In­sider Ac­cess: Af­ter­party

Night School made a name Stu­dio su­per­nat­u­ral thriller with team is for it­self the but now to go Ox­en­free, of that be­hind leav­ing all af­ter­party in the devil dancing with

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We’ve all been there, right? Be­sieged by a han­gover so phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally crip­pling that all you’re able to do is yearn for the sweet re­lief of eter­nal sleep. The me­mories of the night be­fore thank­fully fleet­ing; in­juries from the night be­fore alarm­ingly ex­cru­ci­at­ing; both im­mor­talised by the lens of a cam­era phone, the ev­i­dence al­ready cir­cu­lat­ing around the in­ter­net. God bless so­cial me­dia. Al­co­hol is trash and only garbage peo­ple drink it… you know that you’ve re­peated that thought be­fore. You’re never drink­ing again, this will be the last time that you feel this way. You’ve shouted that into the void be­fore too. But it’s okay; we’re all friends here. We both know that it’s only the last time un­til the next time.

Night School Stu­dio’s lat­est in­de­pen­dent project is an ex­plo­ration of just that. Of deal­ing with the world’s worst han­gover by em­bark­ing on the pur­suit of an­other, a han­gover that could quite lit­er­ally be the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death. At its heart, Af­ter­party is a com­ing-of-age story star­ring Lola and Milo, two col­lege stu­dents that wake up dead af­ter a ben­der that went very much awry, un­able to re­mem­ber all that much of the night be­fore. But they are re­silient, quickly com­ing to un­der­stand that they have but one chance to es­cape the quite-lit­eral hellscape that has be­fallen them be­fore it con­sumes them en­tirely.

What if the only way to re­claim your soul, to earn safe pas­sage back to the land of the liv­ing, was to school Satan in a de­monic con­test of al­co­hol re­ten­tion? Well, you know what they say: when it’s time to party we will party hard. If it sounds ridicu­lous, that’s be­cause it ab­so­lutely, unashamedly is. “Yeah, we wanted to take a pretty hard left from what Ox­en­free was,” laughs Sean Krankel, co-founder of the stu­dio and co-creative direc­tor of Af­ter­party. “Ox­en­free was fairly se­ri­ous with a dash of hu­mour, and I think that Af­ter­party is kind of the flip. It’s still an ad­ven­ture, but it’s a fun­nier take that still has some se­ri­ous­ness within it.”

“When Af­ter­party be­gins you think you’re still at a col­lege party,” Krankel says of the story. “Then the walls fall away and you’re be­ing mocked by demons who are ac­tu­ally pulling a prank. It’s sort of like a low-bud­get play of your last night out,” he laughs, be­fore giv­ing us just a lit­tle in­sight into the weird and won­der­ful world you’ll in­habit. “As it turns out you’re late to get­ting pro­cessed be­cause of this, so you’re told to head down the road to go to what is ba­si­cally the DMV… ex­cept, you know, you’re in ac­tual hell now.”

It’s here where you get your first taste of the off-kil­ter ver­sion of hell that Night School has cre­ated. “You get as­signed your own per­sonal de­mon, one that is born from a bunch of choices that you will make in that mo­ment. And this per­sonal de­mon is sort of like Death in Bill & Ted’s Bo­gus Ad­ven­ture. Kind of a fren­emy. Some­body who is there to tor­ture you and drudge up the aw­ful parts of your past but is also along with you for the ride.”

Just as you’re about to re­ceive your march­ing or­ders, an eter­nity of per­son­alised tor­ture, you’re saved by the bell. “Right at the mo­ment you’re about to get your sen­tence it be­comes quit­ting time for the peo­ple that work there, and they’re like, ‘okay, be back here to­mor­row at 9:00am,’” he tells us. “We ran with the idea that these demons and hu­mans are all go­ing to know each other for all eter­nity and, sure, their re­la­tion­ship is go­ing to be pretty aw­ful, but what hap­pens over time when that be­comes the norm?”

