There was a magazine in the mid-90s called CD-ROM Today that I had a subscription to for a few years in middle school–thanks, Mom and Dad. Its biggest gimmick was The Disc. “The Disc” was always capitalized because it was a holy object according to the magazine’s marketing department. The Disc was a disc of demos for the various games and stuff that were covered, and to a nerdy middle school kid–well, you know exactly how awesome it was. Like all demo discs and shareware CDs, I played and replayed a ton of games, ones I’d probably never end up playing the full version of, which only made these little glimpses more enticing.
“Print magazine devoted to a media format and centered around a demo disc”–man, the things that existed in the 90s. But it cannot be overstated how much of a change CD-ROM was. The Digital Antiquarian has written a ton on the subject; here is a fine place to start. But in short, the amount of space afforded by CDs was comparatively limitless (close to 500 times more than floppy disks!) and that was so exciting. I remember one issue with a couple paragraphs about a release of Night of the Living Dead on CD-ROM–like, not a review of the movie or anything, the novelty was explicitly that you could watch a movie on your computer–wow!
CD-ROM Today’s tastes tended to bend towards the artsy, but in many ways, everything was a little experimental. The more avant-garde, the most of the technology there was to show off. Myst may or may not be a good game, but no one seriously questions why it was a hit, why it sold CD drives. Nothing else looked like it, and it couldn’t have been done on a floppy. You probably couldn’t have even fit the intro sequence on one. The increased space felt limitless, and when developer ambitions naturally grew larger than 650 MB, they could always add another disc or two. Roberta Williams once used seven.
This was something that obviously attracted a lot of new artists and designers, but the possibilities excited a lot of established ones. Bands like The Rolling Stones took the obvious step and released archive CD-ROMs, taking advantage of the space to put in music and photos and videos and any information a fan could ever want. Avant-garde, technically-minded artists like Laurie Anderson and The Residents released weird game-like things. Bands like Primus and even fucking Queensryche got into the action. It was kind of the next evolution of music videos. I wish I had been old enough and cool enough to have really responded to that; I didn’t get into music until a couple years later, at which point I already probably couldn’t have found a copy of Bad Day on the Midway even if I’d remembered it.
Off-Peak is a walking sim in that tradition. You are in a dreamy train station with art and weird shit around while the music of a band called Archie Pelago plays, and it is beautiful. There’s a little framing quest where you’re trying to find pieces of a ticket, a structure added largely to make sure you go to the various corners and see most of what’s on display. There’s suggestions of some kind of struggle between the man who runs the train station and some weird mystical circus, and maybe some people are resisting the owner’s power, and there’s giants or something, and in the end events happen and you’re swept away, possibly to one of the developer’s followup games, but it doesn’t matter, because this is just a little dream and the elements aren’t narrative but semiotic.
See, like, I don’t really enjoy most walking sims–or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days–because, well, Dear Esther is walking slowly through an admittedly pretty landscape while someone just monologues at you. I have less and less patience for long bits of speech in games, particularly if it doesn’t add up to anything. Up till Off-Peak, the best game like this I’d played was Jazzpunk, which was a series of gags. Off-Peak is quiet–its dialogue is all text, more about the rhythms of conversation than any actual literal meaning–and it doesn’t really expect you to make sense of it. I’m sure there are explainer videos that all miss the point.
Off-Peak doesn’t really expect us to talk about Judy, though, and I love it for that. It is a liminal space where you exist in for a time and wander around and look at things and take it in. No train station is this self-consciously, deliberately beautiful, but I also spent a lot of time in New York, and some stations are things of grandeur. Many have art displays and interesting shops and are an ecosystem to themselves. I have been drunk or high countless times waiting for a train, on occasion for hours because I missed the last train and have to wait for five hours for the next one, and I have sometimes appreciated the transitional environment. And when I first moved to Portland, I worked at a coffee kiosk at Gateway Transit Center, which is not a thing of grandeur, and it was a weird, liminal space with weird, liminal people all around.
I don’t find myself in train stations anymore. I don’t take trains anymore even when I’m not social distancing. But the world itself feels like one gigantic liminal space. It has not felt safe or welcoming. It is a place where I worry and wait until it is time to go home. There are weird forces in Off-Peak, and not everybody has your best interests at heart. But it is inviting, and welcoming, and as comforting as it can be. You can’t stay there forever. All dreams have to come to an end. This is, in a way, just a demo–a little glimpse. You’ve got to move on, probably to the next game The Norwood Suite. But in the meantime, your train isn’t leaving yet. You might as well look around.