Afterparty Review – Hell Is Other People
Afterparty‘s version of hell is less fire and brimstone and more cocktails and ennui. Sure, its human inhabitants are still damned for eternity and demons still flagellate them for their sins, but that’s just the nine-to-five. To escape the drudgery of everlasting torment, demons and humans alike flock to bars and other seedy hangouts between the days’ torture. It isn’t the flashiest take on the afterlife, but that’s kind of the point. Afterparty revels in the small, personal acts of cruelty and kindness that define us, and while the ways it imparts lessons aren’t always up to task with the material, it nonetheless treads exciting ground as a story about the work it takes to be a better person.
Developed by Oxenfree creators Night School Studio, Afterparty follows Milo and Lola, a pair of recent college grads who’ve just found out they face eternal damnation. After some quick onboarding on how they’re to be tortured for the rest of eternity, the pair get a break when their turn in line comes just as the workday ends, giving them a night’s reprieve. They then learn there’s a way out of their predicament: If they can outparty The Prince of Darkness himself, they can return to the world of the living.
Mechanically, Afterparty keeps things simple. As you walk across rich and detailed 3D backgrounds along a 2D plane, most of your interactions involve talking to the right person at the right time. This puts the spotlight on Afterparty’s strongest asset: incredibly verisimilar conversations. The dialogue is lifelike in a way you don’t find in most games; characters restart their sentences, which often have a fantastically ad-libbed quality to them; the main voice cast features whip-smart performances from Janina Gavankar, Khoi Dao, Ashly Burch, and Dave Fennoy, who all sell their cartoonish characters’ maladjustments without making them overbearing.
Afterparty touches on several topics, including the layout, structure, and the underpinnings of its underworld, which pull heavily from the Bible and Paradise Lost. It makes easy connections between businesspeople and demons, or social media platforms and hellscapes, though the comparisons are all coated in a thick veneer of simmering snark and clever turns of phrases that make the comparisons fun, even if they’re not the most imaginative ones.
Afterparty is most at home and most cutting when it delves into more intimate topics. Sister May Wormhorn, a personal demon created to harass Milo and Lola as they try to get the approvals necessary to outparty Satan, torments the pair by sifting through their rougher memories. These end up being not one-off, traumatic events, but rather the kinds of smaller slights and moments that bring out their various hangups: Lola’s ostracization from her family due to not only her complex family situation, but her skepticism in the face of her sisters’ faith; Milo’s demanding parents and search for an identity as the child of an immigrant family. These points come through in ways that are direct, but not didactic, and they make for some of the game’s strongest moments.
The aloof but clear sense of resignation that permeates throughout hell’s inhabitants also sells Afterparty’s vision of the underworld not as a prison for the world’s most violent criminals, but as the banal hangout spot for those who simply failed to do enough good. In an early exchange, Milo asks Satan what he and Lola could have done to deserve eternal damnation. Satan cuts back with a pithy anecdote about a man who will ask him the same question 50 years from now, after having set out a dress for his girlfriend knowing it would be too revealing to keep her warm in a movie theater. “The real question, Milo, is, what did you do to deserve anything else?” The way Afterparty imparts this lesson both explicitly, in the moral quandaries its explores in its characters, and in its vibrant-but-benumbing clubs, parks, and sights, makes for a powerful atmosphere.
Not every beat lands, however. The main plot, the one about trying to drink Satan under the table, ends in somewhat anticlimactic fashion, and the threads leading up to that finale are underwhelming. That’s in part a result of how the quandaries its characters tackle don’t have solid, definable solutions that could make for a more exciting conclusion. But it’s also because the overarching plot acts as more of a vehicle for characters to vent their frustrations with the world, the underworld, and each other than a real compelling story on its own. The snarky tone also keeps things from getting too dark, and while I appreciated the lighthearted approach, there were times I wish it would have delved into the darker, riskier territory a game set in hell might invite.
Most of Afterparty has you simply taking in and reacting to conversations, but the ways you interact with those conversations break immersion more often than they deepen it. You interact with conversations largely by deciding when to butt in and when to say nothing. You have a limited but generous timer on how long you can respond to something before it’s no longer an appropriate response, though I did find a few spots where dialogue would skip inadvertently. The conversation choices are fairly limited, and in the instances where I was able to play through a section of dialogue a second time through, my choices didn’t actually alter the plot all that much, which made the conversation more interactive as a way to keep the game from being one long monologue than anything else.
As you hash out the various problems of demons and humans alike, you’re going to want to drink. Imbibing one of the underworldly cocktails you find at bars unlocks new dialogue options; chugging a Blue Devil (potato vodka, cigarette butts, the wailing of injured children, and a melted antoninianus coin) will make you more of a rich jerk, while a Grand Exhibitionist (bourbon, mint, sugar, and a frog’s vocal sac) will make you more of a “witty vaudevillian.” Many of these are for kicks (you can sound like a pirate while making a point if you really want), but often, you’ll need them if you want to branch a conversation a different way or build up the courage to perform certain actions to progress.
Afterparty is most at home and most cutting when it delves into more intimate topics.
It’s a neat hook that ties into the themes of the story, but it lacks depth as a central conceit. You get a flourish here and there as you affect different octaves or do impressions as you try to get two lovers to get back together, but none of the branches I went down seemed particularly influenced by my drink of choice. On a couple of occasions the game slyly hints that you should replay it to see different effects for all of your choices, but never really earns it. It highlights the larger choices you make, such as whether you turn in one of two suspects who may be a human sneaking into hell for the fun of it, in review sessions with Wormhorn (who belittles you regardless of what you pick). But aside from one major choice, I wasn’t too compelled to see other ways situations could have happened.
Beyond that, Afterparty is fairly straightforward; its puzzles are barebones (the most complicated one involved talking someone into giving me their trenchcoat so Milo and Lola could sneak into a club), and most of the drinking and club mini-games that pop up when it’s time to earn a demon’s approval are disappointing. That Afterparty keeps its interactions light is mostly to its benefit, but when it tries for something else, it doesn’t offer the kinds of powerful moments that come from a game’s mechanics and story working together to drive home a point.
Thankfully, Afterparty sticks mostly to unpacking its characters, world, moral quandaries, and how we may not always see those quandaries for how they define us. When it hits those strides, it’s a novel look at what hell might look like for most of us, a vision that turns the concept of eternal damnation into something more palpable and threatening. It fumbles when it reaches outside its comfort zone, and the focus on small moments means it lacks the grandiose ones that make our lives feel more meaningful than they might otherwise be. But again, that’s kind of the point: After all, what did we do to deserve anything else?
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