Night School Studios follows on its excellent work in Oxenfree with this touching look at the absurdity of life and video games.
What if Hell were really just a place like any other? The idea behind Afterparty seems ludicrous at first, but the more you think about it, the more plausible it seems. Here, humans and demons meet up in bars during their off-hours, unwinding with a nice glass of colourful acid before returning to a long day of torture. It's another world with a touch of the familiar - like putting Starbucks on the moon.
Fittingly, the first thing best friends Milo and Lola see of Hell is a sports bar populated by demons. The pair soon realise they're dead, with no memory as to how they died or why they ended up in the fiery pit in the first place. Being late for their torture assignments provides the two with a chance to escape the Underworld unharmed - apparently all anyone ever does in Hell after hours is party, and Satan more so than any of them. Outdrinking the Dark Lord thus becomes the name of the game.
Just as developer Night Moon Studio's previous game Oxenfree wasn't just about escaping a haunted island, Afterparty isn't just about drinking demons under the table. It's the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice turned on its head - to escape, the heroes have to take an uncomfortably close look at themselves and each other.
What begins as a laugh-out-loud funny examination of the inherent awkwardness of partying with strangers slowly made me shiver with unease as Milo and Lola are confronted with their fears and inadequacies. Through all that, Afterparty chips away at the fourth wall, making you uncomfortably aware of how games tend to reward you for losing your inhibitions and doing terrible things in the name of winning and completing the quest. It's an approach that works well, but it can be a bit too on the nose, especially when towards the end, the game really starts pushing for you to reach the good ending by breaking its own rules.
I have a hard time deciding whether or not I'm glad that drinking and social media don't have as big of an impact on gameplay as I initially assumed. At each bar you visit you pick from a selection of various drinks. Being drunk unlocks an extra dialogue option, but what drink you pick doesn't matter, and often enough you get by without acting out, though it sure is awkward fun to let alcohol turn your characters into pirates or a raging psychos. Bicker, Hell's version of Twitter, is also mostly there for flavour, in all of its hashtag-filled glory. Hell is a lush cross between the rocky, lava-filled place we so often imagine it to be and a neon-coloured theme park fever dream. Each of the suburbs and bars you get to visit is full of character, and I often found myself stopping just to stare a bit.
This is a narrative adventure first and foremost, even though I spy an effort to introduce some variety with simple drinking games such as a dance off and beer pong. Each character feels vibrant and real thanks to Night School Studio's knack for natural dialogue, and it's delivered with flair. Controlling both Milo and Lola takes some getting used to, but their dynamic cleverly encourages replaying the game: at certain points in the story you go with either Milo's or Lola's plan, so in order to see the alternate route you should play Afterparty at least once more. It's worth it for the unexplored dialogue options alone.
What I didn't expect was for Afterparty to hit as close to home as it did. For Milo and Lola, Hell is a never-ending party, full of the social cues they could neither seem to escape nor figure out in life. Whereas Milo tried his best to fit in and was just too soft and awkward to escape the bullying and become one of the cool kids, Lola turned standoffish and cynical.
Over the course of Afterparty, the duo's personal demon unearths the various hurts both of them are carrying. Here too, I found the mirror turned against me: the expectation that your life finally begins as an adult, allowing you to blossom from being an awkward nerd to an independent spirit, when really "all you become is depressed and start posting on social media how it's okay to be depressed." The siblings who start asking when it's your turn to marry, and the pressing question in the back of your head of what happens if you don't work this out in time, whatever "this" is. As harsh as the reality Afterparty showed me was, it also made me feel seen and understood. It's marvellous that by simply articulating a problem, the story of two fictional characters made me feel less alone, and that is the biggest compliment I can pay it.
While I love nothing more than Night School Studios' deadpan humour, Afterparty, like Oxenfree before it, really resonates with me in the way it portrays relationships, both between characters and in a wider sense. They take effort, and they can hurt, and sometimes we're all just lonely together, but we're never truly alone and we still have time to figure this out, even if it takes a lot of alcohol to get there.
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