Sean Krankel, founder and CEO of development team Night School Studio, sounds surprised when I tell him his company is nearly four years old. In his head, he says, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. In his head, he says, it’s still weird to not be the studio just making the company’s first game, Oxenfree.
Released for PC and Xbox One in January 2016, the B-grade horror movie-inspired game found a large audience that connected with its characters, relating to the organic dialogue and storylines of the five-person cast.
But, as Krankel points out, Night School isn’t the team making Oxenfree anymore. After spending time making a Mr. Robot mobile game and porting Oxenfree to seemingly everything with a screen, the team is working on its next game, Afterparty, set to release in 2019. It’s a game about two best friends, Milo and Lola, who die, go to hell and challenge the devil to a drinking match in an effort to save their souls from eternal damnation.
Below, I catch up with Krankel to talk about Oxenfree two years later, Afterparty, writing teenagers, what people drink in hell, and the lessons his team’s learned over the past four years.
Polygon: What do you think were the successes of Oxenfree?
Sean Krankel: The primary goal for us — even before we knew what that story was going to be — was to make a story game where there were no cutscenes and where the control was never taken away from the player at any point. That’s what we, essentially, spent all our effort on. I feel like that came through. Now having some distance from the game — I actually booted it up the other day because I [hadn’t] played it in a while — there is this detachment that I have from it now where I can start to look at it more as a player. I really think that worked. We made a game that does make you feel as though you’re Alex and you get to telegraph your own version of yourself into that character and play through that night in a way that feels pretty naturalistic. I think that worked well.
I also look back at the merging of the visual aesthetic and the sound design and music that [Andy Rohrmann] came up with. ... That is another one where I feel like there’s this intangible thing of the merging of Heather Gross’s art style and [Rohrmann’s] music that I just wanna spend time in that space. It’s not a thing I can really put my finger on, other than spending six hours here feels good and cool.
Polygon: On the flip side of that, what do you think are the shortcomings of that project? Are there things you wish you could change?
SK: Sure. I mean, there’s things that we want to improve for our next stuff. But I don’t know if we’d change [them] now. One of things that we wanted to do was be really opaque about how the dialogue system worked and not show players much of what was going on under the hood, and just make it feel like this organic experience of moving through this world. That’s great — I think that [was the right direction]. One of the things we did, though, was also add those little thought bubbles that show up over the NPCs whenever something of interest to that character is spoken in the game or an event happens. I think we were a little too opaque with that one because nobody understood what the hell [those bubbles were]. [Laughs] We wanted it be like these characters are all changing their opinions of each other and how cool is that that it’s not just them changing their opinions of the player — like other games do — but they’re all thinking different things about each other and that will manifest later in the game. And honestly, it just confused players. At best, they maybe guessed what it intended to do. But it certainly didn’t give the feel that we were hoping for. So that would be one of them.
And then the other one: If we had more time, I think we would’ve made navigation feel more enjoyable. I think that it’s a little bit slower [than we wanted it to be], and there were a few bugs when we shipped related to how you move through the physical space that were a little frustrating. So those were kinda the big ones. But ... yeah, I don’t know that I would say that we would change those things. It’s just things that now [that] we have distance from the game, we can learn from them and build on top of them.
Polygon: How are you implementing these lessons from Oxenfree into Afterparty?
SK: Where we landed was we wanted to take all the things that we thought we did well on Oxenfree and change them and build on top of them. So there’s not a single system in the game that we haven’t rethought or added to. But we haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water. We want to keep the branching dialogue in real time because we know it works — we have a set of tools that we’ve built on; we can continue to iterate on that. But in addition to that, we wanted to add this whole drinking system.
So the way that the drinking system works — it really is like an augment to your dialogue. You can kind of roleplay with these various drinks. So, you go up to the bar and maybe you want to be a little more aggressive, maybe you wanna be funny, maybe you wanna be flirty, and there’s kind of a different drink for different attitudes that you may want. If you don’t have a drink, you’ve got some standard dialogue options. But if you do have a drink, those options get added — like a weapon, basically. What that meant was a hell of a lot more writing. But it also means, ideally, you can kind of play it how you might play it when you go out with your friends. It’s like, what kind of drink do you usually have and how do you want the conversation to unfold?
Polygon: I don’t want to forget about the Mr. Robot game. What were the main lessons from that project, and what are the lessons you’re applying to Afterparty?
SK: The cool thing with that game, that we found, was the more art and stuff you strip away, the more oddly real it felt. There were a couple playtests we did where people literally thought — and I’m not saying that is everybody — but a few people thought legitimately another person was on the other line talking to them. They [were] like, “How are you going to do this? How is this going to work?” [Laughs] So that was pretty cool. I guess it’s that uncanny valley thing where if you don’t see any person, then there’s no space for the uncanny valley — and the illusion really held up. Texting and the idea of asynchronous communication and how we all communicate now and text and have for, whatever, a decade, is so different yet intertwined in what we all are as people living day to day. We put all of that — or a lot of that — into Afterparty. [You can] text with other people and the way that functions is pretty similar to what you saw in Mr. Robot. That’s probably the biggest one. … Pretty much all the stuff we did in Robot is in Afterparty.
