When I was 20, a night out at the club was the highlight of my week, especially when there was a DJ playing that I especially loved. I don’t mean one of those giant Ministry of Sound super clubs where you needed a map to find the bathroom. I’m talking about a small, humble neighborhood club with appropriate watery drinks, cool dark alcoves, and a tiny dance floor where you could make your way to a higher state of consciousness amid a throbbing constellation of moving bodies. Haven’t done that in decades, but tonight I’m bringing it all back for a night out in Off-Peak City – a surreal metropolis full of anthropomorphic brownstones, hallucinogenic puddles and some urgent business at the inimitable Club Low.
The mastermind behind the Off-Peak universe is composer/musician and game designer Cosmo D, who creates brilliantly eccentric narrative adventures centered around music, performance and old-fashioned capitalism. The games can be played individually, but they are all connected branches of a much bigger and stranger tree; The Norwood Suite (2017) remains a personal favorite for the way it blends the mundane with the tantalizing mythology of Off-Peak, and Betrayal at Club Low is no different tonally and thematically. But as a story-driven dice game (the first time the Off-Peak world has embraced such a drastically different mechanic) Cosmo D has wisely tapped into the insatiable lizard brain of my long-slumbering inner club kid – after my first playthrough I’m experiencing the invincible high of a successful night out and immediately want more.
I play a humble pizzaiolo spy who works for The Circus, an enigmatic intelligence agency. In this world, pizza is a cultural cornerstone that commands serious respect and craftsmanship. My caustic handler Murial appears with a mission: to infiltrate Club Low and rescue a fellow cop from a local thug, Big Mo, who appeared in 2020’s Tales From Off-Peak City. Betrayal continues Tales’ covert-operative-as-pizzaiolo thread, but where previous games were structured more like exploratory point-and-click vignettes, this one is more of a study of strategy and social engineering.
Tonight is all about cooking “pizza dice” with different toppings in conveniently placed ovens. Some toppings are multipliers that increase the number of tips I get when I hand out pizza, some replenish my energy and nerve pathways, and others manipulate my opponent’s dice. Cash goes towards strengthening skills such as Observation, Wisdom, and White, which are reflected in my skill dice. The dice are my only friends in a club full of people with their own private agendas. I realize on my second run that the game leans towards Deception, Physique and Music as the most useful skills, at least on the “Typical Thursday” and “Wild Night Out” difficulties.
Each action includes ability dice and fitness dice. For example, dumpster diving with Observation triggers a roll for the obviously useless “Smelling Like The City” state, which will adversely affect my next roll. A failed roll can lead to “Thrown-Off” – a nerve debuff that can be a death sentence if I’m already low on guts. I could eventually strengthen my opponent by making them suspicious. By using the right conditions, like Clever or Zoned In, I can overcome an otherwise formidable foe. (In general, if you’ve played enough dicey board/video games, the dice are pretty intuitive.)
How Betrayal at Club Low transcends into another dimension lies in what I can only describe as psychological witchcraft on the part of Cosmo D, who as a musician knows exactly how to handle a crowd (or in this case a player). My options for getting into the club evoke a full spectrum of recognizable public fears, from cutting the line to rushing the doorman. Who among us hasn’t tried to make our way to a place where they shouldn’t be? Plus, it’s not just your average night out at Club Low – the extremely popular DJ Chad Blueprint (heir to the legendary DJ Bogart of The Norwood Suite) is behind the turntables and people are eager to get in. There’s all sorts of wonderful personal baggage coming into play – I’m a terrible dancer, so it was somewhat satisfying to use my dance to make people so uncomfortable that they were willing to completely avoid me (which, of course, also led to a series of cringy personal memories of the club from the late 90s/00s nights).
This is very much a game about gambling with endorphins and the endless euphoria of getting away with shenanigans, which fits perfectly with the essence of dice games. It reminds me not only of clownish things I used to do to sneak into console rooms or VIP sections, but the sense of invincibility embodied in lame movies like Doug Liman’s excellent club/crime caper, Go, which came out in 1999 with a equally iconic soundtrack. Even when things went so terribly wrong, there was always the possibility that something went right. Bouncing back from blunders and mistakes is one of the most redeeming tropes in a social club setting, when the uneasy outlier finally gets their moment in the proverbial sun (of course we never see the light of day in these strictly nighttime games). This is to say that there will always be a Chad Blueprint, but armed with the right knowledge and skills, even a pizzaiolo like me can knock him out.
Club Low itself is a beautiful microcosm of entertainment capitalism, continuing Cosmo D’s long tradition of breaking through the material costs of living. This isn’t just about having “fun” but a whole subclass of people who live at night to work, take multiple jobs and work behind the scenes to keep an institution like Club Low afloat. . There’s a whole zoo of characters dealing with different scenarios dealing with real-life issues – piracy and smuggling, unscrupulous business contracts, moonlight, lack of fair labor practices are just a few. The chef is concerned about her flamingo stew—it must be worthy of Big Mo’s discerning palate—and health code violations; the manager, Kathleen, displays classic brain teasers as she ponders anti-labour measures to get the most value out of her subordinates. It’s funny how much effort I put into getting into Club Low, but it turns out that most of the staff just want to leave and hang out with their own friends somewhere else.
But where everything really comes together, as it should, is on the tiny dance floor of Club Low, where I make valiant efforts to become one with the animal of the crowd (one of those cases where Physique and Music really come in handy). Cosmo D soundtracks always deliver, and this one is no exception – even through a screen, the sense of communal intimacy and telepathy provided by Cosmo D’s vision of dance is infinitely more powerful than watching an early Boiler Room set. The game’s chaotic momentum syncs up perfectly with every beat, like a conscious undercurrent of sonic motivation reminding me to keep going. When I conquer the dance floor and win my fellow dancers, it leads to perhaps one of the most triumphant moments in the game.
Surfing on my success, I decided to tackle the hardest difficulty in 4am mode, which imbues the NPCs with randomly unpredictable behavior. Normally I wouldn’t torture myself like that, but I’m addicted. The game suggests I go in with a plan, but I throw caution to the wind and keep dividing my skill points and making impulsive decisions. Making money is hard, and every condition is a potential landmine. I also only have a small amount of energy and nerve – 3 of each – meaning any dangerous situation (e.g. a throw that inflicts -4 nerve) could spell my demise. Progress is incremental and energy suddenly becomes a much bigger issue than in previous games. Any debuff roll of my opponent can make me forget. I lick it all up like a masochist – this is going out at its most demented.
Betrayal at Club Low has been one of my favorite games this year and one of my favorite Cosmo D games to date. There’s something oddly comforting about seeing the signature Off-Peak landmarks and architecture, like seeing an old friend who’s managed to pick up some delicious new tricks. My next personal challenge is to try the Iron Pizza mode – sort of an equivalent of permadeath, where I only get one save file, where I definitely need to think a bit more about strategy and skill distribution. But in my own great tradition of crazy spontaneity when it comes to the art of going out — well, at least when I used to go out – what would be the fun in?