Outdrink Satan To Escape Hell In Oxenfree Dev’s Next Game, Afterparty

Night School Studio’s Afterparty captures the same colorful graphic novel art style–complete with speech balloons–as the developer’s first game, Oxenfree. Its hilarious writing is brought to life through an excellent assortment of voice actors as well. However, the simpler mechanics in Oxenfree have become more complex in Afterparty, and the world feels larger and more alive. The writing, though still humorous, is definitely intended for a more mature audience as well.

During GDC 2019, I had the opportunity to talk to Night School co-founders Sean Krankel and Adam Hines, as well as see 20 minutes-or-so of gameplay from early in Afterparty’s story. You can read my interview with Krankel and Hines below.

Gameplay wise, Afterparty handles a lot like Oxenfree, with the major mechanics at your control being walking around and choosing dialogue options during conversations. Afterparty does shake up the formula a bit with mini activities, like beer pong, sprinkled throughout and a system where getting drunk opens up new dialogue options–such as angrily insulting someone or flirting. You also have access to hell’s version of Twitter, called Bicker, which gives you insight into what people are thinking or feeling.

Afterparty is currently scheduled for a 2019 release on Xbox One, PS4, PC, and Switch. The game launches day one on Xbox One Game Pass.

Note: edits were made to the interview in order to make certain parts of it easier to read.

Night School Studios GDC 2019 Interview

So one of the best parts about Oxenfree was that–even though it wasn’t a short game by any means–it was short enough that you could easily play through it a few times and get the different endings. Is that going to be the same for Afterparty?

Sean Krankel: [Afterparty is] a lot bigger, but a single play through probably is six to seven hours in this one. But you’re gonna miss stuff no matter what, whereas in Oxenfree it was a very set sort of linear story that the player was given a lot of agency how they push and pull. This is also like, “Well, if I miss this, I can’t go back and do this.”

That was a decision we made pretty early on where we were like, do we do the thing where you get right up to the end of the game and then you’re like, “I’m gonna 100 percent everything and then go through the door,” you know? Or do we want to be like no, it’s a crazy night out and you’re gonna miss stuff. And yeah, you don’t know. It’s hard to tell what’s gonna happen next.

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It’s been a much crazier spaghetti of writing for [Adam] because now, even just on those dialogue options, like instead of three options now there’s six or seven potentially at literally any time you can talk, right? So the script is way bigger than Oxenfree was. But that’s more to give players just more agency over how it changes.

As for replayability, that was something we didn’t expect as much of when Oxenfree shipped, was that people were getting back to us, saying, “Okay, on my third play through, blah blah blah.” And we’re like oh my god, we don’t even do anything to reward you! So we’re baking more into this to support that type of play style.

So will there only be one or two different endings? Because it sounds like there’s a lot of different choices you’ll be making, which I imagine means exponentially more endings this time around in comparison to Oxenfree.

Adam Hines: I don’t want to spoil things. But yeah, basically a little more than a handful of like giant, massive versions of the endings, and then within each version there’s a lot of who’s there and who’s not there, and who’s your pal and who’s not your pal, and who have you pissed off.

What was the decision process behind two playable protagonists? Because you can kind of argue that Alex and her step-brother Jonas are both the protagonists of Oxenfree, but you’re very much just in control of Alex for pretty much the entire game.

Krankel: We talked about that for a while in the beginning, and ultimately where we landed was we’re making a playable buddy adventure type of a thing, right? And it was like, you wouldn’t want to be just Ted; you’d want to be Billy and Ted. So we kinda just kept leaning into that, going like how can we make the player feel like they’re in one of those movies. And controlling these two characters very early on was a thing that we were like yes, that’s a new innovation that we can try to put a stake in the ground for.

And because of that, we really tried to also then craft the story around that, around players’ expectations of that. So in the beginning, where it was fairly seamless about how you’re bouncing between the two, we’re gonna throw stuff at them as characters that will test their friendship as well. So it’s stuff that, you know, just from a player expectation perspective we wanted to fulfill, but it’s also stuff that for us as the creators we can really then play with and subvert expectations because they do think they’re just attached at the hip, and things can change in friendships.

And what’s the inspiration behind going a more supernatural route, as opposed to sci-fi, this time?

Hines: I think just a break. Even though Oxenfree did feel very supernatural, and otherworldly, and I can think of things throughout that game that can’t possibly happen in real life, we wanted the story to feel at least like there’s some sort of plausible sounding scientific explanation for everything that occurs. And then in Afterparty, since we knew it was gonna be primarily a comedy and just have more of a zany Simpsons, Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman tone, we just kinda wanted our tool chest to be as big as possible. So yeah, we just wanted to be able to kinda throw whatever we wanted in there.

But then too, just the fact that you’re in hell means it’s gonna be a magical, fantastic experience. So making things have any kind of scientific reasoning just definitely went out the window with that choice.

