Warning: What Comes After, and this review, contain content and themes that may be distressing to certain audiences. Discretion is advised.
When I started up What Comes After, I believed it was a game about Death. It is, after all, a game that takes place on a train ride to, well, what comes after. But it really isn’t about death. It’s about Life. About Living. And about Healing
What Comes After comes from Pikselnesia, responsible for indie game Coffee Talk and the upcoming game Afterlove EP, so it seems this sort of adventure about interacting with mundane people (Albeit in a very supernatural way) is well within their wheelhouse.
It’s not a very long game. I breezed through it in about two hours, probably less, and I went out of my way to speak with everyone. And this is a game where there isn’t much to do except talk to people.
What Comes After is a game that has something to say. It won’t hold your hand to its conclusion. It’s not subtle about its central message, but it certainly isn’t trying to be blatant either.
The developers describe it as a ‘love letter to all of you who think you’re a burden for other people.’ They mean it.
Wisdom of the Dead
This is not a gameplay-heavy game. In fact, it has some of the lightest gameplay I’ve seen outside of visual novels. You move around through a train and talk to the passengers. That’s it. There’s a sprint button, but honestly it’s mostly there because you have to backtrack to a previous car in the train at one point.
What Comes After is the classic story of a young girl falling asleep on a train and waking up to discover it has become filled with ghosts. Specifically, the train is going to what comes after life, something kept deliberately vague, though several characters speculate on it. Now while protagonist Vivi is an anxious bundle of nerves, she’s also very much not dead, which poses several concerns about her presence on the Ghostly Express. Fortunately, the stewardess assures her that she’ll be fine. Since the train can’t just reverse on a dime to get her back to the land of the living, she’ll have to take the whole round trip, but otherwise it’s only a minor inconvenience for everyone involved. Vivi chooses to spend her time talking with the ghostly passengers. Or you can just return to your seat and get the bad ending in like five minutes.
It doesn’t take very long to see that this game pulls no punches. One of the first ghosts you meet is a child who died from the hereditary condition that killed his mother. And he’s glad that his mother didn’t have to watch him waste away. Another ghost states that he’d gladly go to Hell if that is indeed where he’s going if it means people worse than him get their due punishment.
But the game also employs a good deal of humor. Mostly gallows humor, but not all of it is dark comedy. My personal favorite ghost is the one who starts theorizing on the theological implications of something as modern as a train being how ghosts are taken to what comes after.
A video game protagonist wakes up in an on-fire science lab with nothing but an AI and a high-tech gun to…
Though there are a number of somewhat odd questions raised by the game. It establishes that anything that dies within ten kilometers of the station uses this particular train to what comes after, with other stations presumably serving the same role for anything that dies in proximity to them instead. However, despite being in the middle of the city, you talk to a deer that was slain by a tiger. The circus elephant (which not-so-subtly lambasts circus animal treatment) and the giraffe (which not-so-subtly tells you to support your Zoos) both have explanations for being in the city, but Vivi seems unsurprised that a deer was killed by a tiger. I know that Pikselnesia is a foreign studio, and geography was never my best subject, but that still seems a little close to a metropolitan area.
While Vivi is here mostly to learn more about the passengers and how they lived and died, the player is here for a different reason. While you will get to know several of the people aboard the train and talk to many more, you also learn more about Vivi as a person.
What Comes After has an excellent aesthetic. The cartoony visuals look like they could be hand-drawn, but I can’t say for certain. Characters are broken down into simple shapes and while the animations aren’t as fluid as they could be, the movements look natural.
The game has a striking color palette. The colors chosen fit the mood and are pleasing to the eye. The Spooky Subway is immediately distinguishable from the brief section you spend in the land of the living, both with the change from warmer, brighter colors to the deep, dark blues and purples and with the strange fog that rolls around the bottom of the screen. Not to mention how the signs are change to bizarre symbols.
There isn’t much to say in terms of the game’s sound design. There are sounds where appropriate, and the sounds are well done, but there are hardly any sound effects outside of Vivi’s footsteps. Certain passengers animate enough to get their own noises, like the vines of Old Tree.
Did I not mention you can talk to plants and animals on this train? It seemed obvious. They’re dead, why wouldn’t you be able to speak with them?
Despite the entire game taking place on board a single train, you understand a lot about the world that Vivi lives in from your brief time aboard. There is impeccable attention to the background details all throughout the game, and the stories you hear from the other passengers are real enough to impact you as an audience with no connection to these people.
The song that plays over the game’s ending is wonderful. It’s not in English and I didn’t understand a word of it but I’m working on tracking it down, since the game’s version seems to be a cover of the song.
To The Fullest
The main point of What Comes After is not about learning to accept Death in its inevitability, but in learning to accept Life in all of its pains and horrors and loves and wonders.
Vivi is a young woman who clearly places little stock in herself. It’s rather telling that her reaction to realizing she’s on a ghost train is to feel relief that she felt no pain, and flat out admits she’d been considering it. Helping Vivi grow out of this mindset is the main point to talking with the passengers, each of whom have their own worldviews and philosophies to discuss with her.
What Comes After is a game about learning to find joy in the world. Vivi is only on the train for a few hours in-universe and even less in real time. She flat out admits that there’s no way that she can truly find her purpose in life in such a short period of time. But no one ever tells her that she should. The closest to that is the owl, who tells her that if she can’t find her own purpose she should make her own.
The animal and plant characters are clearly inhuman. They don’t act or think the way a human does. And that makes their perspectives on Vivi’s life all the more interesting. And some of the humans have their own takes that you wouldn’t expect. For example, there is an infant on board the train. Feel free to take a moment to process that. I know I did. Because everyone on the train can communicate, he holds a conversation with Vivi for a while, discussing that he’s only content to be on the train because he never got the chance to experience what he was missing. And much like Vivi he is spending his time on the journey learning about the world from others.
Vivi’s story is her own. Her circumstances are her own, and we learn about them throughout the game. But the lessons she learns are not. Many of them are important and universal. Even if the writing wasn’t as good as it is, I’d recommend it for that alone.
What Comes After is a heavy game. It is about the nature of living and the thoughts of the dying. It’s short and has its comedy, but it is still a heavy game.
It is a philosophical debate on the merits of living. On how we as humans make our lives harder for ourselves for no reason. How our actions directly and indirectly cause harm. On why living in spite of that is worth it.