Released for Playstation VR, Rift (and Go) and Vive headsets, Afterlife is an interactive movie designed for VR by developer Signal Space Lab. There is a non-vr version for iOS as well, but we tested the experience on Playstation VR.
Of course, interactive movies aren’t new to videogames. It was a bit of a “thing” in the nineties when CD-ROM technology was introduced, often with mixed results. Some of the enduring early successes include The 7th Guest and Mad Dog McCree, and later on the Tex Murphy and Wing Commander games stand out as memorable. A-list actors including Dennis Hopper and Mark Hamill started appearing in them, but for every decent production there seemed to be a couple of mediocre ones – and the genre vanished.
In recent years, we’ve seen a few attempts to revive the genre. We reviewed Missing: An Interactive Thriller, Sony used Playlink for Hidden Agenda and Wales Interactive’s catalogue includes the excellent Late Shift, for instance. Afterlife represents another step for the franchise, though the direction of the step is a matter of interpretation and perspective.
Afterlife’s tale is an emotional one, where sadness and grief play a big part in the story. It revolves around a family that has just tragically lost their young son, and shows you how the different family members (the father, mother and older sister) deal with this situation. Putting a strain on the family, they all deal with loss in their own way, resorting to anger, frustration and/or the need to hide or run away.
What Afterlife introduces to the way the story is delivered is VR. The entire movie must be viewed through the PSVR headset, though I should point out that it has a runtime that’s not much longer than a regular TV show episode and wraps up in less than an hour. There is no need for a controller after the movie starts, which is also a first for interactive movies.
The way this works is that everything is displayed in a 360 degree perspective, so you can look all around you. The story branches out depending on where you look, and what’s impressive is that the transitions are seamless – to the point that initially you don’t even consciously make choices but just let your intuition guide you through the story (which you experience through the eyes of the deceased kid’s ghost).
Because of this, the first playthrough (or is it viewing?) is the best one. When you see the various choices you could have made and relive the story while making a special effort to branch out in a different direction, the seamless effect is just as impressive but the story feels less impactful somehow. Perhaps part of that is the sad nature of the story itself, which by nature isn’t an ‘edge of the seat/I wonder what else could happen’ kind of experience to begin with. Today’s headsets also don’t pick up your gaze through eye-tracking, and consciously moving your head to make these choices (even on your first watch) can be a little immersion-breaking.
When you view Afterlife multiple times, you also start to see little visual/acting inconsistencies and goofs here and there – the actors do a decent job but this isn’t a AAA production, not does it try to be. As such, I would recommend watching Afterlife as a very interesting demonstration of what interactive drama can be using VR, rather than a great piece of drama that can stand on its own. I still came away impressed though, but mostly by the ambitious scripting and seamless experience of it all. At its gentle asking price, that should be enough if you enjoy TV shows and movies and want a different take on it.