Your first party in college is a momentous occasion, a celebration of a rough sort of freedom from your parents and former home life. It differs for everyone: maybe it was low-key, perhaps you got tore up on some new drink, or you ultimately decided that the party life wasn't for you. I don't drink much these days, but I look back upon my college days and there are many lost nights, crazy benders, and hastily studied lessons while drunk. I think most look back upon those days with a mixture of amusement and regret. I'm pretty sure none of us had to outdrink the Devil though.
That's the premise of Afterparty, the next game from Night School Studio, the folks behind Oxenfree. You play as Milo and Lola, two best friends in college who recently died. Both are shuffled along to Hell, but before they can be processed for an eternity of torment, the underworld's work day ends. Granted a small reprieve, Milo and Lola find a loophole to get back to the living: outdrink Satan himself, and he'll open the door back. Satan doesn't just invite anyone to the bender to end all benders though; the pair has to bar crawl their way up to "it" status and lock down an invite. And that's going to require a lot of drinking.
If Oxenfree was about being a high schooler, then Afterparty is about that college experience. It's an evolution of what Night School Studio did with its first game.
"Oxenfree was such a specific vibe, a very specific age. Everyone knows what it's like to be 16, 17, or 18. But also everybody knows what it's like to be 22. Right about to join the workforce and world, and feel like you're an adult. It was fun to age up everything and be a little past where the characters were in Oxenfree," says Afterparty director and writer Adam Hines.
In addition, Oxenfree was a thriller, more solemn and scary than my time with the Afterparty demo. Milo and Lola are guided through hell by a demon named Sam Hill who takes the time to show them the ropes. Upon reaching the edge of town, the pair are greeted by demons and humans just having fun. Some are texting, others are taking pictures of one another throwing up. One man gets ejected from the first bar, with the demon bouncer letting him know that he won't get his stomach back anytime soon. Afterparty has a bit more verve to it.
"I think it was mostly that we wanted to switch from the heavier tone of Oxenfree. With this, we wanted to do more of zanier comedy, more pure fantasy. The kernel of the idea at the start of this is we really just wanted to make a game that's in a bar. We thought that was a really great setting for a narrative adventure," Hines tells me.
The first bar Milo and Lola are introduced to is currently taken over for a Deathday party. Sam Hill heads up the VIP section, leaving the pair behind and giving them a chance to mingle. You can walk around the party and talk to some folks, or grab a drink at the bar. Afterparty expands on Oxenfree's dialog system with the introduction of alcoholic drinks. In Oxenfree, you have three dialog choices, while in Afterparty your third option is determined by whatever drink you've consumed. One might open up a more angry response, while another offers a flirty option. Part of Afterparty is figuring out the right drink for the situation. "In Oxenfree, you always had three options, and those options were intended to be an extension of what Alex would want to say. With this, we thought it would be interesting to go, what if you, the player, were able to customize that," says Night School Studio director Sean Krankel.
Oxenfree was a mostly linear affair, offering multiple endings, but with the adventure generally playing out in the same order each playthrough. Afterparty is a more expansive game, with Milo and Lola having to traverse many bars across the city to reach Satan's party. There are many paths from Milo and Lola's starting point to Satan's party, even some that see the pair diverge in different directions. Hines promises "three, four, or five big different versions" of Afterparty's ending, but there will also be a whole bunch of small changes within those endings, depending on which characters you interact with and how those interactions go.
"It's kind of a natural evolution, where we just wanted more characters and more of a fully-formed story that you could piece together however you wanted to. In Oxenfree, you had a lot of choices, but it was kind of on a set linear path. With this game, if something crazy is going on at one bar at 10 o'clock and you go there, you'll miss what's going on at the other bars," says Hines.
Milo and Lola's journey in the demo begins with the first few steps towards the night of crazy parties. Lola slides up to the bar, and I choose one of the drinks: The Great Emathian. I chug it down and then join a group of demons for a rousing round of beer pong. Here in Hell, it's not just the winning that matters, you also have to have proper trash talk, and the drink I had gives me some angrier options in terms of roasting my opponents. Taking two rounds of beer pong proves Lola and Milo as "the new cool kids" and gets us an invite upstairs.
It's clear that Afterparty is a brighter game than the quiet island of Oxenfree. The cityscape of Hell is colored in bright neon lights, in purples, reds, and oranges, as befits a place where the fires burn forever. There's a glow that sets off the first bar, a neon pink that shines off all the characters. It's striking and the art style is one of the things that drew me to Afterparty on the PAX East showfloor. When I sit down with the game, it's also clear that Night School has changed things significantly from its previous title: the camera is much closer to the action, and the characters have clearer and more animated facial expressions. Afterparty is about a social experience, so the change is necessary.
"With Oxenfree, we had a really desolate island and the cast was very tiny. We also had a smaller team; there were four people building that game. With Afterparty, we're like, 'How do we make you feel like you're in a crowded living space?' The camera and our whole art pipeline changed pretty dramatically. Now we have up to 30-40 characters on screen. We have over a hundred characters that you interact with in the game," explains Krankel. "We actually had a pretty scary moment early on in the game, because we had one way we were building these 3D assets and it was taking us forever. We had to burn it all to the ground and start over."
It also took a while for Night School to figure out exactly how the epic bar crawl would play out. Currently, while you can only have one drink at a time, you can't blackout, and if you want to change the drink, you can just go to the bar and get another one. The developer had to work with a number of weird mechanics to get to that point.
"Early on, we prototyped the dumbest stuff. We had a piss meter, where you had to worry about getting too drunk. There was a thing where you could black out, get thrown out of the bar, and you'd wake up in a new place. All that shit was just not fun. What we really wanted to do was make it feel like a Harry Potter potion; it just feels good to use that drink," says Krankel.
And it does feel good to drink digitally. It's a chance to open up Milo and Lola to new sides of themselves and also gives players a chance to roleplay. What I played of Afterparty was the beginning of something that I think I'll enjoy more than Oxenfree, because while I loved that game, something with this zest for life (even in death) is something you want to sink into.
Afterparty is coming to PC, Mac, and Linux in 2019.