After Us Hero Image

‘Conceptual Opera’ After Us Breaks Game Design Rules By Introducing Emotions

We like to say that our teams at Piccolo Studio “craft” games. We’re convinced that video games are the most powerful medium to tell a story – and as game directors, Jordi Ministral and I enjoy telling them through what makes this medium special: gameplay.

We released Arise: A Simple Story three years ago and, together with Private Division, tomorrow on May 23 we are launching our newest game, After Us.

Arise: A Simple Story was a tender lullaby, playing with time mechanics to explore the memories of a recently deceased elderly man. Now, building on practical experience, After Us is closer to a conceptual opera. It’s a story about legacy and hope, through epic and atmospheric landscapes. It narrates the story of Gaia, a small nymph. She explores a metaphorical, surrealistic version of our Earth – where humans have spoiled all life forms – in a quest to save the souls of extinct animals.

After Us Screenshot

Because of our game design process, it is hard to fit After Us in a particular genre. It is a mix of platforming, puzzle-solving, and action. But the individual nature of these elements and how they are put together sit far from genre conventions.

“It is intentional. The way we design games, at the top there are the feelings and emotions we want to portray. As we go down into execution, we find game mechanics that emphasize them. Then we place them in an organic world designed from an artistic perspective, and we spend hours and hours fine-tuning it all until everything blends together well”, says Jordi.

Sometimes, and it happens more often than we think with video games, the potion we’ve concocted doesn’t work and you must start over from scratch. But most of the time, it does, and here at Piccolo we strive to come up with ideas that defy the traditional rules of game design.

The Whale Hunt Case Study

After Us Screenshot

Let’s take an example! Gaia’s goal is to save the souls of the last extinct animals, among which is a majestic humpback whale. We want players to feel what this whale might have felt in her very last moments. To feel hunted. To do so, we place the action on the seabed of a dried-up ocean. There are remnants of massive, rusty oil ships scattered on the ground and above, floating in the air. Gaia is surrounded by patches of toxic oil corrupting the seabed. She starts running. Giant harpoons then begin to strike down from the sky, targeting Gaia as she approaches them. A sheer sense of panic ensues.

Conventional design would clearly define when the harpoons are triggered, how they attack and what you can do to avoid them. “This is what games are based on, but this is not how a whale feels when being hunted. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. Harpoons keep hurling themselves at her while Gaia runs and jumps. Danger isn’t something she can control or predict!”, explains Jordi.

Indeed, we intentionally blurred the way harpoons are triggered, how they move and attack. There isn’t a clear pattern to avoid them. Sometimes, you don’t see them coming. And yes, sometimes they kill the player without them fully understanding what happened. We know this raises a lot of red flags in traditional design, but if you do it with care, it works. When it does, it’s so much more powerful than any traditional approach. Because through the (apparent) lack of clear rules, players feel what they would maybe feel in such a situation.

We like to draw inspiration from other media, like movies, novels, or comic books. So, for this “scene”, we took as reference the famous final scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, where a lonely character is being shot with arrows by a huge army. We wanted to recreate the same somber sensation of unavoidable hazards, unpredictable impacts, and the nerve-wracking pace of the attacks.

Emotional Instead of Mechanical Rewards

After Us Screenshot

But it’s not only about hazards, enemies, or specific scenes. We defy traditional game design in a broader sense: the game doesn’t yield mechanical rewards to players, but emotional ones.

After Us features 8 main animal souls that you must find and rescue, but there are an additional 100 “optional” souls that you can free. When rescuing an animal’s soul, instances of that species populate and liven up the world. Freeing a soul involves exploring the mysterious world of After Us, singing to find where it is hidden, or solving environmental puzzles.

But freeing them gives you nothing from a mechanical point of view. “No points, no powers, no XP. The reward of freeing an animal soul is… freeing an animal soul! And experiencing a world full of animals wandering around,” Jordi states with a smile.

To us, and hopefully for a lot of players, this design works. After all, what better kind of reward is there than an emotional one?

After Us is available now for Xbox Series X|S.

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After Us

Private Division

$29.99 $14.99
Explore the corners of a surrealistic post-human world to give life on Earth a second chance in this touching story about sacrifice, and hope. Play as Gaia, the Spirit of Life, and navigate stunning platforming environments in an abstract world to salvage the souls of extinct animals. Revive these creatures after learning their final fate: the last whale harpooned, the final eagle caged, the last deer hunted down, and more, while you survive encounters with dangerous, oil-covered Devourers that roam the wasteland in search of remaining life. In this emotional journey from the creators of the critically acclaimed Arise: A Simple Story, you alone can restore life to the planet. Key Features: • Gaia’s journey: the last animals have died, and Mother has used all of her Life Force to save their souls, now trapped in their vessels. Gaia’s quest is to rescue each of their souls and bring them back to Mother’s Ark. Gaia’s traversal abilities will allow you to glide, jump, and dash to explore new areas and evade deadly traps, while her special gifts will grant you the power to clear the oil that consumes the world, face hungry Devourers, and break souls free. • A vast, surrealistic world: see through Gaia’s eyes the desolated landscapes that depict the destructive relationships between humans and nature in a beautiful demonstration of abstract artistry. From dying forests to the heart of crumbling cities, through the dry seabed and polluted skies, each environment will offer new challenges for Gaia to face and will present her different versions of the Devourers’ wake of destruction as she spreads life and beauty on her path. • A story of contrasts: After Us offers a somber look at a world decimated by human impact. As you guide Gaia’s light through it and discover the causes behind the destruction, you will learn the fate of the Devourers as agents of extinction, but also agents of progress, love, and hope.