“They end up co­ex­ist­ing there in a way that’s a lit­tle strange! They’re not im­me­di­ately best friends,

“We just knew we had to make the game where you’re drink­ing with Satan”

ob­vi­ously, but they have a con­tentious re­la­tion­ship – the demons aren’t hav­ing a blast tor­tur­ing these peo­ple for eter­nity ei­ther. So we de­cided that it would be kind of funny if at 6:00pm it was quit­ting time in hell,” says Krankel. “At night the demons and the hu­mans can blow off some steam and go party to­gether, with ev­ery­body head­ing out the door to­gether. And what do you do at quit­ting time? You all head to the pub.”

He isn’t wrong on that one. The pub is where en­e­mies can be­come friends, where dif­fer­ences can be cast aside and where life can be breathed into the misad­ven­tures of a life­time. What fol­lows is the ul­ti­mate pub crawl. A game fo­cused around Lola and Milo dip­ping be­tween de­monic dive bars and chal­leng­ing the denizens to a va­ri­ety of drink­ing con­tests and chal­lenges in an ef­fort to gain en­try into one of Satan’s leg­endary house par­ties.

With the clock tick­ing, the duo will have to act fast and live stead­fastly with the de­ci­sions that they make and the missed op­por­tu­ni­ties that they en­counter along the way. “You’ve ba­si­cally got, like, ten hours to get this done,” Krankel tells us, not­ing that while it doesn’t tech­ni­cally play out in real-time, the game will run for around ten hours. “Ox­en­free had a far more lin­ear story, and that’s very dif­fer­ent to Af­ter­party. This game quickly opens up, you can choose how you take all of this on.”

Ten hours to se­cure your free­dom, in­sur­mount­able odds to over­come and a keg­ger that you can only gain ac­cess to by out­last­ing some of the un­der­world’s most sea­soned drinkers. How on earth did Night School go from de­vel­op­ing a spooky su­per­nat­u­ral thriller to the ul­ti­mate party sim­u­la­tor? It cer­tainly hasn’t been easy.

Ar­riv­ing at a place in which Krankel and the team felt com­fort­able tack­ling some­thing of the scope and size of Lola And Milo’s Ex­cel­lent Ad­ven­ture

– as we posit it should have been ti­tled from the be­gin­ning – has been a chal­lenge for Night School. This sopho­more ef­fort would be a chal­leng­ing un­der­tak­ing for any in­de­pen­dent stu­dio, but it was a nec­es­sary one for Night School as it looks to es­tab­lish the foun­da­tions of its fu­ture. “It’s been dif­fi­cult and it’s been messy, a year of us try­ing to sort through what the right next project for us would be.”

“I think, ini­tially, you know, Ox­en­free and Night School were just so syn­ony­mous with one an­other,” Krankel tells us. “We didn’t re­ally think of Night School as a com­pany so much as it was more of a col­lec­tion of peo­ple mak­ing Ox­en­free. So, when we were done with it, it was sort of like, well, what’s next?”

Fig­ur­ing that out be­gan with the team at­tempt­ing to work out what the core prin­ci­ples of the stu­dio would and should be. That’s an im­por­tant step, par­tic­u­larly as Night School has tripled in size from four to twelve in just four years. The team is set­tling into an evolv­ing creative dy­namic while si­mul­ta­ne­ously at­tempt­ing to work out which el­e­ments of Ox­en­free should be it­er­ated upon and what needs to be thrown out and started anew. It was, by all ac­counts, the source of much anx­i­ety for the stu­dio as Af­ter­party be­gan to take shape.

Krankel was ea­ger to avoid Night School be­com­ing known as the stu­dio that ex­clu­sively dealt in spooky sto­ries star­ring teenagers, but he was

keen to pur­sue var­ied sto­ry­telling me­chan­ics and in­ter­est­ing nar­ra­tives to com­ple­ment them. The broad goal was, as he puts it, “to come up with new types of me­chan­ics and a brand new type of story,” but how the team ap­proached that wasn’t set in stone. That’s how Ox­en­free came into be­ing, and it’s how Af­ter­party’s con­cep­tion and devel­op­ment was ap­proached, too.

