The number of ways that a video game can covey a story or an idea is endless. Some developers will work the story into one of the primary mechanics, or rely on symbolism and allegorical imagery to get their point across. And then some games will simply tell a story about people talking to one another, and use that conversation to open up new possibilities for the player. I had the rather fortunate experience of having my own eyes opened recently as I played through Mohammad Fahmi’s indie experiment, What Comes After.
Nearly everything about What Comes After, on the surface, can be described incredibly simply. You play as a young woman named Vivi who has just caught the final train for the evening as she’s headed home. After walking around the train a bit, she finds a seat and dozes off, only to awaken on what seems to be a train, but something seems off. Thanks to a helpful conductor, Vivi learns that she is the only living being on a train full of ghosts who are all headed to “what comes after” the details of which are intentionally withheld from both Vivi and the player.
While it may seem like a very basic idea, I quickly fell in love with What Comes After’s attention to world building. The game helpfully fills in a couple of blanks that could’ve easily been left alone. For example, every single ghost on this train is someone or something that died today and also died within ten kilometers of the train station. They even raise the question of how a system similar to this may have existed before the invention of modern trains like the one we’re currently on. Before really diving into the main elements of the game, What Comes After puts the player into a well thought out world, and while the game may be restricted to a single train, it makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.
The gameplay all comes down to two things: walking around, and talking to ghosts. Vivi is free to walk about the train cars and speak with the fellow passengers, many of whom are excited to share their stories with the one living person around. These seem to be some of the main talking points of What Comes After. Many of the passengers have their own reactions to their demise. Some wonder if they were a good enough person while they were on earth, while some are desperate for some opportunity to return to the world of the living. Some are much more content with the idea of finally being at peace while others relish the opportunity to see their loved ones again who have also passed on.
What really makes What Comes After stand out is its overall message. The writer has openly said that the game and its story are very personal to him. Even by the end of the game, we don’t have a full grasp on Vivi’s home life or her personal backstory. However, we do know that she sees herself as a burden on her family, and has at least considered the possibility of ending her own life. Even at the start of the game when she fears she might be dead, she’s fairly at peace with the idea, looking on the bright side that she may have died without any suffering, though takes into consideration what her death might mean for others.
The farther Vivi gets into the train, the crazier things start to seem. She discovers that there’s a dining car while the normal train doesn’t have such a thing, and before long she starts to encounter the ghosts of other beings that passed away that day besides humans. Once Vivi has talked enough with the spirits on board (or perhaps she doesn’t, as that’s up to you) she’s able to return to her seat and await the end of the ride where she’ll be brought back to the world of the living.
Vivi’s journey especially struck a chord with me. There’s one moment in What Comes After when Vivi expresses her feelings that she’s a burden on her family, to which a ghost simply asks her “Why do you think that?” Vivi openly tells the ghost that her family has never told her that, nor did she overhear them say it behind her back, it’s just something that she assumes is true. As someone who has struggled with anxiety, depression, and yes, a genuine worry that I’ve been a burden on my loved ones, the short story of What Comes After may resonate harder with those who have been through some of the struggles of the lead character, or indeed any of the ghosts you encounter on the train.
What Comes After doesn’t offer much in terms of gameplay, as it’s entirely built around walking left or right and talking to people. The story also isn’t very long, about an hour to maybe an hour and a half, but for me it was exactly as long as it needed to be. There are a couple of grammatical errors that might briefly remove you from the experience, but I was so engaged that it wasn’t even something that bothered me. What Comes After is a fairly short, but clearly personal game for the developer, and I think there’s a lot that will hit home with players as well. Even at the very start of the game when you’re on the living train, people are wearing masks and standing apart from one another. What Comes After is a game that came out right when some of us probably need it the most, and it takes a moment to remind us that there are always things that we should stick around for; even if it’s just a relaxing green tea latte.
John reviewed What Comes After on Steam with a personally purchased copy.