Jazz meets voyeurism in Cosmo D’s phantasmagorical The Norwood Suite

We talked to indie game developer Cosmo D about making games from musical structures

Thomas McMullan
22 Sep 2017
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Cosmo D’s 2015 game Off-Peak was a screwball piece of set design, taking bits and pieces from its creator’s experience of New York and shooting them through a superconductor. It plays like a surreal collage, held within a vast train station of talking mannequins.

Now, Cosmo D (real name Greg Heffernan), is readying a follow-up. Titled The Norwood Suite, and set for release on 2 October, this second instalment has the same look as Off-Peak; like a bad dream in Second Life, but this time around, the player is in a labyrinthine hotel, poking around, peering at lives that aren’t their own. Also like Off-Peak, it has a jazzy soundtrack.

This is because, in addition to his life as a game developer, Heffernan is a classically trained cellist. His Facebook explains he likes “makin games, music and exploring the space in between”. But what is this space in between? We thought we’d ask Heffernan himself.

What was the initial impetus behind The Norwood Suite?

It was a response to my last game, Off-Peak. I was asking myself: “How can I take the feeling and experience I hit upon in that game and make it deeper, broader and richer. How can I attempt to build upon that foundation?” The setting was inspired by some of the more bucolic geography outside of New York, like the Catskills, but also by places like the old Hotel Chelsea, with its sordid past and cast of rogues who stayed there over the years.

You’re a musician as well as a games developer. Are there any similarities between game design and musical composition?

I think the impetus to make and create stuff, whether it’s games or music, must come from the same part of the brain.

Game design, to me, feels like writing a non-linear visual novel in 3D, based on music. Music is still that driving impetus, and informs the writing, graphical design, level design. I think, because I started from a music-first/vibe-first approach with my work, the similarities between game design and music composition are apparent in the structure of the game – its length, its use of foreshadowing, its "open" section for players to improvise their path, its sense of repeating themes, variation, and ultimate resolution.

While many game developers turn to film, do you think there’s more scope for designers to look to musical structures for inspiration?

"The Norwood Suite is structured like a long-form jazz piece"

Off-Peak was a collage game, partially inspired by DJ mixes and the curatorial nature of how musicians "select" and curate for the entertainment of others. The Norwood Suite is structured more like a long-form jazz piece – you have a "head", or melody, which states the theme and intent, an "open" section where the players can improvise and explore their own way, then you go back to the head and move towards the resolution.

I’m personally drawn to musical structures because it’s what I know and it’s something I have a deep connection to. If other designers are inspired to embrace more musical structure in their games, great!

Why did you decide to structure The Norwood Suite around the tropes of adventure games?

This was based partially on the fact I was building on the gameplay foundations of Off-Peak, and partially because adventure-game mechanics were within the scope of my technical abilities as a solo designer.

That said, I think Norwood Suite is an adventure game in that it really emphasises the "adventure". It’s about exploration, flow and discovery. It's neither completely transparent nor totally obscure in its challenge – it finds its own way.

Do you get a sense it’s becoming difficult for indie developers to find an audience for their games in an increasingly crowded marketplace?

The difficulty of standing out is a challenge in any creative field. That’s why I’ve aimed to make my games 100% true to who I am and express myself exactly how I want, without compromise. In doing that, I feel good, and I can only hope that my truth resonates with others.

How do you want a player to feel after they’ve come away from The Norwood Suite?

I want players to feel surprised, uncertain, maybe a bit shocked, uncomfortable, intrigued, yet ultimately entertained. I want them to swear at their monitor. I want them to scream, maybe laugh. I want them to ruminate with their mates afterwards about the experience. I want them to feel like if they played again, they could catch things they might have missed the first time… clues that revealed what it’s all pointing towards. That’s my hope, anyway. Then they can put on the soundtrack and properly unwind.

The Norwood Suite will be available on Steam from 2 October for £7.

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