I’ve played games with CGI environments and real actors via FMV, such as The 7th Guest, and I’ve played full-on FMV games, such as The Shapeshifting Detective, but I think this is the first time I’ve actually ‘played’ an FMV game in VR. Afterlife is an experience more than a game, which would explain the lack of trophies, yet it surprisingly offers a level of interaction which enables multiple playthroughs and varying outcomes, rather than simply watching a pre-recorded video from beginning to end.
It was produced by Signal Space Lab, a Canadian company who has created a number of 360-degree cinematic experiences, as well as helping with titles such as the We Happy Few VR companion on PC and PSVR. They clearly have knowledge of working with both interactive and experience-based titles within virtual reality, but how have they managed to create a seamless FMV multiple-choice narrative within this new dimension? Let’s find out…
Afterlife is the story of a family who is struggling after the death of their five-year-old son. The father is trying to move on, the mother can’t quite acknowledge that he’s gone, and the sister is stuck in the middle of her parents at polarising emotional stages. You get to watch the family, and how they try to cope with this tragic event, through the ghostly eyes of the deceased child, a silent apparition which can either interact with his grieving loved ones or sit back and observe.
Although I’ve played ‘similar’ titles which combine 360-degree video with gameplay and choices – such as the free-to-play “The Ministry of Time VR: Save the time” – Afterlife is 100% video without any green screen, virtually created environments,
or VR depth. This means that the entire experience is played out in front of you in real-time, forcing you to literally turn your entire body 360-degrees on the spot if you wish to look at the events happening all around you. There are sadly no rotation options on either controller to help those who can’t turn around fully, such as those with mobility issues or lack of space – thankfully though, the majority of the action takes place within the frontal 180-degrees. The issue for me here is the lack of depth – it’s a flat 2D video which you’re watching as you spin around. If I compare Afterlife to a random Japanese Idol FMV VR demo, which I just found on the Japanese PSN store, that one also has FMV but it’s in stereoscopic, so there’s depth to the video making the scenes seem 3D even though it’s all pre-recorded. As such, the Japanese video immersed me and made me feel like I was actually there much more than the flat presentation of Afterlife.
**Update – as advised by the Marketing Director from Signal Space Lab, enabling the subtitles (either French or English) forces Afterlife to run as a 2D (flat) 360-degree experience. However, if you turn the subtitles off, the video becomes stereoscopic 3D. This gives the illusion of depth and correct perspectives as if you’re actually sat there in the middle of the performance. This increased my immersion when I played through the entire experience once more, but this actually brought with it its own disadvantages…
Seeing as you have to turn the subtitles off to enable the 3D-mode, I had trouble understanding some of the dialogue. The new path I took this time involved your sister overhearing your parents in another room, yet all I could hear were mumbles even though she could clearly understand what was being said – this was with headphones on and the volume quite high as well. Previously, with subtitles on, moments like this were visually represented so I didn’t miss anything.
As far as I understand, there was something which meant they could only get subtitles to work in 2D-mode – but they have said that they will try and address this with future releases (if the hardware permits it).**
However, I wouldn’t disregard the experience for this one unusual ‘work-around’ option.
As Afterlife is basically a pre-recorded video, how does this work as a ‘game’? Whilst watching the events act out in front of you, the game reacts to where you’re looking without actually specifically letting you know that it’s doing this. For example, when the mother walks off after a conversation with the father, if you’re looking at her walking out the room, the viewpoint will change and you’ll now see what she gets up to in the other room. Yet, if you were looking at the father, you would have stayed and watched him. It’s a very seamless and interesting way to create a VR experience out of an FMV video.
There are a few moments in which you can grab your controller and choose which item you wish to interact with (in my case I made a ball fly out of the window and smack someone on the head to show that my spirit was still there), having your choice change the narrative just like whichever person you choose to watch does. You see, there’s actually a timeline within Afterlife, detailing what scenes you’ve watched and what alternative choices you could have made to see a different event – just like in Detroit: Become Human.
This opens the experience up for replayability as there are 29 choices/events in total, leading you towards three possible endings based on who you watched and what you interacted with. As I said though, some of these ‘choices’ are tricky to spot as you have to be looking at specific things in order to trigger them, so each playthrough will be different for every player due to what intrigues them most within the scene.
