The Making Of: Afterlife
We go behind the scenes of one of Lucasarts’ strangest games that sees you managing both heaven and hell
Even among Lucasarts’ eclectic catalogue of daring, experimental titles, one game stands out from the crowd. A farcical twist on the city-builder genre, Afterlife tasks players with designing the perfect heaven and hell, a satirical god game from the mind of Mike Stemmle
To its credit, Lucasarts was a rather experimental studio at the time Mike Stemmle
The life of a demiurge is quite a complicated one. After many failed attempts, you have finally designed an afterlife in perfect harmony, welcoming sinners and saints to a world of untethered delight, or one of abject suffering. A thousand years, many deaths and a few bank loans later, your afterlife has become a well-oiled machine; a highly sophisticated network of karmic vehicles, punishments, rewards, supernatural training facilities and so much more.
To keep costs down, you have opted to train your own angels and demons. However, even with the ongoing plague down in the mortal world, their numbers have grown too strong. While you’re busy preparing to ship in the next batch of SOULS, the out-of-work angels and demons suddenly declare war on one another. Heaven and hell are rocked by explosions. Before you know it, your afterlife is haemorrhaging SOULS and, more importantly, money. Enter the Four Surfers Of the Apocalypso, summoned to lay waste to what remains of your unsuccessful enterprise. You’re fired. Back into the void you go.
Right off the bat, it is clear that Afterlife is not a typical city-builder. Part-god game, part-simulator and part-social commentary, the title oozes farce, wit and satire at every turn. It is outlandish, even by Lucasarts’ standards, and very much the twisted brain child of designer, Mike Stemmle.
“The idea for Afterlife had been kicking around in the back of my head ever since I played
Simcity for the first time,” says Mike. “Although, it’s probably fair to say that the concept of an ‘organised’ afterlife has tickled my creative bone ever since I’d read Dante’s Inferno.”
While he reserved particular adoration for Simcity 3000, Mike felt the simulator genre had never quite fulfilled its potential. “When it came to the disasters, I always thought it was a shame that most sim games were unfortunately too restrained by the ‘reality’ of their sim to go whole-hog goofy. Simcity added an alien invasion, but they really didn’t get any sillier than that. Fortunately, Afterlife was under no real-world constraints, allowing me to indulge all of my worst pun instincts.”
While Mike’s concept for Afterlife was far from conventional, hot on the heels of his work on Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis and Sam & Max: Hit The Road, he had no trouble getting it greenlit. “To its credit, Lucasarts was a rather experimental studio at the time,” he reflects, “and allowed me to launch the project based on little more than a five-page outline and a lean budget.”
Mike ran a tight ship; a modest team, with ten to 20 people working on the game at any given moment. “I was pretty deeply involved at all times. It’s probably the last game that I did any serious ‘real’ programming for, much to my programmers’ chagrin.”
Gamers play a demiurge, a local deity appointed by the Powers That Be to create a balanced system of eternal rewards and punishments for sinners and saints. Despite the weighty premise, every step of the journey is accompanied by a dose of Mike’s distinct brand of satirical humour – one he attributes to “a steady diet” of Mad Magazine, Cracked, National Lampoon and Spy.
“Satirising religion itself requires a deft touch that even my arrogant 20-something self knew was beyond his skills. I was primarily intent on using the trappings of a very Christian afterlife
to take some good jabs at people and things that bothered me at the time,” he explains.
Despite shining a harsh light on the more absurd aspects of the human condition, the game avoids becoming mired in negativity – aided by a broad, ‘humanist’ score from Peter Mcconnell. It goes to great lengths to explain that, though Earth-like, the planet is not Earth, and the creatures which inhabit it worship a wide range of fictional religions. These beings are EMBOS, or Ethically Mature Biological Organisms, who each have a SOUL, or Stuff Of Unending Life. Some believe only in heaven, others in hell; some believe in reincarnation, others in no afterlife at all.
The demiurge begins with a pair of empty planes. First, they must build gates, to allow SOULS to enter, before constructing a network of roads. Keeping an eye on the planet of the EMBOS, they generate an appropriate balance of punishments and rewards by drawing zones for each of the seven sins and virtues: Envy, Avarice, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Wrath and Pride in hell, and Contentment, Charity, Temperance, Diligence, Chastity, Peacefulness and Humility in heaven. Training centres, convert SOULS into angels and demons, to help run things on the ground.
“As you might imagine, hell is a heck of a lot easier to design, because ironic punishments are a dime a dozen,” says Mike. “That said, I think I enjoyed designing heaven more, both because it was more difficult and because it didn’t make me feel like I was wolfing down karmic junk food.” Reward and punishment tiles spawn beautiful pixel
art structures, where “we pretty much allowed our artists to cut loose”. “Frankly, I’m a little disturbed to think about what their visual influences were.”
