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.

OBSCURE (2004)

(PC/PS2/Xbox) Horror videogames are the best for playing with a close friend, even when they aren’t co-op and you’re just passing the controller left and right. The highs hit higher, but seem safer, and it’s a genuine bonding activity. I still have fond memories of playing RESIDENT EVIL 4 with a friend, both of us letting the other take over when it got too intense, while chowing down on some of the best garlic pita chips and hummus in Chicago.

OBSCURE is basically THE FACULTY: The videogame, and I also have fond memories of playing it in an old apartment with the lights off, brandishing my in-game flashlight. However, I did play it solo and most folks who still rave about it focus on the co-op. Rather than expound on it, I’ll let Dave Riley from our prior site, THE NEW GAMER, do so via his 2005 review. (Apologies for the few errors — the site shuttered almost a decade ago and I haven’t tended to it.)

EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE (2015)

(PC/PS4/PS5) From The Chinese Room and Dan Pinchback, the developer of DEAR ESTER — which can probably lay claim to being one of the most popular ‘walking simulators’ — came this extraordinarily fascinating and exceedingly measured look at an apocalyptic scientific event in a small English town.

It’s all there in the name: EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE. Scientific forces are toyed with, and an entire town’s inhabitants disappear. ‘You’ discover their memories and piece together the event that unfolded.

Some might not label this as horror as it’s quite bloodless — in fact, if you didn’t know the context of why you’re there, it might feel quite quaint and cozy to explore this verdant Shropshire locale — but you do know why you’re there, and you know peoples lives have disappeared, and they are not coming back. Despite being entirely different tonally, it reminds me a bit of Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS: the result of unbridled science.

I’d be remiss not to mention Jessica Curry’s orchestral score, as it’s expertly composed and woven into the work; it’s perfectly melancholy with its swell of strings and ethereal vocals, and is often what I think of first when I think of this game.

PARADISE KILLER (2020)

It took a while, but I just wrapped up PARADISE KILLER, an extremely stylish, absolutely bonkers murder mystery game for Switch/PC. It’s so bonkers that, when my wife asked why it was named PARADISE KILLER, I had to think for a bit and then responded: “It’d take me at least five minutes to detail why, and I don’t have the energy for that right now.”

That said, I do love a challenge, so here it goes: humanity has been visited by gods and, in a way to appeal to the gods’ sensibilities, a faction of semi-immortals (who go by the moniker The Syndicate) have been building ideal islands — this may or may not be a riff on Gaunilo’s ‘Lost Island’ argument, who knows? — by kidnapping mortal humans to build said islands. Unfortunately, each of the prior 24 islands have been corrupted by demonic influence, causing them to self-destruct the island and move on to a new, more perfect island. The immortals get to ascend to the new island, whereas the mortals are ceremoniously slaughtered. Island 25, dubbed Perfect 25, has been built and The Syndicate are transferring over, but halfway through the migration the leaders of The Syndicate are murdered. To solve the mystery, Syndicate investigator Lady Love Dies is brought out of her multi-million year exile. (She’d previously been tricked by a demon to help undermine an island.) The game itself has you navigate Lady Loves Dies throughout the mostly empty vaporware aesthetic of Island 24 to interrogate the remaining Syndicate members, gather evidence, and then dole out sweet bullet justice.

Phew. See? Absolutely bonkers, and I didn’t even go into the blood crystals, reality drive, or lingering ghosts.

Now, please don’t take this post as an ecstatic recommendation. This game is practically tailor-made for me, thanks to its high-concept pitch, exceedingly idiosyncratic dialogue, non-sensical item collection, low-anxiety stakes, absolutely infectious soundtrack and casual romancing, but it’s not exactly a ‘good game’. Most of the time you’re roaming around the island for hours to find someone to talk to, all while getting distracted by the numerous items that litter Island 24. You can purchase a few power-ups, which consist solely of ways to allow you to explore more of the island, slightly faster, which you’ll appreciate because you will get lost, a lot. It’s an open world game, but lacks the hallmarks of what one expects from open world design, such as sensible urban layouts or proper landmarks, or even easy fast travel. (You can fast travel, but it’ll cost you.)

Also, the end is more than slightly underwhelming. It’s worth noting that, while it’s a murder mystery, you can accuse anyone you want, regardless of evidence. Even after the trials are over, you can dole out justice haphazardly by executing or exiling anyone left on the island.

That said, it was a perfect game for me at this time, as it helped me through the tail end of winter and eased me into spring. I desperately need to pick up a copy of the soundtrack.