Isolation is largely thought of as a solitary experience, and yet, over the last year, humanity has collectively experienced this feeling more so than perhaps ever before. Isolation distorts our sense of self and skews our perspective. As social beings, we require external stimulus from our environment, and others, to develop a more grounded view of ourselves.
The game opens with our protagonist, Vivi, a troubled, withdrawn office worker, boarding a train, and searching for somewhere to sit, all the while overhearing snippets of conversation from the other passengers. You are free to roam the aisles and eavesdrop on peoples' plans for the weekend; before locating a seat, and promptly drifting off.
When Vivi awakes, she finds the last train home has become the last ride to the afterlife; the carriages now populated with the souls of people, animals, and plants, departing this world.
Transported from a world where she felt isolated, yet invisible, to a world where, as the only living being, she remains isolated, yet stands out, Vivi must reassess herself, and the value of her life in the face of those who have lost theirs.
We are told that Vivi’s arrival is a mistake; one that cannot be corrected immediately. Thus in the intervening period, she is free to explore this other plane of existence, which in gameplay terms, is spent speaking to the ghostly denizens, learning how they met their demise, who they were when they were alive, and listening to their ruminations on life, death, and everything in-between.
The characters you meet are impressively broad when it comes to their age, and life experiences, yet, it’s worth mentioning that the themes that underpin their stories are heavy in nature. Some passed away in freak accidents, or whilst on life-support; others met their end in their infancy, or whilst still young; their apparition now achingly pining for the mother they can never see again.
For the most part, these interactions feel genuine and affecting, and though you need only speak to a few key characters to advance the story, I felt eager to speak to everyone onboard.
Visual novels live and die based on the quality of their prose, and the writing in What Comes After is of a fine calibre, save for some instances where the wrong tense is used. Pleasingly, the game includes some helpful quality of life features in this area, in the form of a chat log, and the ability to rapidly advance the dialogue with a press of a button.
The games’ somewhat muted colour palette fits the tone perfectly, and everything from Vivi’s run cycle to the body language of characters is well animated.
There is very little music by design. The majority of the sounds you’ll hear whilst playing will be Vivi’s footsteps as she traverses the aisles, the closing of the carriage doors, and the unobtrusive bleeps that punctuate the flow of the text on screen. There is weight enough in the words without them needing to be embellished or directed by audio. Its absence allows ample space for self-reflection, which feels very much like the focus of the game, right down to the limited gameplay.
Unlike the creator’s last game Coffee Talk, a similarly magical-realist, heart-to-heart talking simulator, where you actively employ your barista skills, and a keen sense of timing, to soothe peoples’ problems, you have very little agency with which to affect change in What Comes After. Your actions consist of moving Vivi left and right, and conversing with souls of the deceased. There are no dialogue options, items, puzzles, or fetch quests to be had here.
The player, much like Vivi herself, and the games’ assorted cast of characters, are passengers, along for the ride; bound to a temporary phase of inaction in which they are encouraged to re-evaluate how they view themselves via the prism of honest conversation and the stories of others.
What Comes After is a short story in every sense. An average playthrough takes around 1-2 hours. That said, quality should trump quantity, and what’s here is well written, animated, affecting, and achieves what it sets out to do.
Whilst the restrained gameplay is by-design, it may be a sticking point for those seeking a more involved experience. If however, a relatively more passive, contemplative, yet heartfelt sojourn feels welcome to you right now in these uncertain times where life is on pause, then perhaps What Comes After can give you pause for thought, and help you reappraise ‘what comes after’.
What Comes After launches on Nintendo Switch on the 1st of April for £5.99. Pre-orders are now open on the Nintendo Switch eShop.
A download code for What Comes After was kindly provided by the games’ publisher, Flynns Arcade for the purposes of this review.