After Us is Filled With Heartache and Hope

After Us Preview

People play video games for lots of reasons. While most of the time the goal is to escape the problems of everyday life, now and then we use games and entertainment as a way of coping or finding solace. Although its narrative premise is pretty heavy, After Us is about giving the player a sense of hope.

Talk to the Animals

After Us’ story is about the destruction of the natural world, specifically all the animals. They have fallen prey to the Devourers, oil-covered monstrosities that roam the earth, devouring what’s left of the living world. The landscape is littered with hulks of cars and machines and covered with dangerous pools of toxic waste.

You play as Gaia, the Spirit of Life, and your task is to roam the earth, discover the fate of the animals, fight the Devourers, bring back the various extinct species, and return life to the planet.

There’s no getting around that the theme is a bummer, and does nothing to disguise its disdain for the way humans have treated the environment. The bigger question is whether After Us can balance its bleak beginning with engaging gameplay and a story that has a positive resolution, if not a happy ending.

Earth Dance

Boiled down to its essence, After Us is something between a Journey-like game of exploration and an action platformer. Gaia can move through, interact with and manipulate the environment. She can temporarily transform the toxic landscape into verdant fields of grass. She can pet the spirits of animals and discover more through singing. However, After Us is not about combat. Most of Gaia’s powers are there to help her survive while she revives the world.

While the first few hours of After Us are relatively linear, it eventually opens up into branching paths for Gaia to explore. In general, Gaia’s jumping and platforming are pretty forgiving and checkpoints are frequent. It is, however, easy for Gaia to succumb to even the slightest brush in with the toxic oil sludge that coats so much of the world. As the game progresses, her toolbox for both survival and transformation grows.

Beautiful Apocalypse

Although it isn’t subtle in its message After Us has a haunting and beautiful art style. It’s bleak, with highways choked by abandoned cars and piles of flickering televisions. As Gaia enters the suburbs she’s greeted by hundreds of naked, oversized figures, frozen in place like the victims of Pompeii. They’re either fleeing or trying to reach shelter. Hard to tell, and it doesn’t really matter. They’re doomed either way.

Wherever Gaia walks, she’s trailed by colorful, blooming flowers. Her ability to bring the world back to oversaturated life is a striking visual contrast to the somber greys, blacks, and browns of the spent world. Her explorations are accompanied by a spare electronic score that further emphasizes the lonely, lifeless environment.

Agents of Change

There are stretches in After Us that have a walking-simulator lack of player interaction, and the narrative is bleak. However, it is a much more subtle story than it appears, and the Devourers are not simply agents of evil and death. Things are rarely that simple and After Us seems to recognize that truth.

I’m not sure that After Us is going to make anyone feel good about the destruction of habitat, animal extinction, and the way humans have ravaged nature. However, it may give people a bit of hope. At least in this videogame version of the world, we can return balance and bring it back to life.

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