Every couple of years, a game like After Us that pushes the boundaries of messaging and creativity comes out. Think of games like Braid, where we play the entire game with time, trying to rescue our princess when it turns out we were the enemy the whole time. Or Journey, where we, as a wordless robed figure, travel across these vast landscapes, occasionally coming across others attempting to scale to the summit’s peak. Intentionally mysterious and abstract, there is a significant amount of emotion that comes through in the environmental storytelling in Journey.
After Us is shaping up to be that next game, set seemingly around this ambiguous time when humans are not really around anymore, but that doesn’t mean our presence isn’t seen around the world. That’s the general overarching plot of After Us, at least what I have played so far.
In the opening, we see this lush, overgrown forest, with animals bounding around, just living their best life. As our nameless character wakes up and starts taking in the scenery, we start to see all this wildlife just begin to disappear. Then a disembodied voice proclaims that they partially saved the animals, but it is up to us to completely set them free and bring them back to this plane.
Almost immediately, the messaging around After Us is clear. First, we are thrust into a vacant parking lot, overtaken by sand and rusting cars. Then, after a brief tutorial on platforming and some movement techniques like air dashing and double jumps, we are set free to release the first animal spirit, a dog. But the journey there is a challenging one.
Along the way, we come across vast pools of water in which our character can’t swim, so we learn what I can only describe as a blossoming. Then, as we hold the shoulder button down, a brilliant shining light glows within us and explodes into this beautiful burst of grass, flowers, and trees. It really is a sight to behold. It looks absolutely stunning and also knocks back the water standing in our way.
Along the way to our main animal spirit, we can find other more minor animal spirits hidden in the environment, usually attached to some form of a platforming puzzle. When you free these more minor spirits, there is this representation in the world of now; these animals will be scattered around. Before you save any, it’s a very dreary world, but as you free more animals, the environment in After Us tends to have a little more vibrancy.
The moment eventually comes when we arrive at our first big spirit—the dog—and to put it lightly, it’s not a pretty sight. Starved and looking at its deathbed, it was rough to see, and you calmed it to passing. Its body is then covered in a blossoming of grass and flowers. Once it is free, you can return to your oasis from the beginning, simply titled the Ark, and see these freed animals running around enjoying life.
“It’s evident that After Us is trying to push this environmental awareness narrative to us and make us truly stop and think about human beings’ impact on the world.”
From there, After Us is choice-driven, allowing you to decide which spirits you want to free next. I decided I would chase down the crocodile. Almost immediately after the dog spirit, we were introduced to combat and some more very striking iconography. The combat in After Us was against an oil drilling tower that had possessed some stone figures of humans around it, covering them in this oil-like substance, and only by throwing your heart at them are you able to destroy them. It was a very visual combat sequence that I don’t think I will forget, but that mainly boils down to the overall look and feel of After Us, not so much the gameplay.
The visual aesthetic of After Us is what really pushes the narrative forward. While yes, these narrative-driven cutscenes are laying out our path and drive, it is the land masses covered in oil, skyscraper-like buildings plastered with adverts, or the very striking enemy that is basically a human with a bunch of TVs stuck to it. It’s evident that After Us is trying to push this environmental awareness narrative to us and make us truly stop and think about human beings’ impact on the world.
“The visual aesthetic of After Us is what really pushes the narrative forward.”
A decade ago, this would have been a more fun romp around a post-apocalyptic world like Tokyo Jungle. But humans have reached this tipping point on earth, and this type of message does need to be forced in front of our eyes. For that, I think After Us is incredibly successful in laying out its statement and mission; to its credit, it was extremely effective. Never before After Us have I walked away from a game thinking about the environmental impact I have had and ways to reduce it.
However, something is holding After Us back from what could be a knockout success. It’s gameplay. While the movement itself feels okay, it’s when you have to start navigating the platforming sections that the cracks begin to form. Our character feels a little too flighty, and some of the platforming itself feels awkward.
There are multiple times when you will be running up a surface, and the need will come to jump to another surface or on top of a wreaking ball, and the controls just do not want to behave, and it’s almost like your character gets lost mid-jump. This also comes where there is a change in perspective via the camera; things just ground to a halt, and trying to line up some jumps with moving objects just did not work out.
Overall, I am excited about After Us and its message. I am hoping it gets the same love that games like Journey have gotten. I just hope that some work can be done to tighten up the platforming sections a little bit so people will put the time in to get the full breadth of its incredibly important narrative.