Kevin Evans, also a Simcity aficionado, was responsible for some of the artwork in hell, drawing upon the nightmarish works of HP Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Francis Bacon, Stanisław Szukalski, HR Giger and Zdzislaw Beksinski. The game, he believes, was the perfect example of “what Lucasarts did best when management trusted its developers to do what they do best”. After 25 years in the industry, Afterlife remains one of his fondest experiences.
Meanwhile, Chris Hockabout, who joined the project’s art team after completing Hal Barwood’s Big Sky Trooper for SNES, thought it sounded hilarious. “I’d be given a simple direction, like to design ‘an angel city that plays off of the old saying: how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin?’ So, basically, a fanciful city that’s built on the head of a pin. I’d do some concept sketches, find which ones the leads liked the most and then draw them in Photoshop,” he recalls.
While Chris would have liked to have seen a terrain system in hell, and Dantean tiers, the deceptively simple game boasts mind-boggling depth. SOULS who are ready to reincarnate, for example, need a karma station anchor, connected with roads and karma tracks, to transport them out of the afterlife. They travel in karma vehicles, via portals, which hover between the two realms.
“We had a ludicrously complicated system for tracking how the planet of the EMBOS evolved, based on the feedback loop created by the reincarnating EMBOS. It’s like a little sim game buried within the sim, so you can sim while you sim,” explains Mike. “The hardest thing, as I recall, was to keep the game updating with a proper rhythm, as the populations increased from hundreds to hundreds of billions.”
Players are given a wide array of graphs and interfaces with which to micromanage the various aspects of their afterlife. Fortunately, the game pairs its steep learning curve with a hearty helping of humour. The demiurge is assisted by two onscreen characters, Jasper Wormsworth and Aria Goodhalo, a demon and angel with conflicting natures. Having just finished up work on The
Dig, Graham Annable was brought in to lead the Jasper and Aria character animations. “It was completely unlike any of the other projects at the company at that time,” says Graham. The toughest part, he adds, was staying true to the concept art.
“In my efforts to keep the characters looking like the concepts, I remember a lot of sweating over the mouth positions for them. It was a tricky dance to make sure the faces were emoting the desired vibe, while still keeping them on model. Jasper and Aria were unusual designs to say the least.”
Beyond Jasper and Aria, players can focus on specific SOULS, and read their backstories. These soar to Pythonesque, surrealist heights; T’klak’takliaktu, who is being punished for
gluttony, simply displays his dating profile, outlining his stinginess, high libido and hatred for drag racing. Klak’taklun’rk, on the other hand, committed the sin of wrath; her habit of giving generously to charity outweighed by taking credit for other people’s work. The game’s pause menu, meanwhile, brings up throwaway lines like “Game pause, dog paws, we all pause, for game pause.”
When the demiurge essentially loses too much money, a Simcity-style disaster is triggered, where the Four Surfers Of The Apocalypso sweep in to destroy the entire afterlife. If gamers use cheat codes three times, they are punished by the arrival of a Death Star, hovering over hell, and sporadically destroying buildings.
Although Afterlife enjoyed some critical success, Mike says it was a ‘commercial dud’, and “even at their most experimental, Lucasarts was interested in making a buck”. He adds: “Lucasarts almost clawed back some of my Sam & Max royalties on account of its dudness.”
it was completely unlike any of the other projects at the company Mike Stemmle
The game’s main shortcoming, he concedes, was that it was too niche. “Building games to amuse oneself is a great way to create capital-a art, but it’s a lousy way to capture a large-scale audience.”
He did, however, sufficiently rile up one “confused young man” enough to send in a “vaguely threatening letter”. He continues: “But we get vaguely threatening letters when we change Max’s voice actors, so that’s kind of par for the course. In the end, I think Afterlife was too silly to get anyone’s knickers in a twist – which is what we were going for all along.”
Though Mike has few regrets, two in particular do spring to mind. “Originally, every tile in the game was supposed to get a beautiful portrait of its reward or punishment, not just a few. I wish we could have had the budget for that. Also, in hindsight, we really should have programmed the silly thing in C++.”
Zoning a 7x7 grid in a certain manner unlocks the Mother Shak building, an Easter egg with a message outlining Mike’s views on purpose. Looking back, he reflects: “When I designed Afterlife I was still a Roman Catholic, conflating my love of a good story with evidence of a divine creator. In the years since, I have transitioned to full-blown atheism. I still love a good story, and believe that the stories we tell can shape the world – but I recognise that they are, in the end, only stories. For the moment, my interest in the spiritual is at a low-ebb. I’m much more interested in the cosmic at this juncture in my life.”