“In the case of Ox­en­free, we built that story as the me­chan­ics came to­gether. That idea of be­ing iso­lated on an is­land, that idea of deal­ing with the ghost via the ra­dio, that all came out of the me­chan­ics first be­cause we are, you know, a game stu­dio,” Krankel con­tin­ues, chuck­ling. “And so the same thing hap­pened here with Af­ter­party…

the main thing that we knew we wanted to con­tinue to it­er­ate and ex­pand upon was our real-time fluid-di­a­logue sys­tem. That was some­thing that we thought worked quite well in Ox­en­free; we spent a lot of time build­ing tools for it and we know that it’s a good foun­da­tion for telling al­most any kind of story. And so the big­ger ques­tion be­came, well, what kind of story do we tell next?”

Chron­i­cling the bar crawl to end all bar crawls was ap­par­ently the an­swer. Krankel is res­o­lute in his de­ter­mi­na­tion, con­vinced that it’s the per­fect set-up for a nar­ra­tive-fo­cused ad­ven­ture. “In some ways, in many ways, drink­ing is kind of a role­play­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in real life. That idea seemed pretty fun for us to ex­plore.”

With this in hand, along with the de­sire to ex­pand on its ex­cel­lent fluid-di­a­logue sys­tem, Af­ter­party

started com­ing to­gether pretty quickly. Night School was ea­ger to once again keep the ad­ven­ture fairly self-con­tained within a cen­tral en­vi­ron­ment, al­though it was keen to make it more vi­brant and dy­namic than Ox­en­free’s Edwards Is­land. It’s as these el­e­ments

– the premise, the ba­sic sys­tems and the gen­eral set­ting – be­gan to co­a­lesce that the stu­dio re­alised it was on to some­thing pretty spe­cial. “When we started we were like, ‘is there a sin­gle set­ting that we could put you in that a lot of dif­fer­ent types of char­ac­ters would in­habit?’ Pa­pers, Please was an in­spi­ra­tion for us ini­tially, it helped us re­alise that there are a lot of var­i­ous walks of life that can come through a sin­gle set­ting.”

“A bar felt great for that. The bar is a place where any trav­eller and any type of story can ex­ist. Ini­tially we thought the game was just go­ing to be set in one bar and that was what we it­er­ated on for a while,” Krankel re­calls, not­ing that it quickly re­alised it was plan­ning the worst party of all time. “Even­tu­ally we re­alised that be­ing stuck in just one bar would be kind of lame and a lit­tle de­press­ing.”

He isn’t wrong. So, how did Night School cir­cum­vent this par­tic­u­lar is­sue? It once again looked to­wards film for in­spi­ra­tion. If Ox­en­free was Poltergeist by way of Freaks And Geeks, then Af­ter­party had a whole dif­fer­ent en­ergy and vibe about it. Bill And Ted’s Ex­cel­lent Ad­ven­ture, Su­per­bad, Harold And Ku­mar Go To White Cas­tle and just about any film with an Edgar Wright di­rec­to­rial credit as­cribed to it. Re­ally, Krankel tells us, “any of these kinds of movies that take you on an ad­ven­ture that is fairly crazy and set over one night. What’s the story be­hind your cra­zi­est night out? That was where the idea led us. It ba­si­cally turned into a pub crawl from that point on­wards.”

“It was a way to make the game more un­ex­pected too. A lot of peo­ple’s favourite nights out are when they go out and party but they don’t know how they got from point A to point Z be­cause there were so many left turns through­out the night, you know? And we wanted to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that feels the same way,” Krankel con­sid­ers, adding, “So, those two things kind of came to­gether at the same time. The idea of drink­ing, at a lowlevel me­chan­ics per­spec­tive, opened up a lot of me­chan­i­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties, and then the pub crawl set-up is just stupid and fun. We thought it would be a blast to live in that space for a cou­ple of years while we make the game.”

