Above: a screenshot from 'Off-Peak', courtesy of Cosmo D
As he waits for a train, presumably to take him home after a hard day of work, a businessman dances in the light of the setting sun. His flailing movements, at odds with his surroundings, and the pragmatism of his outfit, hint at Off-Peak's genesis. Inspired by public transit hubs and performance spaces all across North America, but particularly New York City's Grand Central train station, the game explores an intersection between art and commerce.
Cosmo D, real name Greg Heffernan, is its creator. A classically trained cellist, member of the three-piece electronic music group Archie Pelago and 33-year New York resident, Heffernan has observed, over the past five to ten years, the metropolitan art scene drastically change.
Genres have died. Artists have moved on. Corporate interests have snapped up the best and most marketable work. This isn't unusual, Heffernan insists. On the contrary, as one gets older, money and art become entwined—going to work, providing for yourself and your family, is its own kind of dance.
Off-Peak and Saturn V, his current games, and a prospective third, The Norwood Suite, reflect this experience. In everyday places—a bar, a train station, a hotel—sights, sounds and conversations from Heffernan's life coalesce. Artwork is everywhere in his games. At the same time, they function and flow with workmanlike precision. You are encouraged to wander and ruminate, but every room, particularly in Off-Peak, houses a new idea. A graceful marriage of head and heart, in Heffernan's games, practicalities of the form inspire greater introspection, and vice-versa.
"The train station is a place where you can go to get somewhere else," explains Heffernan. "But it's also a place where people arrive to make money, or to make money off of people who make money. Whether you're a food vendor or a retailer or a performer, transportation hubs are a flashpoint for commerce.
"In New York, people play music in the subway and, come what may, they have their spots. But there is an organized program. You think it would be this natural, joyous thing, playing in public, but there's a whole system: you have to audition for the best spots.
"But then, why does free, open performance have to be the endgame for art? Shouldn't the endgame be some kind of comfortable life? You want to be able to support and provide. As I've gotten older, I've seen that sense of youth and idealism, doing it for the love, transition into doing it for yourself and yours."
"The 'a-ha' moment was when I opened up Playmaker. I thought, 'What have I been doing for 12 years?'"
After leaving university, Heffernan made his career first as a gigging musician, later as a composer for television commercials. Archie Pelago, meanwhile, became a stalwart of New York's electronic dance music scene. It was only in his 30s, and via some surprising personal circumstances, that Heffernan began working on games.
"About three years ago, as Archie was working the electronic music space in New York, I had a leg injury that required many weeks of convalescence," he explains. "It was in that time, when I was deep into all this music editing software, that I decided to try my hand at some game making tools.
"I discovered something called Playmaker and it kind of reminded me of MaxMSP, an audio-visual environment. It reminded me as well of chaining sounds together—I could see similarities between it and game scripting software. The 'a-ha' moment was when I opened up Playmaker's list of actions, things like 'move this' or 'change the variable of that'. That's when I got it. It re-framed everything. I thought, 'What have I been doing for 12 years?'"
Arriving late to games gave Heffernan alternate, distinctive insights. Both Saturn V and Off-Peak betray a maturity and a breadth of experience rarely seen in video games.
Conversations in Heffernan's games are heartfelt and true. Surroundings, though abstracted through his particular style of drawing, are plucked from real-life.
Off-Peak especially deals in the day-to-day; where so many games address what it means to be a person, Heffernan writes about what being a person is like. People have needs. People have dreams. Gradually, however, they learn to balance themselves with the world and situation around them.
At the heart of Heffernan's work lies a brutal but optimistic honesty: though straining to be heard, everybody in Off-Peak is also trying to remain true to themselves.
"In Off-Peak, a blue-suited gentleman is conversing with a random woman while they play a game," Heffernan explains. "If you listen, he's trying to convince her to come with him on a train to outside of the city, but she's unsure. She's a student. She has her own thing going on.
"It's one of the moments in the game where you have two perspectives coming together and trying to relate to one another. These two people, there is clearly an attraction but also a tension. That's what I wanted with Off-Peak, to convey a general sense of—I don't think ambiguity is the right word—but looking at things as clearly as I could."
"Off-Peak was rumination and lots of vignettes. With The Norwood Suite, I'm digging deeper."
As well as filling his games with, as he terms them, "things I like and things my friends like," Heffernan is naturally preoccupied with music. Archie Pelago has provided the score for all of his games, and The Norwood Suite is named for a fictional musician whose mysterious disappearance sparks a clashing of interests over his former estate.
"Off-Peak was rumination and lots of vignettes," Heffernan explains. "Here, I'm digging deeper, and the narrative is a lot more intentional.
"Before, the building you're in was a hotel, it was a mansion, owned by world-renowned piano player called Peter Norwood. He's a kind of a Glenn Gould figure, a cult of personality, a strange character. He held court in this house. This is where he retreated from his gallivanting around the world. But that was generations ago. And then he vanishes.
"The grounds are turned into a hotel and it becomes an outpost for artists and people trying to get by. It's like the Hotel Chelsea in New York, where you get all these people and freaks living there, off the beaten track. You'll experience a lot of people from different facets, all clashing at this one point in time."
"I like space that feels haunted," Heffernan continues. "If you look at Grand Central in a certain light, it's like that. So are old hotels. Spaces that feel like something has happened in them, even if nobody's there. Music does a great job of amplifying that sense of being haunted. Music in addition to a space creates a sense of the inward and something unsettled."
The bar in Saturn V is familiar—cans of Red Bull stand on a table, aside a box for the board game Pandemic—but also, since it's orbiting the eponymous planet, thousands of miles from Earth, chilly and distant. Off-Peak's station is lustrous and warm, but lilted with sadness and a kind of slow decay. The artists are hustling, but you get the sense that, without their knowledge, they're all being played by the system.
"Where do you think they keep the Norwood Études?" asks a character in The Norwood Suite. "Behind glass, man," comes the reply. Beauty and truth pervade Heffernan's games, but they are both mitigated and framed. Expression isn't self-sustaining. Money isn't poison. Everybody you meet has the potential to surprise you.
Rather than polemics—rather than make games about big ideas, like existentialism, nature, grief—Heffernan concentrates on moments and people. The sheer volume of words, faces and shared ideas is what makes his games so colorful.
A glanced painting here, a snatch of conversation there. In a contained, eminently playable environment, Heffernan captures the noise of a city. The details are up to you to interpret, but just experiencing these small pockets of modern life feels like learning. More than any of its contemporaries, Off-Peak makes you feel as if you've met new people, and travelled to a place you'd never been before.
"I want to say things about the city I live in, the people in my life and things I've seen."
"I want to say things about the city I live in, the people in my life and things I've seen," concludes Heffernan. "I should be saying things I feel and things I care about. That's where Off-Peak came from, the discovery of a wider creative bandwidth and all the sloppiness and messiness that came from me doing it for the first time.
"I was in the orbit of electronic dance music but the community was changing. The market was changing. And it made me reflect on this wider sense of artists and musicians and how they navigate working in a space like a city.
"You know, venues die. Scenes die. It can happen because of external, uncontrollable circumstances, but that's fine. That's part of life. But who do we call at night and ask, 'How is your day?' That's what I want to communicate in these games, people finding common or uncommon ground, people relating to one another."