AFTERPARTY (2019)

Talk your way out of Hell.

Flirt your way out of Hell.

Cheat your way out of Hell.

Dance your way out of Hell.

Party your way out of Hell.

(PC/macOS/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xboxes) AFTERPARTY is another narrative-forward videogame from OXENFREE developers Night School Games. Unlike OXENFREE, a deft interactive teen horror adventure, AFTERPARTY focuses on two platonic 20-something best friends — Milo (Khoi Dao) and Lola (Janina Gavankar) — just about to graduate from college.

Then they die and go to Hell and, in order to escape they need not only outdrink Satan, but also come to terms with each other, their past, and their future.

What follows is an extremely visually striking and darkly comedic game, perhaps containing some of the filthiest, well-crafted jokes I’ve ever encountered in a game. AFTERPARTY is also brilliant with its character work — not just its honest and complicated portrayal of a platonic friendship between a man and a woman — but also with its ancillary characters, including psychopomp ferrier Sam (HORIZON: ZERO DAWN’s Ashly Burch) whose life/death is both over-shared and enigmatic at the same time.

It is worth noting that, while OXENFREE featured some intriguing interface tools apart from dialogue trees, AFTERPARTY’s non-dialogue interactivity is reduced to a number of routine mini-games. While thematically that makes sense — beer pong and rhythm mini-games make perfect sense for the material — they often feel like they emptily get in the way of what you’d rather be doing: advancing the story and learning more about the characters.

Nonetheless, it’s perfect for playing over the Halloween weekend with a friend. AFTERPARTY doesn’t overstay its welcome, and while it actually takes place in Hell, it’s more emotionally substantive than scarring.

STORIES UNTOLD (2017)

(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox One) Yesterday it was just announced that OBSERVATION developer No Code has quietly been working on a SILENT HILL game entitled SILENT HILL: TOWNFALL and, based on their prior psychological horror game STORIES UNTOLD, I’m delighted by the news and can’t wait to play it.

STORIES UNTOLD started off as a one-off short horror game called THE HOUSE ABANDON that took place in one room, in front of an old-school 80s computer where you’d interact with a text adventure (although the player does so via a LucasArt-ish SCUMM interface — in other words: a visually selectable number of verbs and nouns — instead of having to manually type commands in). It then grew to be a collection of four self-described episodes, all four (mostly) utilizing the similar single room tableau, but also incorporates interactive puzzles that somehow don’t feel contrived or shoehorned into the setting, as well as some ‘walking simulator’ elements. (I do hate that term, but it’s concise.)

This game will not be for everyone. No Code loves to focus on interfaces. Unlike OBSERVATION, which you played primarily through future-ish surveillance and digital interfaces, STORIES UNTOLD features different ones for each episode: one being the previously mentioned text adventure, another heavily relying on a microfiche reader, and another leaning hard on analog buttons and dials. It’s all supremely inventive, although I would suggest that if you can do so, play it on PC — there is a macOS version but it won’t work with Catalina or above — as the PS4 port I played was occasionally very frustrating and fiddly: the text is often too small if you’re playing in a living room and one chapter — which initially required keyboard input — is downright frustrating thanks to the reduced ‘selective’ input interface required by a controller-first sensibility.

Narratively, the game is a scarring treasure. I don’t want to go into any detail, mostly because trying to describe its delights might rob you of some of them but, while it does utilize a lot of standard psychological horror tropes, the execution and tone make them feel fresh and well-integrated with some of the more higher concept story choices.

Additionally, thanks to No Code’s resourceful reliance on environments instead of character models, it’s a visually striking game, one that knows its limitations but uses them as strengths.

It’s a thinking person’s psychological horror game, one that leans on the past while creating something completely original. Based on STORIES UNTOLD, I can’t help but believe that their iteration on SILENT HILL will be the most interesting and compelling and original one in some time.

GALAVANT (2015-2016)

(DVD/VOD) While at first blush, this fantasy musical TV series from ABC (owned by Disney) may look like it’s solely for musical theater nerds and, while I may qualify for that moniker — I admit to spending some time in high school pit orchestra, and I did willfully throw away good money to see CATS on stage two years ago — it’s smart and clever and fun enough for everyone.

Created by Dan Fogelman (who penned the similarly subversive princess film TANGLED, but is probably best known now as the creator of THIS IS US), it’s a gleefully self-aware gaggle of fairy tale male savior tropes turned on its ear, all to the tune of Alan Menken songs. Even better, every single one of the characters are interesting and very human, all fleshed out and given their own quirks, despite the fact that the show could have coasted along on caricatures.

The cast is phenomenal and includes Timothy Omundson as the idiotic king (handsomely unrecognizable from his days on MONK), Vinnie Jones as the king’s heavy hand (yes, he does sing, and he’s hilarious), Mallory Jansen as Galavant’s ‘stolen’ love, Luke Youngblood (COMMUNITY’s Magnitude) as a plucky sidekick, not to mention an astounding guest cast including: Rutger Hauer, Weird Al, John Stamos, Hugh Bonneville, Kylie Minogue, Nick Frost, and Anthony Head.

It’s utterly delightful but inexplicably unavailable via Disney+. That said, it’s well-worth hunting down a digital copy or the DVD set.

There’s a very long trailer for the first season, but it amplifies the drama and downplays the music and comedy. I recommend the German trailer instead, which is just the intro of the pilot but with German subtitles.

Disney Germany S1 opener:

American S1 trailer:

If you still aren’t sold, check out these S2 trailers/openers, because that’s really when the show doubled-down on its very specific brand of nonsense:

S2 opener:

S2’s penultimate episode’s opener (don’t be afraid of spoilers!):

I’m very grateful to my wife for boosting this show to me, even though I bluntly said ‘I don’t think I need that’ when she first recommended it to me.

VIBES (1988)

(Prime/VOD) When I first found out about VIBES a few months ago via TCM Underground, I was very upset. “What do you mean there was a late-80s film with Cyndi Lauper, Peter Falk -and- Jeff Goldblum? Why am I just finding out about this?!” Now that I’ve had a chance to watch it, I can understand why it never registered on my radar but I do feel it’s the sort of film that anyone who has any interest in either of the three performers — which I think encompasses most of humanity — needs to know about.

VIBES capitalized on the short-lived mid-80s screwball romantic adventure genre spurred by ROMANCING THE STONE and the like. It’s comprised of two psychics (Lauper & Goldblum) who are enlisted by a dodgy cad (Peter Falk) to track down treasure in a lost Incan city. As you’d expect, the romantic intrigue and banter between Lauper & Goldblum should be enough to propel the film forward but, sadly, Goldblum’s halting delivery hampers an already weak vaudevillian script. For example, here’s an exchange between veteren character actor Michael Lerner and Peter Falk, regarding Falk’s wife: “Harry, I once slept with your wife.” “Estelle? Or Vivian?” “Both.” “Well, you’re one up on me!” (Cue rimshot.)

The sole highlight is Lauper as a 1980s Mae West but, sadly, the material simply isn’t there to let her shine. While she has the enthusiasm and rhythm for the role, her jokes rely on a more energetic and combative performer than the languid Goldblum (who has since been given far more opportunities to hone his comedic timing than Lauper).

I don’t want to oversell -or- undersell this film. Veteran TV director Ken Kwapis does the best with the material as he can, Julian Sands does a classic Julian Sands heel turn, and Steve Buscemi briefly appears as a sad-sack gambler! It’s an intriguing oddity, and it’s worth your time if your Venn diagram of interests intersect with any of those I listed above.