Tales From Off-Peak City & My Love Of Small Videogame Places
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It's my contention that the dominant logic in videogames about how to make virtual places feel real is terribly misguided. Sprawling open-worlds of ever greater size and density are underpinned by the idea that the more we stuff in, the more real a place will feel. To make a city that feels like a real city, we have to build a whole city. We have to let people see that it's all there. That's how they will know it's real.
But does this really correspond to the way most of us experience the places we live in? It's great that you can drive across the length and breadth of Los Santos in GTA V, or spend hours cruising through the different districts of Cyberpunk 2077's vast Night City, but is that how you experience the place that you live in? Do you constantly criss-cross it, driving from one side to another? If you live in a big city like London, or Berlin, or New York, have you seen it all?
Most of us experience cities in pieces. You probably spend most of your time in a couple of hubs. Perhaps the area around where you live, and the area around where you work. Sure, you know other places and you visit them, but your day to day experience of a place is limited to relatively confined areas. Places you know well. Places that you spend time in. Places that feel like home.
That's one of the many reasons I find myself attracted to games set in small worlds: the tiny slice of Barcelona you can see from your balcony in The Flower Collectors; the small portion of the district of Martinaise we are allowed to explore in Disco Elysium; and the place that inspired me to write this after recently playing it, the corner of July Avenue and Yam Street in Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1.
Tales From Off-Peak City is a surreal adventure game where some odd people in a boat ask you to steal a saxophone. You get a job on the corner of July and Yam, making pizzas to fulfill opaque orders like, "study the form, embrace the formation". You then deliver the pizzas to the locals, giving the game a means to introduce you to July Avenue and Yam Street, the people that live there, and what's going on in this tiny little world.
I tend to find small places like this both more convincing and more more compelling that gigantic city-wide open worlds. Now, I'm aware that calling a world where houses speak, gigantic dog heads with glowing blue eyes loom over fences, and customers give you long philosophical musings about the ratio of flamingo meat and brains on their pizza, "convincing" might sound counter-intuitive. But of course, I don't mean that it is literally convincing in that sense that this is a place I believe could literally exist in the real world. What I mean is that the scale of the game allows you to relate to it in a way that has a kind of truth to it.
Small worlds like this offer us a slice of a place, just like the real slices that we spend our time in. Their totality is not beyond conception -- we have the capacity to really get to know them. They do not preclude the possibility of engaging with processes and forces beyond their bounds, showing us the impacts of those processes and forces at the ground level in a way that can often make them more readable. We are able to see what kind of community inhabits these places, what the people are like, and what relationships they have with each other and the environment you are exploring. Unlike the swathes of humanity that cross our paths in a GTA game, that those games and others tend to encourage us to view as worthless fodder for our amusement, every person matters when you are exploring a small world. You are more likely to be allowed the time and space to find out who they are, what they know, what they mean to others, what they did, what they are doing, what they want.
That's not to say that games set in small places are necessarily more concerned with creating "real" people. Off-Peak City's characters certainly have elements about them that are relatable (once you've scratched through the oddball exterior) but they have a element of excess that makes it hard to imagine meeting them in your day to day life. They often feel more like caricatures or concepts. Still, I feel invested in what these people are up to, what is happening and has happened to them, or, at least, what they are supposed to mean.
I think that might perhaps be in part because I feel like I matter less in a game like Tales From Off-Peak City. Our instinct might be to assume that we should feel less important in a game like GTA, where we are surrounded by crowds that bring our insignificance into focus, but we all know that the idea that you are anything but the Most Important Person in a GTA game is ridiculous. On the corner of July Avenue and Yam Street, where the few people that live there are allowed to express at least something of themselves, where its clear that I am entering a community of people that already know each other and their surroundings, I can't help but feel like what they have to offer is of more importance.
In writing this, I'm very aware that I've jumbled up generalisations about what small worlds do with the some of the specificities of what Tales From Off-Peak City does. I don't think it would be worth the effort to try and untangle these again - some of the things I've been talking about exist in different intensities in different games, some manifest in different ways, or not at all. My hope is that a sense of what makes small videogame worlds (and this game) appealing to me emerges nonetheless.
Still, I'll end with a broad statement that I think sums it up as best I can. I feel like small worlds like this one are invested in me interpreting them; big open worlds feel more concerned with me being fooled by their illusion. For me, that act of interpretation is a far more effective way of making the world tangible.