It’s only been five years since Adam Hines and Sean Krankel opened Night School Studio. In that time, the team released the award-winning “Oxenfree,” signed a deal with Skybound to make a movie based on the game, and teamed up with Telltale Games for a “Mr. Robot” tie-in.
The studio’s next title builds on everything the team learned making “Oxenfree” to deliver more supernatural thrills. This time, players will be accompanying a pair of lifelong friends, Milo and Lola, all the way to the depths of Hell. But the underworld isn’t the non-stop torture and terror you might expect.
Instead, demons are merely employees. And if Satan believes in one thing, it’s work-life balance.
“They just graduated college, life is looking up, and then they die horribly in a way that we don’t reveal until later in the game,” Krankel tells Variety. “They find themselves in Hell. They’re not sure why, because their past is pretty foggy, and they’re about to get processed. They’re in the DMV of Hell. They’re standing in line and seeing other people burst into flames and awful things happen to them. Right before they are given their eternal damnation, it’s quitting time for the demons. Because it’s 6 o’clock, the demons stop working and hit the bars.”
Milo and Lola realize they’re in over their heads pretty quickly. They meet up with a taxi driver named Samantha “Sam” Hill, who takes them to the local bar.
Along the way, the new arrivals chat with corpses swinging from their necks above the street, witness a demon vomit on the sidewalk, and see a bouncer toss a human patron out on the street. The latter seems tame until you find out that the drunk has had his stomach removed as punishment for overindulging.
“Afterparty” is an evolution of the dialog system that underpinned “Oxenfree’s” narrative. Night School invested a great deal of effort in refining the narrative structure for its first game, but the team wanted to push things further.
“In Oxenfree, the dialog system was the main thing that really worked,” Krankel explains. “It became the bedrock for this game. What we wanted to do in Oxenfree was make it a more modular, nonlinear type of a story. And we never fully did that in Oxenfree. The story is fairly linear, but the way you interact with it is pretty player-driven. In this case, we not only have a dialog system that allows the player to really tweak things, but the drinking in this game is almost like a roleplaying mechanic on top of dialog. If you go into a bar, and you say, ‘I want to be aggressive’ or ‘I want to be flirty’ or ‘I want to talk like a mobster’ or ‘I want to vomit my conscience up and have it run away so I can have awful dialog choices,’ you can order a drink for that. It’s really a player-driven dialog system. The other thing is that it takes place in whatever order the player wants to do it.”
In the bar, players are separated from Sam, who wanders upstairs to an invitation-only “Death Day” party for someone name Tommy. This sets up the introduction to the drink system. Each of the different concoctions (which are mixed with familiar alcohols and substances that are absolutely not potable) unlocks an additional set of dialog choices.
The Brass Bull lets players be ornery. The Famous Last Words seems to allow players to pick fights. The PAX East build didn’t do a great job of communicating what each of the different drinks (with names like Bloody Stool and Pear of Anguish) do for the player. That will be improved by the time the game ships later this year.
“Afterparty” carries “Oxenfree’s” knack for natural-feeling dialog. The writing and the flow both avoid common video game pitfalls. Instead of feeling stilted, Night School has managed to nail the way human beings talk to one another.
Through a beer pong game, players are instructed on the value of trash talking demons. They also find out that the star of the party, Tommy, is actually a serial killer. Still, Milo and Lola endear themselves to him and get on his party list.
Once upstairs and reunited with Sam, the duo learn that there’s a way for them to get back to Earth. Every night, Satan (known as the Prince of Partying in Hell) throws a house party. If Milo and Lola can get in and drink him under the table, he’ll open the door back to the land of the living. There’s only one problem: no one has ever managed to pull it off.
“Afterparty” is shaping up to an amusing jaunt to hell, backed by a stellar voice cast. “Star Wars Battlefront II’s” Janina Gavankar and “Detective Pikachu’s” Khoi Dao are voicing Lola and Milo respectively. Erin Yvette, who played “Oxenfree’s” Alex is set to play the duo’s personal demon, Sister Mary Wormhorn. The cast is rounded out with “The Walking Dead’s” Dave Fennoy, “Anthem’s” Sarah Elmaleh, “Horzon: Zero Dawn’s” Ashly Burch, and a number of others including cameo appearances by Rooster Teeth’s Alanah Pearce and “Firewatch’s” Cissy Jones.
“Afterparty” challenges user expectations, giving Hell texture and life in a way that The Bad Place isn’t often depicted. There’s lots of humor to be found, but at the heart of it is a story about Milo and Lola’s life together.
“The game is really about Milo and Lola’s friendship,” Kunkel says. “Even though on the surface it’s this raucous ‘Superbad’ meets ‘Beetlejuice’ experience, underneath it’s about what it means to have a long-term friendship and how that becomes challenging and how you rely on people. The player will see, in the beginning, Milo and Lola feel symbiotic, we test that and pull at that over the game.”
Based on the short demo, “Afterparty” seems to be a worthy successor to “Oxenfree.” Finding humor and hope in death isn’t easy, but Night School is looking to do just that.