Interview

How Afterlight Combines a Meaningful Story and Mesmerising Visuals — Exclusive Interview

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Afterlight

Afterlight landed on Kickstarter earlier this month, offering a sci-fi story of mental illness, backed up with moody, evocative visuals.

As the astronaut Xin, scarred by trauma after a catastrophic landing on Saturn’s moon Titan, players set out on an adventure to repair both an AI and Xin’s fractured mind in the puzzle-platformer format so powerfully realised in the likes of Inside and Black: The Fall. To learn more about this entrancing project, OnlySP reached out to Vic Franco, designer at developer Silent Road Games.

OnlySP: You’ve mentioned that the protagonist Xin suffers from trauma and what seems to be delusional disorder. How much of her mental illness is based on contemporary science, and what sort of specialists have you consulted with to ensure that your portrayal is both honest and respectful?

Franco: Xin has dissociative personality disorder based on the post-traumatic stress disorder after having seen her partners die—and other physiological and emotional conditions given by the long travel’s lack of habitability. To sum it up: if you do a long travel in a context where science hasn’t advanced enough to make hyper-light-travel or hyper-cryogenic-sleep possible, and you are forced to live together on a tiny space with people from very different cultures… There are a lot of problems and emotional issues that could prompt. If you look at the Mars 500 simulations, some astronauts just get depressed because they cannot get enough involved with people from different cultures on the simulation, that in long term, caused isolation -and, finally, depression. On that given scenario, just make the ship crash on landing. Survivors’ mental stability is impacted almost immediately.

We want to talk about the emotional side of the mental disorders—how those kinds of conditions contrive reality and twist the emotions. That is a very rare approach, more intimate, and, in the end, real. To do that, we count with a psychologist from ESA and NASA whose career is focused on emotional and behavioral features in the astronautical industry. Also, some other experts in psychology and medicine have been consulted, as well as senior game designers who have worked with such themes before.

OnlySP: Afterlight is a puzzle-based adventure game, right? How will you be adapting that core gameplay to fit the themes that you’re discussing?

Franco: In Afterlight, those themes are embodied by the relationship with the C.O.G.—Xin’s drone. I mean, you have to trust in its command to go on in the mission, but do you really have an alternative? Why does the C.O.G. always take you to places you must forget or avoid—and by being exposed to them, you get sick and, literally, make you hallucinate? Is it part of the therapy or is it a way to make you feel more suggestible, and therefore, more likely to be manipulated? We want to work on the “emotional agency,” in which your actions and decisions have more impact on what you feel.

OnlySP: Beyond the adventure gameplay, the Kickstarter page indicates that Xin will be accompanied by a kind of therapy robot called C.O.G. I’m wondering if your interactions with that assistant will be entirely linear or if there will be dialogue options based on Xin’s frame of mind?

Franco: Due to budget limitations, the non-linear features were cut very early in pre-production. The original draft of the game design document had some of those mechanics, but we thought that since Afterlight is our first game as a team, by doing this kind of non-linear story, there would be a lot more things that could possibly go wrong. So by that, we limit the interactions with the C.O.G. to be more linear. However, their communication will change depending on Xin’s mental state—as how the story is being developed in that given moment.

OnlySP: Beyond the interactions with C.O.G. and the gameplay, how else will those discussions of mental illness manifest throughout the game?

Franco: We are working in game design terms to adopt some elements from mental disorder. Those elements will be shown by Xin’s cognitive experience as well. As you can see, in the “silhouette” scene, she is having an hallucination as a flashback triggered by seeing one of her partners’ corpse on the ground.

OnlySP: Setting aside the theme, the other thing to really catch my eye was that gorgeous art style you have. You mention Lebbeus Woods and Andrei Tarkovsky as inspirations. Can you maybe talk to me about how the works of those creators speak to you and how you’re implementing that into the game?

Franco: Lebbeus’s works talk about the matter of struggle and the scars and marks the conflict leave on things. To us it’s about how humankind is obsessed to spread the species along the cosmos—and by doing that, how we pollute and transform everything in our reach. In Afterlight, we want to represent humans like the aliens on a planet. And Lebbeus’s philosophy talks about it almost directly. We are “earth forming” Titan in a way; we are “conquering”; and we are “leaving our mark” in there on the struggle with nature itself.

From Tarkovsky we are taking his pictorial approach for the emotional dimension of characters. We love how he works with natural lighting and how he composes the frame in order to get a precise representation of the emotional state of the characters. Also, he uses a lot the most superficial aspect of texture, to catch your eye on a particular element or to compose—the same kind of techniques are done in Inside.

OnlySP: You also mention Journey and Inside as artistic inspirations, but in the overall atmosphere, I also feel echoes of Firewatch and Shadow of the Colossus, and that’s got me wondering about what else you’ve drawn from?

Franco: We refer a lot those games—such as Inside and Journey. But also we’ve lot of inspiration from Hyper Light Drifter—the companion is inspired by theirs—and GRIS for the cinematic elements and the care on the emotional aspects of mental conditions.

You point at Fumito [Ueda]’s work, but we are highly influenced by his inspiration, the Greek painter Giorgio de Chirico.

