Don’t expect high scores or top 40 hits in this jazz-fueled adventure.
Music games tend to be fast-paced and twitch driven. Songs or techno rythms play in the background while your fingers or feet punch in buttons in intricate patterns dictated by what scrolls past on the TV screen. That’s the premise of games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and DDR that flourished in the 2000s. Even games like the Bit.Trip series and Rez are predicated on music as high-octane action rather than some other experience.
Off-Peak came out two years ago though and offered something different: an experimental journey through a train station and its conspiratorial underpinnings guided by the ebb and flow of a pulsing instrumental arrangements. Created by musician and designer Cosmo D, it had the advantage of an outsider’s take, letting someone unencumbered by the rules and expectations associated with gaming take a 3D canvas approximating the look and feel of Second Life and pump it full of surreal musings and discoveries. If you’ve never played or seen Off-Peak, think of someone designing a game based off of a collection of random, de-contextualized snippets of Lets Plays.
But where that project was something like a DJ remix, Cosmo D likens his latest game,The Norwood Suite, to a jazz piece. In an email, he said the musical inspiration behind it can be traced back to the work of John Zorn, the composer and saxophonist who invigorated the New York music scene with his avant-garde approach starting in the 70s. “On numerous occasions back in the early-mid 2000s, I found myself going to see John Zorn’s Masada String Trio back at the now-defunct Tonic, a jazz club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” said Cosmo. The group was known for performing the Masada Songbook, an every growing body of hundreds of small fragments of music written by Zorn that are melodic but technically challenging, and which allow the individual musicians room to experiment and surprise one another.
“You can program about ten of them in a single night and the audience would leave happy,” said Cosmo. “While the musicians are onstage performing, Zorn also sits there, back to the audience, conducting, cajoling and generally trying to get a rise out of his players, keeping the ship just on the edge of tilting.” Seeing Zorn, and Cosmo’s cellist mentor, Erik Friedlander, performing at the level left an impression on him, one he ended up wanting to tap into for his new game.“There’s a certain reflection of Zorn and his world in the way I sketched my characters in The Norwood Suite,” he said. “There’s elements of other musicians I’ve known in there, too, but Zorn definitely was on my mind when I conceived of the backstory for the Hotel, as well as the story of Norwood.”
So what is The Norwood Suite exactly? Like Off-Peak, it’s hard to pin down and lends itself more to a particular mood it evokes rather than specific game mechanics or end goals. It trades the comings and goings of a train station for the community accommodations of a hotel but keeps the general mix of both curiosity and foreboding. You’ll walk around, talk to guests, and open doors to see what’s hidden behind them all while Cosmo’s self-composed soundtrack permeates the world (it’s really good).
I asked the creator if he felt Norwood lent itself to being grouped with a particular strain of other alternative games, an experiential walking sim, for instance, or a puzzle driven absurdity like Jazzpunk. “Oikospiel is a particularly strong reference that I feel very simpatico with,” he said. Created by the composer for Proteus, Oikospiel is a collage of video game references and glitched-out animal scenes surrounding the story of some dogs who have been selected to write an opera. “David Kanaga’s got a music background like me, and he’s using games to channel darker, weightier ideas through the surreal and abstract. While his game plays mechanically differently to mine, and emphasizes his topics from an (awesomely) distinct angle, I think we’re both taking on serious subjects with a shared sense of curiosity and playfulness.”
And while based on the trailers alone Norwood might seem like Off-Peak part two, where it varies in style and the musical designs that inspired it, it also varies in length. Cosmo spent about two years honing Norwood, a period filled with late nights spent trying to organize and figure out the best way to implement his somewhat esoteric ideas.
“What was also different was the degree of outside influence I had earlier on with Norwood,” said Cosmo. “In the beginning, I was working on my own. About a year in, I got to work with the NYU Game Center Incubator, which helped me answer a lot of game design questions I had dealing with level design, game structure and implementation of text and music in the game. After the Incubator wound down, I was on my own again working mostly out of the library of a nearby art college in my neighborhood.”
While his nights spent listening to Zorn’s group at the Tonic a decade ago provided the musical mood and setting for the game, his time simply walking down streets in his New York neighborhood have provided a more specific one-to-one correlation for the experience of actually playing the game,
“Living where I do absolutely had an impact on the look, the tone and the overall attitude of the game. You walk down a street in my neighborhood and can immediately see hundreds of years of overlapping architectural, social, and cultural history. It hits you in the face. Stories unfold even in a passing glance, an overheard conversation. Living in the midst of this was something I wanted to channel into the ‘feel’ of playing the Norwood Suite, where you could eavesdrop on characters and learn about their world, indirectly, through observation or exploring their rooms.”
The ever shifting nature of the place helps what he calls the “surprise of the new” exist alongside the “satisfaction of coming back to a familiar place.” While at first glance Norwood might seem pedestrian enough—mysterious hotel, quirky NPCs, a confused player—Cosmo hopes that in the end people will find layers beneath the game’s appearance that take them to a much stranger place.
The Norwood Suite will be released on PC through Steam and Itch.io on October 2.