of my games is not unlike a piece of music - digestible in an evening, with dramatic arcs that rise and fall. Abstract, open to player interpretation.
That said, with music I found myself running into a lot of the same sorts of challenges - how to finish this song, how to play this phrase on the cello, how to mix this oboe alongside this SFX of a cat, how to get my cello to be heard on-stage while the drummer slams at the crash cymbal.
Game development asked many of those things from me as well (minus the live drummer), and then added actual logic programming, user-experience, systems-design, narrative and visual challenges to the mix. I soon embraced all those new challenges, too. It took years, but I folded my past practice into my current one. The challenges evolve, but my work methodologies remain.
PP: Your work has really embraced some of the more expressive possibilities of sound design. What role does sound play in Tales from Off Peak City?
Cosmo D: If you play my games on mute, I think a lot of their impact is blunted. The visuals get you there part of the way, but the music and sound were always intended to seal the deal. I try to use my games to show how meaningful sound can be if we let ourselves really slow down and listen to it. Much of the street in my game has very little going on, but if you move close to a doorway, you hear sounds inside buildings. It lets your imagination fill in the gaps of what’s happening in this world.
Because you, the player, took the time to explore, you are rewarded with some otherwise-unknown sound. It might convey emotions that can’t be articulated any other way, and if you’re feeling those emotions, great. You discovered them - you have agency over them. You might spatially move away from the sound source and it's gone - so your feelings shift too, maybe.
PP: I’ve seen your games described as ‘one of a kind’ in more than a few places, but are there other games you find yourself particularly drawing inspiration from?
Cosmo D: Great games draw inspiration from everywhere, so I seek to emulate them by taking inspiration from everywhere, too.
Specifically, I draw inspiration from personal experience, other mediums, film, music, TV, books, food, board games, people I know, and living in Brooklyn. Reflecting on my past as a musician and the people I’ve met in that world and now the games world - that’s what it’s about for me.
Recent media that’s inspired me hasincluded Babylon Berlin (tv), Rosewater (book), and Kilchhoffer’s Book Room (album).
That’s not to say I’m not looking at games, too - Disco Elysium was a big recent inspiration for me, and a validation of a lot of things I felt were missing in the games discourse. I’ve always had a taste for western RPGs, and more recently tabletop RPGs. I’m glad to see Disco, which draws from those genres with such stark originality, having such success.
There are a lot of other games I check out, mainly to study or analyze, often at a remove. The Yakuza games for how they simulate city streets, the Soulslikes for the way they handle shortcuts and level flow, Paratopic for its atmosphere and world-building. But in all these cases, at some point I’ll just turn my dev brain off and lose myself in those wild worlds.
How I manage to translate all of this into my own games is somewhat of a mystery to me. I build the vision piece by piece, leaving room for spontaneous gestures, and just trust and enjoy the windy process of it all.
Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1 is available now on PC. You can hear and purchase the game's soundtrack at cosmoddd.bandcamp.com/