Polygon: You mentioned writing. How long is a typical Night School script? David Cage is always flaunting that his scripts are 100,000 pages or something.
SK: It varies. It’s definitely not 100,000 pages. [Laughs] I think the Oxenfree script was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,400 pages. So still a lot. It’s, whatever, eight movies or more. And this one will be a longer script than that, but I think that’s mostly because we have more and more choices and different types of things you can do. The playtime will still be about the same, like six to eight hours. But for us, the length of these scripts is more of a necessity. I don’t think Adam [Hines] or our other writers are dying to write 1,600 pages. It’s just more of an extension of the amount of choice we want to give players in the moment.
Polygon: The way you all handle dialogue and storytelling, I thought Oxenfree nailed how teenagers actually talk, for the most part. How do you do that? Are you focus testing the game with local teens outside a 7-11? I hope that is your answer.
SK: [Laughs] Yeah, we’ve actually just captured a collection of teenagers. They’re two and a half years older now so we have to free them soon.
No. I really wanna give all the credit to the writing, and that approach to writing, to Adam [Hines], my co-founder. When we were initially coming up with the cast and the design for the game, we wanted to make sure that it did feel authentic. But authentic just means make them smart, interesting characters. Don’t be a try-hard game. We just didn’t really want to feel like we were putting so much effort into sounding of a certain [era], because everybody’s slang changes every year, basically. It was more about making these [characters] feel like real characters that you want to spend a fair amount of time around. There wasn’t a ton of effort put into them feeling like they’re 16, 17 years old. It was more about making them interesting characters to be around.
Polygon: Oxenfree is on pretty much anything with a screen at this point. Can you reveal how much the game’s sold to date?
SK: Sure, yeah. We are over a million units, which is super exciting. I won’t go into tons of detail, but I will say the two really surprising platforms for us, later in the game’s life cycle, have been iOS and Switch.
Polygon: I feel like, on Switch, and especially mobile, you can reach an audience that doesn’t typically play a lot of games or that might play games but doesn’t want to invest in a $500 Xbox or something.
SK: Yeah, exactly.
Polygon: The reason I ask about that — the game sold well, it was nominated for awards, it won awards. So for all intents and purposes, it was a success. Are there fears that come with following up such a successful game?
SK: Absolutely. … We don’t want people to think that we’re just coming up with a formula and lather, rinse, repeat that formula. Because we don’t think that works, right? So we wanted to make sure — and it’s not like there’s a science to it — but we just want to make sure that the game has [enough] new, different types of things in it that it doesn’t just feel like it’s Oxenfree. And I think the big decision that we made early on was more from a narrative perspective, that we wanted a pretty big tonal shift and that we wanted to not just be known as an indie supernatural house. [Laughs] ... For this one, we were like, “What’s another thing we just love?” We kept talking about all these comedy adventures of benders that happen in one night — it’s everything from Bill and Ted to the Edgar Wright movies to Superbad. We were like, “A playable version of that where you can push and pull at that seems really cool.” That was a big part of it.
I think the other thing was we wanted to age it up — but not too much. So we figured that basically the people who played Oxenfree, if they were about the same age as the people in Oxenfree, when this comes out they’ll be about this age. Our lead characters are like 21 years old, 22 years old. We wanted it to feel like this game could be growing with our audience as well.
It is scary, for sure, to follow up a game that’s done well, but it’s not as scary as following up one that didn’t do well.
Polygon: Sure, yeah. So no Afterparty battle royale mode?
SK: [Laughs] There probably will not be.
Polygon: I mean, you could drink 100 drinks, I guess, and the last man standing wins.
SK: I mean, the funny thing is we do have drinking contests in the game that are kinda like a reverse Jenga — where you’re pounding drinks and talking and you’re managing your drunk meter and it’s stacking up. It does lend itself to multiplayer.
Polygon: So anybody that’s straight edge has no chance of getting out of hell?
SK: Well, similar to Oxenfree, you can play the game without doing certain things. So like in Oxenfree you could play through almost completely silently. And this game, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be drinking the whole time. You will probably do some other bad things, but you don’t need to be pounding drinks the whole time.
Polygon: Do they just drink normal liquor in hell?
SK: Some of it is normal liquor and some of it is just nasty stuff that you’ll see as they go through. It’s a mix of the two. We didn’t want the drinks to be so ridiculous that they’re all just these Harry Potter potions. If you’re a whisky drinker, we want you to feel at home in hell.
Polygon: Last question for you. For fans of Oxenfree, what’s going to be the most surprising thing about Afterparty?
SK: This game, we want it to feel like my playthrough will be completely different than your playthrough — both in the order of events and just what you see. The big challenge on this one is making it feel like there is an overall arc and it’s not just a series of unconnected events. But at the same time, having it feel like when you look back at the night’s events, you’re like, “Wow! I made all that happen. I chose for all of that to happen.” That is, I think, the biggest thing that we’re hoping for.