Ox­en­free re­leased back in Jan­uary 2016, and Af­ter­party will have had three years in devel­op­ment by the time its 2019 re­lease win­dow rolls around.

That time has been well spent de­vel­op­ing out the world and all of the weird and won­der­ful char­ac­ters that in­habit it. While the idea of a mon­strous crawl may have been es­tab­lished rel­a­tively early on, the de­ci­sion to take it from the city streets and into the bow­els of hell didn’t ar­rive un­til much later.

It did, in fact, start out as a run­ning joke in­ter­nally be­fore quickly spi­ralling into some­thing more con­crete. “We just knew we had to make the game where you’re drink­ing with Satan,” Krankel laughs. A crazy night out with Satan and his de­monic sub­or­di­nates set the stage for hell as the can­vas of the ad­ven­ture, and it was one that the team quickly leaned into. “That en­vi­ron­ment al­lows for an in­sane amount of dif­fer­ent walks of life and sto­ries. We can cre­ate our own ver­sion of hell, ba­si­cally… you’ve got demons that have been there for­ever and then, on top of that, you’ve got dead hu­mans there who are all there for a rea­son. They’re go­ing to have crazy sto­ries to tell as well. Some might be se­rial killers, some might have cheated on their taxes, but ev­ery­body is there for a rea­son.

“I think that was re­ally the big­gest – not on a me­chan­ics level but on a nar­ra­tive level – ‘aha’ mo­ment for us. We re­alised that we can kind of treat the afterlife in a Tim Bur­ton kind of way; it can be macabre and fun, and it can still deal with some pretty dark stuff, but we don’t need to take our­selves too se­ri­ously. All of this kind of just over­lapped nicely. The me­chan­ics, the set­ting and the idea of the bars… they just kind of worked pretty well to­gether.”

So, why is this such a mon­u­men­tal chal­lenge when com­pared with Ox­en­free? It’s be­cause across the ten-hour ad­ven­ture you are ef­fec­tively able to shape the nar­ra­tive around your de­ci­sions. Choos­ing how the pub crawl plays out, with the world it­self re­act­ing, ex­pand­ing and di­min­ish­ing to your pres­ence and choices. “Did we want to make a game where, by the time you got to the end of it you could go back and 100 per cent every lit­tle as­pect of it? Meet every char­ac­ter and do every lit­tle thing be­fore the fi­nal show­down? Or did we want a game where phys­i­cal­ity and the choices that you made – not just di­a­logue-wise but also where you were at var­i­ous times and which quests you de­cided to go on – would also close off other ones?

“We ended up more in the lat­ter camp. Af­ter­party is a game where you will not be al­lowed to see like half of the con­tent of the game,” Krankel

re­veals of your first run through the game. “That’s be­cause there could be a sit­u­a­tion where you choose to visit one bar that’s float­ing on the River Styx but then an­other one sinks be­cause you didn’t get there in time. So, an en­tire quest line could be gone.”

“But there’s also a clear, like, macro-level nar­ra­tive hap­pen­ing for Milo and Lola,” says Krankel of the events that tran­spire in the ten-hour time frame. “That’s one of the big­gest nar­ra­tive chal­lenges for us, let­ting peo­ple tackle the mis­sions out of or­der, but also mak­ing sure that the story, from front to back, is very clearly their story and not just a bunch of vi­gnettes. The way that the game is be­ing de­signed and writ­ten is such that when you play through it that first time you re­ally should be feel­ing like this was Milo and Lola’s story and that you got caught up in what an in­sane road they took to get through it all.”

