Afterparty

I’ve played many good to great video games in my life, but the ones that left me inspired, or reeling, or kept me up at night thinking about them after completing them is a much shorter list. One such game was Oxenfree, from developer Night School Studio. It was another entry into the surprisingly large “story-based games where Pacific Northwest teenage girls encounter the supernatural” genre, but it ditched the standard “game stops so you can make a dialogue” choice dialogue mechanics of previous games and let you have natural conversations while traversing beautiful, hand-painted landscapes, set to a chilling soundtrack by scntfc that merged digital and analog sounds into a haunting mix. Add a dash of timey-wimey looping action and a mind-bending New Game+ ending, and it was my game of the year for 2016.

Night School is back, and last month they released Afterparty. The game can be boiled down into a high-concept pitch: “Two dead people attempt to escape Hell by outdrinking Satan.” The dead, in this case, are best friends Lola and Milo, celebrating the end of college one moment, and then the next, finding themselves in the Underworld. The only way out is through the aforementioned contest with the Devil—but the remarkably chummy Lucifer isn’t interested in making it quite so simple, so Milo and Lola end up traversing Hell’s neighborhoods to make their roundabout shot at escape. And when the chance to get out of hell finally arrives… it doesn’t feel like the victory Milo and Lola hoped for.

Like Oxenfree, the walk-and-talk mechanics comes over pretty much unchanged, but the difference with Afterparty one of your dialogue options only appears when you’ve been drinking, and that third dialogue option is influenced by just what you drank. You could sound like a pirate, a lovesick Romeo, a quippy movie star, or a sports-obsessed doofus. You can also choose to give yourself liquid courage or unrelenting aggression, and in some cases these choices unlock the paths forward. The characters and voice actors are up to the task, and by far the most enjoyable part of Afterparty is the denizens you come across and how they are portrayed.

There were a few criticisms of Oxenfree, and Night School seems to have taken them to heart with improvements here. Oxenfree didn’t have a whole lot of gameplay beyond the dialogue options; mostly it was just walking around, and then tuning some radios. Afterparty adds a bit more to the toolbag. While it never really feels quite like a LucasArts item-based puzzle game, there are more branching paths and mini games (such as beer pong, dancing, and building shot glass towers) to spice things up for the people who don’t just want to talk through every beat. As a result, Afterparty feels a bit more varied and less linear.

The shame is that, despite these changes, and keeping many of the same ingredients as Oxenfree (scntfc returns as composer, and some of the same voice actors return as well) Afterparty feels like a pale imitation. The problems start with the setting: Hell is populated with a number of demons and other souls, but you can interact with very few of them, and the game doesn’t offer the same rewards for exploration that Oxenfree did. Hell ends up feeling… rather pedestrian and ordinary. Barren, even. The story, too, never really embraces the setting. Satan is depicted as still smarting from his breakup with dad, but the game surprisingly avoids a lot of interrogation of what Hell represents. Here, people end up tormented eternally for minor jackassery, and Lola and Milo themselves don’t really ever learn exactly why they’re down there. The justness of Hell versus Heaven, how Demons are forced into the job of torment, and how everyone just goes drinking after work hours—it ends up feeling rather low-effort and low-stakes for the characters. Add in technical issues and poor performance on many of the platforms the game was released on, and it just feels underdone. It’s a more ambitious throw than Oxenfree, but Afterparty doesn’t really sink the shot.

Box Office Originality In the Modern Era

On Twitter, Todd Vaziri posted a series of tweets pointing out that domestically and worldwide, the vast majority of films this year are adaptations or sequels.

I and others pointed out that his point of comparison, 1981, was a bit odd; why a year 14 years in the past? And do two years adequately function as evidence for any sort of commentary? Todd suggested more investigation was warranted, and I agreed. There’s often an implication with these sorts of comparisons, not asserted by Todd but often declared by many others in many different places, that movies “back in the day” were better, or at least more original.

To take on that thesis, insofar as that you can objectively argue what are adaptations and sequels versus original works, I went through Box Office Mojo’s yearly domestic box office charts, and picked the original films out of each year’s top twenty.

In regards to actual classification, it’s worth noting upfront that this is really my count, and depending on what you classify as “original” you’ll end up with some fluctuation in your own tallies. I decided adaptations of historical events or people themselves were not enough to get classified as unoriginal, unless they were specifically adapted off a work. So in the case of Disney films like Hercules, Mulan, and Pocahontas—these count as original films based off historical or mythical events and characters. The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Adaptation. The Lion King? Well it’s a ripoff of Shakespeare, but counts as original in this instance (and Shakespeare himself isn’t exactly the font of unbridled creativity he’s sometimes portrayed as.) Also counted as “original” are parody movies (e.g. Scary Movie). There are some films I legitimately saw as toss-ups, such as the recent Maleficent, but counted as non-original because they were at least heavily drawing on a previous film, aside from previous folklore.

box office chart

There’s some takeaways here. First, in the selected period, there is a definite trendline of fewer original films, though it’s skewed heavily by just the last few years where the number has been historically low. Secondly, that drop can be mostly explained by “superhero movies” and “animated sequels”.

Indeed, animated films giveth, and animated films taketh away: in the 1990s and 2000s a bunch of original animated films pop up (Toy Story! Shrek! Ice Age! Despicable Me!) that prop up numbers of original films in one year, and drag it down significantly the next when there’s a glut of animated sequels (Toy Story 3! Shrek 3! Minions!)

I don’t think that there’s still enough data to say much about enduring trends, though. Certainly, as the worldwide box office has become more important, it’s made big, universal blockbusters with lots of effects much more of an important part of the filmmaking business. That’s coincided with the increased intensity of the blockbuster phenomenon itself (Jaws opened in 1975 at hundreds of theaters in an unusually wide release; these days films launch simultaneously at thousands.)

I’m wary of going more into whether or not this fixation on adapted properties and the associated tie-ins is a good thing; it’s certainly happening, and with the 2015 data not even including The Force Awakens this year is far from over for franchises. To me asserting that “original = better” is akin to the old adage of “CG is making movies worse“—which as a motion graphics guy myself strikes me as blaming computers for the failings of screenwriters and producers (Joe Rosensteel has several excellent pieces, including this one, that breaks down some of the rhetoric in the computer vs. practical effects debates.)

I included the original and inflation-adjusted domestic grosses for each year to suggest a possible counterpoint: that despite how much we complain about sequels, about how bad CG is, and how the 80s were the good old days, the increasing number of adaptations and sequels doesn’t seem to have actually hurt Hollywood. At least yet.