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The RPG Scrollbars: Before Fallout 4, The Afternow

Radscorpions killed the radio star

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“I hope I’m getting through. This is Independent Librarian Dynamic Sean Kennedy VI. This is Episode 732.653.663.398.36.1. This is a pirate radio broadcast in the Queen’s English from sometime after now. So light your candles, and may Server protect us all. What do you say to ghosts who died before you were born?”

Long before beloved podcasts like Welcome To Night Vale – before the word ‘podcasting’ was invented, in fact – a strange broadcast found its way onto the web. Tales From The Afternow is the history of a future that can’t be allowed to happen; one man screaming into the darkness, and sending that scream back to a time when there was still the chance to change things for the better. This was 2002, and… well, let’s just hope that creator Sean Kennedy’s descendant enjoys something about the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk wasteland, because he’s not getting out of there soon.

On the plus side, what better way to pass the time before Fallout 4?

Tales From The Afternow was one of the first internet shows I remember being really hooked on. It followed much the same model as current ones like Night Vale, Sayer, Kakos Industries and whichever one you’re about to say ‘wait, what about x’ about, being primarily a one man show with a campfire type feel – tales from an impossible place, backed up with a little music and a few careful effects. It quickly developed a cult following, though after a decade or so of radio silence punctuated with little but talk of a return in various forms (the next one finally scheduled for 2016, apparently), it’s unsurprisingly faded quite far into the mists of internet ephemera.

It’s well worth listening to though, and for the most part has aged well. I say ‘the most part’ because early on especially it’s very much a thing of its time – its post-apocalyptic future not so much channelling the nuclear fears of Fallout as extrapolating on 2000s era internet-bogeymen like the RIAA and a world destroyed by copyright enforcement and ‘corpolitical’ this and that. A world of pleasant but restrictive arcologies surrounded by desolate and brutal freedom, to which anyone can be banished if they violate the terms of their dreaded Listener’s License. That side of things was more than a touch heavy handed back then, and hasn’t exactly gotten any lighter since.

After Kennedy gets a couple of episodes under his belt though, The Afternow quickly picks up steam. Every episode is about an hour long, and more impressively, mostly improvised (with some notes, of course, but not a full script like most of these shows). This really helps the mood. Kennedy is an exhausted man fighting desperately to save his world, but mostly telling other peoples’ stories. They’re not burned into his brain, he doesn’t necessarily have all the information. Sometimes, he’s probably bullshitting to fill gaps or turn a story he’s encountered into a parable to serve his purpose.

They’re stories lined with rough edges, in short, and so much more believable as a result. When talking about Detroit for instance, all Kennedy knows is that something happened there. He has his theory, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the story of the doctor who set up shop there to help people. The story of Server; the internet, deified. The story of a city, Nurome. The stories that show that as bad as things are, there’s some balance, and at least a degree of hope even if his mission ends up failing. Though not too many of those. There’s a reason for Kennedy’s crusade.

The show hits its stride after the first couple of episodes, but it’s with Rachael’s Mutt that it truly comes together – the story of a young woman and her pet robot, not a million miles from Alyx Vance and Dog back in Half-Life 2. It’s a great vignette, both for itself, and for its focus on the human side of the post-apocalypse as well as all the torturous stuff about bandits, horrible bugs and spiders, and having to listen to the world’s smallest CD collection until Butcher Pete turns your brain to mulch.

Here’s a clip.

From there, the storytelling only becomes more confident. Season Two steps off in a slightly different direction, with Kennedy increasingly becoming the story rather than an observer of it – not least starting off by losing his legs, being captured, and trying to neutrally, factually deliver lines like “If I’d known what they had in store for me, I’d have taken that minute to kill myself.” The production values go up a notable notch too, with more focus on music and effects to boost the mood, though not enough to distract from the narration or jar with being told the stories after the fact.

And then came the series cliffhanger. After which… well, things got weird.

Series 3 began in 2004, or so it seemed. As soon as the episode started though, it was obvious that something was up. There was no post-apocalyptic wasteland, no Sean Kennedy VI. Instead, it was a modern day show with the politics not only back, but cranked up to to 11 – Sean Kennedy I as a security guard, leading a cultish counterculture revolution complete with special haircuts and long rants and tongue in cheek cultural survivalism. In short, it kept threatening to go somewhere or set up the future setting, only to abruptly start talking about evil cults and turn out to be an unrelated tie-in to Kennedy’s first horror novel, The Scabbed Wings Of Abaddon.

Ultimately the whole of Series 3 was just renamed The Witchhunter Chronicles and hived off into its own thing. Honestly, I was very disappointed by the whole thing back at the time, and listening to a few bits now, can’t think of any reason to listen to it now. But! It was okay, right? Because while that wasn’t what people wanted, the real Series 3 was promised, ready to go back to the future like it had just jumped in a flying DeLorean and sped up to 88 miles per hour with a full tank of plutonium!

In, uh… 2004.

And then, in 2004, it was delayed to 2005. But definitely happening, for real!

In fact, in 2005, it was being recorded, and due for release later in that year.

…only to be put on hold in 2006, in favour of a graphic novel. And a comic.

Neither of which came out. But instead…

You can kinda see where this is going. Since then, there’s been talk of everything from Afternow graphic novels to role-playing systems, but the only thing that’s actually made it out has been a short CG film based on the episode Little Rocks, and the only part of that available on the web is a short trailer. This one, in fact…

Well, maybe 2016 will be the lucky number? I’d like that, though after a decade of promises, I’ll believe it when I’ve heard it. It’s only planned to be a ‘mini’ season, and so far the only thing available of it is a teaser set in a slightly more sinister version of Futurama’s suicide booths. The dark humour is still very much there though. Do you want to spend four minutes slowly roasting to death… or pay to make it quick?

Either way though, you should check the first two seasons out. I listened to a couple of them while playing Fallout 3, and although they’re a very different kind of post-apocalyptic setting in many ways, the mood fit perfectly. They’re good stories, but more than that, they’re the kind of radio fiction that’s very easy to be swept away in and to believe in for at least as long as they last. Much like the shows that followed it, it’s amazing what a good narrator can do, and how quickly a few words can paint better pictures than all the polygons in the world. Even the cool ones. Like rhombuses.

The Afternow. It’s not a future you’d want to live in.

But it’s a fun place to visit for a few hours.

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Richard Cobbett

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