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
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.