My main complaint about Afterlife has to be that there are literally no trophies – no rewards or incentives to seek out and watch all of the branches other than for your own entertainment. I know, trophies don’t matter and it’s all about having fun playing games and being entertained, but seeing as the game has multiple outcomes and pathways, I would have thought it would have been classed as a ‘game’ and had trophies. Regardless, I’m still going to go back and try and watch all three endings as the story is interesting and I’m intrigued to see what the other outcomes are.
My second complaint lies within the quality of the experience itself. Afterlife is available on PSVR, PC VR and mobile devices, yet the video quality presented on PSVR seems rather low in comparison to other FMV games I’ve seen within VR on the PS4.
I just felt it would have been better if it was maybe shot in 4k, or at least a higher bit-rate, as it felt like I was watching a Standard Definition video file. **Update – I’ve been informed that Afterlife was shot in 4k but the video compression required for various platforms (in this case PSVR) is the reason the video isn’t as clear as it could be. Other platforms, such as PC, will display a much higher quality video feed**
Also, at no fault of the game (as it’s something I’ve seen in other FMV-based VR 360-degree videos), the 3D-mode runs at a lower framerate than the 2D (subtitles) mode. I’m not sure why this is but whenever you turn on stereoscopic 3D (in any FMV title) the PS4 seems to run the video at ~24hz, making it noticeably jankier than the 2D 30hz. But, as I said, this is a PSVR hardware issue and nothing to do with the actual product we’re looking at.
Finally, the acting had its ups and downs in my opinion. Certain scenes didn’t feel ‘real’ and the acting wasn’t ‘natural’ enough to become fully immersed. When compared to brilliant FMV narrative adventures, such as Doctor Dekker and The Shapeshifting Detective from D’Avekki Studios, it’s a big difference in terms of how the lines are delivered and how much I believe the events which are taking place. I’m not saying that Afterlife is bad, it just wasn’t as realistic as I was hoping for.
Should you buy it?
After watching a ‘behind the scenes’ for the game, it appears that the creators were targeting three types of people, gamers, theatre lovers, and those interested in cinematic narratives. Gamers are drawn in with the interactive and branching pathway aspect, theatre fans will enjoy being up close to the live-action acting in front of them, and cinematic narrative fans will enjoy the story being told. But, is this a case of trying to pander for too many people has diluted the overall experience and created something which ultimately nobody will enjoy? No, not in my opinion.
At its current price (£5.35 on PSVR yet £1.99 on the iOS store), you’re getting a ~forty-minute short-film with replayability and a changing narrative based on what you’re looking at – which is a great mechanic. Sure, I have a few issues with the video compression quality and the lack of trophies (which I still don’t understand why they weren’t included), but I enjoyed the overall experience and the seamless transition to the various branches was a cool thing to see take place without even realising it was happening.
In terms of the sensitive nature of the game – the events following the death of a child – this type of narrative may not be for everyone. The game doesn’t focus on the death, and there are no graphic imagery or symbolism, but it does show the effect of grief at various stages within the family members he left behind. As such, if you’ve recently gone through a loss then you may connect or relate to the events being played out more than someone who hasn’t gone through such a tragedy – viewer discretion is advised.
On a side note, I’ve just completed a second pathway and it was quite emotional, more than the first path I took. So be prepared if you’re a sensitive person.
The concept of Afterlife is very interesting, combining FMV with hands-free choices whilst within VR. I’d say the producers did a great job of seamlessly transitioning you down the various pathways as I didn’t even realise there were branches until the timeline popped up. However, the lack of trophies for the ‘gamers’ and low-quality compressed video file reduced my overall enjoyment of this experimental experience, despite actually enjoying the story and being immersed at all times (once I turned off the subtitles so the 3D-mode was enabled).
If you’re looking for something new to try out in VR, and have an hour to spare, I feel the narrative experience of Afterlife is completely worth the asking price.
- - Experimental mechanics which surprisingly works really well
- - Interesting story showing the various levels of grief people go through
- - Has a timeline with 29 choices and 3 endings
- - Very immersive once you disable subtitles and run the game in full 3D-mode
- - Despite having actual game mechanics, there's no trophies
- - The quality of the video is rather low, making the image look blurry and washed out sometimes (due to PSVR compression)
- - Some of the scenes could have been acted a little better
- - No way to rotate in-game with the controller, you have to physically spin yourself around in real life to see everything
- - Did I mention there's no trophies?