The road you take to se­cure that fi­nal show­down with Satan isn’t all that dis­sim­i­lar from col­lect­ing Gym Badges in Poké­mon. You need to hit var­i­ous bars, raise your tol­er­ance level for the de­monic house spe­cial­i­ties by drink­ing with the res­i­dents, im­prove your skills in mini-games such as beer pong, karaoke and dancing, be­fore look­ing to chal­lenge one of Satan’s trusted en­voys. “Each bar it­self is heav­ily themed in that there will be anywhere from five to ten very spe­cific char­ac­ters in­side,” Krankel tells us, not­ing that this has been a con­sid­er­able time sink for Night School in mak­ing each of the bars and the char­ac­ters that re­side in them feel dis­tinct. “One of the things we’re try­ing to do is make as many of those NPCS feel alive. Every sin­gle NPC will have [tol­er­ance lev­els] func­tion­ing un­der the hood for them too. You may see some dude walk­ing along that just passes out on the ground in front of you or needs to be dragged out by the bouncer. At a base level these char­ac­ters will have lit­tle lives where they will leave the bar and you can fol­low one and go down the street, or they will have a drink and have a full con­ver­sa­tion with some­body else. Most of that stuff is not scripted. It’s just go­ing to hap­pen.”

“Your choices can al­low you to play the game how­ever you want,” says Krankel, ex­plain­ing that while there are fail states in cer­tain sce­nar­ios they only add to the drama of the ad­ven­ture rather than stop­ping you in your tracks. “Even if you to­tally crap the bed in a ques­tion and an­swer mo­ment, or an ac­tiv­ity, or what­ever it might be, you can still get through it.”

While it might not seem like it on the sur­face, Af­ter­party ac­tu­ally feels like the nat­u­ral fol­low up to Ox­en­free. It’s smart and intuitive, creative and un­bur­dened by con­ven­tion, just like Night School’s first game. For Krankel and the rest of the devel­op­ment team, Af­ter­party has been a chal­lenge, but it’s one that it is happy to have un­der­taken. “We are in the mid­dle of the project now; we’re in a spot where we feel like the fea­ture set and what we’ve de­cided to take on feels like it’s of an ap­pro­pri­ate size, but if we talk in six months, I might just say ‘I was so wrong. This game is way too big,’” he says, laugh­ing. “But it’s just one of those games where… there’s just a lot of joy and con­fi­dence in ev­ery­body here. We’re like, ‘This is a crazy good idea and it’s go­ing to be fun to make!’. It feels very nat­u­ral, you know? The whole process of mak­ing this game has been ex­cel­lent. We’re more as­sured than I think any of us have been on any other thing we’ve worked on be­fore.”

“You have to ask your­self, ‘Who do I want to be when I en­ter this bar?’”

Lola will be voiced by Star Wars: Bat­tle­front II’S Jan­ina Ga­vankar, while her part­ner in crime Milo will be voiced by Khoi Dao, an ac­tor known for voic­ing a wide va­ri­ety of char­ac­ters in anime cir­cles.

Af­ter­party brings Night School’s pro­fi­ciency with in­ter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling to a whole new level as it asks you to es­cape hell by out-drink­ing the devil. You have just one night to hit the bars, raise your tol­er­ance and chal­lenge the lord of the un­der­world to a drink off.

n In sharp con­trast to Ox­en­free, Af­ter­party has been writ­ten as an out­landish com­edy. The premise is ridicu­lous, and so to are the char­ac­ters that you’re go­ing to meet along the way. The stu­dio has sunk con­sid­er­able time into en­sur­ing that each of the bars are unique and won­drous lo­cales to visit.

Drink­ing games will ma­te­ri­alise in pretty smart ways. Beer pong fea­tures a brand-new con­trol sys­tem, sim­ple enough that the di­a­logue sys­tem can still sit atop of it. Karaoke is a rhyth­mic ver­sion of the di­a­logue sys­tem, with all-new (su­per weird) songs writ­ten by An­drew Rohrmann, who pro­vided the mu­sic for Ox­en­free.

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