OnlySP: You also mention that you’re using symbolism to incorporate narrative and theme into the environment. Could you maybe give me a quick example of that in action?

Franco: An example could be the mythological elements that confine allegorical meaning into characters or core elements of the story like Prometheus, Argus, Demiurge, etc. In the environmental staging, we will introduce more graphic representations for symbolism as well.

OnlySP: Another thing that has me intrigued is the puzzle design. You’ve mentioned that they will be based on physics and logic. Does that mean that you’re consciously avoiding the obtuse puzzle designs that you sometimes find in these kinds of games?

Franco: Yes, we are completely avoiding the “meta-puzzle” stuff. We want to do a game in which everything is diegetic and based on the core elements we offer to the player.

OnlySP: Also, how varied will those puzzles be? You mention pushing and pulling on objects and interacting with devices. Is that the full extent of player agency within the game world?

Franco: We want to give as many “Eureka moments” as we can. We are designing Afterlight in a way in which common genre mechanics turns into “wow” moments by hiding their superficial aspects in order to change its function. For example, Inside turns a pig—a threat—into a box—a tool—after a simple interaction. We are working on that kind of stuff.

That way we can talk about agency in terms that interactivity sometimes will bring changes on the nature of the elements we introduce in the game in particular moments.

OnlySP: Let’s talk a bit more about that world. How dense exactly is the gamespace that you’re currently envisioning? You mention roughly four hours of gameplay without including secrets, but what would you estimate is the uppermost limit for players to see everything Afterlight has to offer?

Franco: We want to make the players explore the “Kraken Mare” landscape. But due to our budget, the secret areas and stuff are currently depending on our Kickstarter performance. We have a lot to show, a lot to tell. Luckily, we are working on the environmental narrative in order to tell more with fewer words. But there is going to be a lot of lore unseen if we don’t reach some stretch goals.

OnlySP: From a creative standpoint, why have you chosen Titan as the setting? What does the far-flung sci-fi world offer that a more ‘grounded’ premise doesn’t?

Franco: Titan is way less used in sci-fi than Mars or the Moon. At first we set our astronaut’s story on Mars, but we wanted to make it more dramatic and in a balance between hard sci-fi and a more creative scenario.

The sci-fi aesthetic is because we love how this kind of story can bring some special conditions to use symbols and relationships. Think about Moon from Duncan Jones or Solaris from Tarkovsky. Another reason could be that in videogames, this aesthetic tends to be more attractive—and by that, profitable.

OnlySP: The description seems to promise a rather considerable background to this world. How much of that will be embedded in the game? How much will players learn about this universe just from exploring it?

Franco: We are working to let the players know about how Xin and her drone ended in those particular conditions. And I’m talking about the game’s lore and the previous story that make Xin lose her mind. I mean, we are going to introduce dialogues, flashbacks, and hallucinations, as well as other narrative elements—like environment. We have crafted a whole and solid story, and we are still working on how to communicate properly to the players.

OnlySP: How long have you been working on Afterlight, and what previous experience is the team bringing to the table?

Franco: Our creative and pre-production phases started in February 2018, but we didn’t start coding and prototyping until August.

Most of the team has already shipped some games—at least tiny games for Mobile and publicity campaigns. Others had work on the audio-visual industry as producers for years.

This is our first game as a team in Silent Road Games, but everyone has some kind of expertise in their field.

OnlySP: Given the track record of crowdfunded games, I have to ask about how confident you are that you’ll be able to meet your Q3 2020 release target. Do you have plans in place to ensure you do? Will you still aim for that same window if this crowdfunding campaign comes up short?

Franco: Our roadmap has been designed to ensure that. But we are also kind of concerned about the porting aspect—if we hit the stretch goals.

We think we can deliver the game in time, but sometimes a publisher can come into the equation, and you have to change all your plans—mostly for the better. I’m talking about other cases for games from Kickstarter, to make it clear.

In the end, there are many variables, but nowadays and sticking to the plan, we are achieving our milestones. Therefore, we have reasons to trust in our calculations.

OnlySP: If you end up needing more time, will you communicate that openly to fans? One of the biggest complaints I see isn’t necessarily that people are upset at delays, but rather at being kept out of the loop.

Franco: Absolutely. Our philosophy is to be in touch with community, because they are trusting in us from the very beginning. Although, if we think we need more time to make the game better, they are going to be the very first to know.

OnlySP: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers about the game, your team, the campaign or anything else at all?

Franco: I want to thank you all for all the caring comments and enthusiasm you are bringing to us. But also I have to make a call to action in order to spread the word.

Afterlight needs funding, and we are true believers of the crowdfunding spirit—that Kickstarter packs creators and players in a unique way into the development. Definitely, allowing all of us to be part of the emotion of creation.

We have been active backers to other campaigns for years, and we think that the true power remains in the community, and I mean all of you. By working together, we are going to build a bigger, stronger, and better Afterlight!

Thank you very much!


Afterlight is currently targeting a late 2020 release date. At the time of publication, the game had attracted more than half of its Kickstarter funding goal with 17 days remaining.

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Damien Lawardorn
Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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