Interactive movies are on the up, with the success of last year’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch bringing this style of experience to a more mainstream audience. In Afterlife, Signal Space Lab has developed a new take on the formula, with divergent pathways being chosen without physical input — instead, the player must focus their attention on different characters to indicate whose story they wish to explore throughout the scenes. A 360-degree short film told across three chapters, Afterlife is now available on PSVR, Oculus and Vive, as well as a mobile port.
The experience opens with the tragic death of an unattended toddler, Jacob, and deals with the emotional fallout of the event as felt by his mother Emma, father Ray, and teenage sister Tessa. The player’s point of view is that of the deceased toddler, moving gradually from room to room in the house to observe your family succumbing to grief and despair, and sporadically interacting with the environment to try and send them a message. I recommend playing this standing up to better get the feel of being around four feet tall, gazing up at your parents and unable to see over counter tops. As previously mentioned, there are no on-screen options to select which narrative path to follow — and in fact I completed the first chapter of the story without being aware that I’d made a single choice, until the story map was brought up, Detroit: Become Human-style, to show the different scenes I could have watched. It’s an impressive bit of tech at work here, with scenes changing seamlessly to reflect the character your gaze has been attuned to at the end of each scene, but perhaps too subtle in the implementation. It’s hard to identify the moments at which a branching pathway is being offered, and whilst following a different character will eventually lead to different events and endings, there is no signposted correlation between choice and consequence. I felt unable to experience Afterlife naturally — when you’re accustomed to trying to take in as much detail as possible, realising you need to rigidly watch a single character to change your experience feels hobbling.
The story itself is a familiar tale of loss and a family spiralling out in different directions to deal with the death of a loved one. The mother retreats inwardly, lost in memories and audio tapes of self-help books. The father is brusque and angry. The daughter is isolated and confused, torn between keeping the family unit together, or to flee as far as possible from it. Unfortunately, the nature of the 360-degree experience means that you can’t watch this play out like a normal piece of theatre. As there aren’t directorial tricks to lead the eye or amp up the performances, scenes can lose their energy (especially when some of the key characters' melodramatic performances aren’t up to it), and it starts to feel like watching a low-budget afternoon TV drama. There are non sequiturs, unnatural conversations, and actions which doesn’t always mesh with the staging (in one such instance, the daughter is gravely asked to clear up her mother’s mess, which amounts to a handful of toys placed next to each other on the carpet).
It’s not The Room, but it is below average. With free rein over your viewpoint, you’ll take everything in, for better or for worse, an awkward fly-on-the-wall who can’t help but pick holes in the action being played out, which brings you out of the experience. You can catch a glimpse of a tattoo on the forearm of the supposedly teenage daughter, in a single scene where she isn’t wearing long sleeves. We watch a character walk downstairs from a bedroom holding an object, only to enter the house through the front door. Or the devoted husband who doesn’t wear a wedding ring, and the blank wall above the bathroom sink, where a mirror has been removed to avoid the camera capturing itself. Many of these details could be explained away — or even be made intriguing — with an aside here and there, but together they build up to a patchy stage show which I wasn’t able to invest myself in. The freedom of view is more than has been taken into account, and you can see every blemish.
I played Afterlife through three times, each taking between 30 and 50 minutes, and was pleasantly surprised with the variation in the scenes that played out as I became more accustomed to deciding which character to follow. The sheer potential of using your viewpoint to choose a path in a 360-degree environment is exciting, and this mechanic could be incorporated in any number of ways in the future. However, Afterlife is not the best first outing for it, as the seamless changing of pathways is undermined by the necessity to watch the drama with a witheringly intense focus.