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Krankel: It just evolved. This is similar to what happened with Oxenfree too, where creating a story game like this from the ground up means that the mechanics can really inform aspects of the story and vice versa. And like Oxenfree’s story, so much of it was born from us initially just going like we want a game where you can communicate and move. Like that was it. We were like okay, well, how big of a game should we make? And then it’s like okay, well how big is the cast, and what’s the setting? And then suddenly that starts to inform and inspire certain things.

And we were looking at, you know, like Papers, Please and thinking about how economic and efficient that game is, and the storytelling that can be done with a lot of characters from various walks of life but in a single settings. And so we thought a bar was like a fun version of that, instead of the DMV or something.

And so then we were like okay, well a bar’s cool, and then we thought well you’re probably gonna be a bartender. So we spent a lot of time doing that, and then we’re like you don’t want to be the bartender; you want to be partying. So then that evolved into how about a game about going on a crazy pub crawl?

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So hell was not part of any of it during that phase. It was more like just over the top pub crawl. And then one day we were walking through a massive cemetery called Forest Lawn across the street from our office, which is where, I don’t know, like every actor from 1930 ’til now is buried. So we’re walking through these giant graves and we’re like, “What if it’s Satan? That’d be funny!” And then we were like, “That’s stupid,” and then we moved on, and then a week later we were like, “No, that’s pretty good.”

And then that really became that final glue throughout all of it because hell afforded us the opportunity to have something that is familiar enough to most people but that we can define our own version of hell. So it’s not the pitchfork, orange fire, heavy metal hell; it’s like our own weird party version of hell. So yeah, it really just kind of all came together based on little micro-decisions.

So even though Afterparty uses the same style of dialogue that Oxenfree did where you can interrupt people or just kind of wait it out and let your dialogue go away, it’s more of a comedy. And one of the big things about comedy is timing, so how did you write in jokes?

Hines: That aspect, yeah, it’s tough. It’s just tough because we’ll watch people play and I’m like “No no no no, stay there. Please don’t run away.”

Honestly, it’s a lot of getting just the dialogue to overlap in the exact right way and kind of having the joke’s needs not be based on button presses. Because if that happened, it would just be impossible. No one’s gonna talk exactly how you wanted to when you design it. So it’s just a matter of making sure that the jokes and the comedy kinda come within their own little controlled timing-wise beats, but then the strings that get you there are completely defined by what the player wants to do.

We really want this game to feel like you’re creating the comedy. Like the jokes wouldn’t be a thing unless you walked over there and do something. It’s just a lot of trial and error trying to get the timing right.

Can we expect any sort of Oxenfree Easter eggs in Afterparty? You don’t have to spoil what they are.

Krankel: That’s funny you ask that because literally last week we were talking about this, right? And we won’t say what they are, if they will be there, but probably.

Hines: Oh, there is gonna be an Oxenfree Easter egg! Oh, yes.

Krankel: We don’t know what it’ll be, but yeah. It’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Does the social media feature play into Afterparty mechanically at any point? Will you need to kind of know what people are thinking based off their social media?

Krankel: Sometimes quest relevant information will come out, for sure.

Hines: They’re kind of an evolution in a way of how in Oxenfree when you’ll be talking to somebody and a little icon would appear above their heads, meaning that their opinion of you or the other characters has changed in some way. And we liked it in Oxenfree, but that was kind of an, not an esoteric, but kind of an oblique system that not everyone fully understood.

So with this bigger system, we’re kind of able to be much more explicit with exactly what the characters are thinking about at any given time. And it’s just a very natural fit for the game, so it’s been working really well in terms of both like a feedback loop, in terms of what characters that even aren’t on screen are thinking about or doing at the same time, while also giving you like quest info or hints. Because you can access that Bicker feed like in the map screen whenever you want, and so there’s a linear feed, just like a real timeline that you can see what everybody has said.

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Krankel: To Adam’s point, one of the challenges with any story game is making it feel like the rest of the world is moving on without the player. A lot of what we wanted to do here was make it feel like the whole world is going on without you, while some of the impact that you can have is just based on spatially where you are; not what you’re saying, but where you decide to be or what you’ve done in a specific location.

And so Bicker lets us know what’s going on on a whole other island without having to actually be there. So it’s like efficient, and fun, and everybody’s feed will be different, so it’s pretty cool. There’s a ton of different posts.

For Afterparty, is it just Milo and Lola or will their partnership grow into a group?

Hines: It’s very focused on Milo and Lola, and one of the big themes, if not the big theme, is what friendship is. And particularly a close friendship that lasts as long as it has for them, and what can go wrong, and what can go right, and the resentment that can build. But also at the same time, it’s about getting new friends, so you throughout the game you’ll encounter characters that kind of pop up more and kind of become a part of your journey in a way.

So yeah, it’s definitely not just constrained to Milo and Lola. They’re the focus, but much like any kind of wild night out, you’ll see people at one bar, then see them again, you’ll join up for a bit, and then maybe they’ll disappear for a while. We really wanted to replicate the experience of one really long night out amongst multiple bars where you’re running into your old friends and things.