Content Warning: Child Mortality
“I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t stand up”. Those are the last words that Jacob’s mother, Emma, says to him before she leaves him in the bathtub alone. Of course he stands up. He slips. He hurts himself. He drowns. You don’t see if happen but you hear it. You hear the thud and the splash. You hear the pain in Emma’s voice when she finds him and she tries to rouse him. Jacob won’t wake. You hear the panic in Ray, the father’s, voice as he runs towards the commotion. You hear the scream of the sister as she calls for an ambulance. While this is going on, you watch as a pristine bath room becomes dishevelled in an instant. A towel and soap suds strewn across the floor are all that are left after the incident.
In Afterlife, a 360 degree video experience with branching narrative and optional interactivity (basically a wrap-around FMV game), you play as the now deceased Jacob, watching through his eyes as you witness what your untimely death does to your family and the secrets that family hides. Invisible in all but your actions, Jacob stands and watches how the trauma of his death affects his mother, his father and his step-sister, through a story you, the player, can have a guiding hand on. Every so often, an effect will glow around an object in your view and using the Dualshock 4 like a laser pen, you can point at it and use ghostly powers to interact with them from beyond the grave.
The mother, Emma, is struggling with her guilt over Jacob’s death and through her grief, is losing her grasp on reality (something which isn’t helped when her ghostly son demonstrates his continued existence to her). Ray, the father, wants to move on and move out but struggles with a past he can’t escape and a present he can’t explain. Tessa, the step-sister, is desperate to escape the grief and go travelling or face it head on with volatile consequences, depending on your choices. The dynamic of these 3 characters, complemented by a hand full of support characters, make up the majority of Afterlife’s plot. Their interactions and their raw emotions make for some compelling viewing at times, but can be equally as mundane in others.
After the initial shock of listening to Jacob pass away, the plot to Afterlife can branch and splinter along a number of paths, with the game boasting “29 unique choices prompt thousands of singular playthroughs with multiple ends”. In reality, this interactive experience doesn’t feel anywhere near that varied. In some instances, you follow one character into another room and the opposite branch to that decision is to visit a different person in a different room before coming back to the main story route.
The quality and entertainment of these branching narratives varies wildly too. In one branch of the story, a whole lot of nothing happens. In another, there’s incredible narrative depth and subtle plot clues. Afterlife is designed for replayability, lasting a little over half an hour in some instances, longer in others, meaning you can quickly explore the majority of the experience in a dedicated evening.
That is, if you can figure out how to explore each branch. The developers of Afterlife are most definitely more accustomed to making films than making games because there’s a few curious design decisions within the games interactivity that make Afterlife a chore to play at times. For example, this experience boasts about the fact that is has “no use of UI elements means players are fully immersed without interruptions from start to finish”. Without a UI however, even finding parts of the story can be difficult. Plot navigation is guided by where you’re looking in a very nondescript way. You’re supposedly going to follow the character on which you’re focused. That didn’t always seem to be the case, especially when one character does almost nothing in a scene, demanding none of my attention but still became the focus of the next scene, determined by some invisible decision I didn’t appear to make.
What’s more, there’s no chapter select, no way to skip scene’s you’ve already seen or any way to rewind to a previous choice. If you end up inadvertently choosing a narrative branch you’ve already been down, your only option restarting the game from the beginning. The first 3 times I played Afterlife, I followed an almost identical path because I followed the general focal point of the game’s natural progression, looking at the characters that were talking when they did so. To divert from this route, I ended up eye-balling a character for an entire scene, even when they were just standing there doing nothing, just to make sure I didn’t end up doing the same scene for a 4th time.
The clunky, unexplained and unintuitive nature of the interactivity in Afterlife is somewhat overcome by the performances. The actors, Alarey Alsip, Hubert Proulx and Emeila Hellman all put on very believable characters. Alsip, a picture of grief at times, bounces off Proulx incredibly well. The latter also has an incredibly powerful breakdown that’s as real as any acting I’ve seen. Hellman does a lot with her role of a stereotypical teen dealing with less than typical circumstances. Content wise, it’s all worth watching once but having watched certain branches a number of times, it becomes apparent that the performances are much better than the script deserves.
As for visual quality, the debate over whether 360 degree movies should be classed as “virtual reality” rolls on within certain circles but in Afterlife, the 3D effect and the quality of the filming is some of the best I’ve seen. Unlike so many other 360 degree video’s I’ve watched, there’s no seams between camera angles (okay, I spotted 1 but it was in a corner of a room away from the action and I really had to look for it). There’s even a very cool moment in this experience where a character walks through the camera positioning, a feat I’m still impressed by which really cements the feeling of being a ghostly voyeur.
Afterlife – The Verdict
Afterlife falls into those cracks between game and cinematic creations and is worse for it. Without a UI or any indication on how to experience its branching narrative without blindly stumbling through it, it fails as a VR game. Without the set cinematic frame, of the direction that all standard movies have, you can miss some of the better moments in the because it’s going on behind or to the periphery of your vision. The performances and the more powerful moments of this experience make it easy to see it has been nominated for a number of high profile awards – but for me, this virtual voyeuristic experience lacks the clarity provided by the staples of either medium to really capitalise on its more powerful moments.
Afterlife is available now on PSVR via PS4 (Review version), PC for VR platforms ( Oculus Rift, Oculus Go, GearVR, Steam, HTC Vive ) and mobile platforms.
Developer: Signal Space Lab Publisher: Signal Space Lab
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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