On Sunday, Balenciaga released its fall 2021 collection in the form of an online video game titled Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow — the first ever produced by a fashion brand. Players are invited to embark on a “hero’s journey” in the near future of 2031, moving through different zones, from a post-apocalyptic Balenciaga store to an enchanted forest, to reach salvation on the other side. Along the way, they meet avatars wearing different looks from the collection, which are rendered in impressive detail.
I knew Afterworld was a success when my brother, who has zero interest in fashion but a lot of interest in tech, texted me to say how cool he thought it was. Yes, the Balenciaga video game is bringing people together, including myself and Nicole Carpenter, senior reporter at the video-game site Polygon, who really knows her way around a virtual world. Below, we put our heads together to discuss.
Emilia Petrarca: Hello! I’ve just made it to the other side of Afterworld. Before we get into it, what was your first reaction when you heard that Balenciaga was doing a show as a video game?
Nicole Carpenter: I was pretty excited. It might feel like a weird and random thing for a luxury fashion company to do, but the fashion industry has become increasingly enmeshed in the video-game industry for a few years now — like a Louis Vuitton collaboration with League of Legends. They dressed these in-game pop-stars in Louis Vuitton looks and also created real-life designer bags and accessories. But I have never seen anything like this before.
Yes! Good point, I believe Burberry has also done some work with video games as well.
What was your reaction?
My long-dormant inner gamer was so excited when I first heard they were doing this. I grew up playing computer games because my mom banned consoles. The Sims was my favorite. Getting lost in that world helped me through a difficult time in my life, so I thought this was a genius idea from a creative perspective but also an emotional one, too. I think it’s going to tap into a nostalgic place for a lot of people, and simultaneously feel futuristic, which is a sweet spot for any designer, really.
That’s so true. I think that’s really easy for people like me to forget, since I’m so wrapped up in video game culture on a daily basis. I was really struck by how nostalgic it felt, sort of lo-fi, while also being really impressed by how incredible the world looked. It reminded me of the early internet, but evolved. Did you ever make Angelfire or Geocities websites? I got that sort of vibe from it. There are a lot of video games now that mimic that sort of style, but this still felt different, like it evolved on a different timeline. Spinning graphics and all that!
That makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s creative director, played those games as well. Ever since his Vetements days, his collections have mashed together the past and the present in disorienting, playful ways. This collection referenced past Balenciaga styles, for example, like the City Bag. This is not the first metal armor to walk a Balenciaga runway. He’s also really fascinated with the ordinary, the mundane — DHL, Mastercard — so it also tracks that this game would be sort of Internet 1.0 as well. It’s actually pretty high-tech, though, right?
Absolutely! Despite the sort of lo-fi feel here, I was super impressed by how well rendered it is. We don’t often see games that look like this on a web browser. I saw some developers talking about it online, and apparently the rendering is all done in the Cloud, which feels impressive! The clothes and models look incredible. I was really surprised by that — I think that sometimes clothes in video games can seem stiff, but these looked like something I would find on a rack. Something touchable! That shirt-on-a-shirt got me, though. I thought it was a bug.
Yes, it was all in the Cloud! And they sent out some Oculus VR headsets for people to play with, including our critic, Cathy Horyn, although I was not one of the lucky ones.
Ah! dang. I bet it would have been really neat in VR. Do you know if this was something they were planning to do before the pandemic? Or something they pivoted to after shows got canceled? It feels like something that would need to be in production for longer!
That’s a good question. I was told by the brand that it was actually planned pre-pandemic, and turned out to be even more relevant. Regarding the rendering of the clothing, costumes have gotten increasingly elaborate in games, is that correct? I remember reading about “skins” in Fortnite, and how people are willing to pay for them now.
Definitely. In terms of skins, fashion is really huge for players these days. It’s almost a sort of status symbol — getting a rare or particularly cool skin item, whether that’s through buying them or earning them in-game. Sometimes it’s about looking cool or exclusive, but more recently I’ve seen a ton of straight-up goofy skins. But despite the aesthetic it’s something super important to players, and in most games. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I think, is one of the latest games that has had a huge fashion community. (Even some luxury designers got in on it!) I actually downloaded a Gucci dress from a custom creator and I felt so cool in-game wearing it when all my friends came over to my island. It’s sort of hilarious how an in-game character can make me feel like that.
I love that. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t interact with the models wearing the clothes, did you feel that way?
I did! I had this expectation going in that I would be able to interact with models or, really, anything in the environment. I actually spent an embarrassing amount of time testing buttons while standing in front of a model, just trying to interact with them in any way. I also spent way too much time looking around for “secrets” or collectibles, which is a very video game mindset thing to do. And, of course, there were none, which meant I just barely made it with the countdown timer at the top. That also freaked me out — thinking something scary was going to happen when the time ran out! I was convinced it was a horror game at first, and I’m wondering if you got those vibes too?
That’s so interesting, and also is in keeping with Demna’s past shows in person — where you feel sort of uneasy, and you’re not sure if it’s heaven or hell, or both, or a joke or dead serious. I definitely felt rushed, which is also very “fashion week” — running around cities trying to see as many clothes as you can, and never really interacting with them. Designers also feel a time crunch, with so much to produce season after season.
Huh! I love hearing about how this aligns with the designer’s history. I absolutely felt uneasy about it. The first level, specifically, in that creepy Balenciaga store — a place that’s not inherently scary but feels creepy because of how it’s presented. Horror video games, at least in the last decade, do this sort of thing a lot.
That’s so funny, I walked into the store and thought, Oh yes, the Balenciaga store. They kinda look that creepy in real life …
In terms of Easter eggs, I tried to read the graffiti more closely in Zone 3. All I could really make out was “No Votes” and “EDF,” which presumably stands for Environmental Defense Fund. And then I saw posters for a “T-Party,” which could mean something but also nothing.
The billboard about artificial bees one really got me. I imagined it was going to be about saving the bee population, but laughed when I read that it was actually about cybernetic bees working in conjunction with real bees to pollinate. It feels really absurd, but also a useful and sad way to mitigate the devastating effects of a declining bee population, at least in this imaginary near-future world.
So, we’re moving through these fantastical (yet realistic-looking) worlds, not really able to interact with anyone or anything, bumping into other people on their phones, and then we finally reach this green clearing, and a white rabbit leads us to salvation. What did you think about this arc?
It did feel like the levels progressed really smoothly into one another, with little hints of the next world presenting themselves in each of the previous ones. There’s actually this big video game coming out this week called Cyberpunk 2077 and it’s about the future world — a further future than this — so I was thinking a lot about that while playing today. I haven’t played that video game yet, but a lot of reviewers felt that the journey was kinda bleak. The Balenciaga game felt a little more hopeful than how Cyberpunk 2077 has been described. The progression into the green utopia was very on the nose — I remember seeing a “love is revolution” graffiti — but maybe it’s on the nose purposefully?
Yeah, Demna definitely wanted to end on a hopeful note. In an interview he said that “apocalyptic” was “very last season,” and he meant that literally. Fashion tends to lean towards very obvious symbolism, and the apocalypse is just too easy. So I’m glad he’s moved beyond that. This was one of the most optimistic Balenciaga shows in recent memory.
Do fashion shows normally have an arc like this?
They do, yes! A handful of them have used the theme of moving from darkness to light this season as well.
One thing that confused me was when you get to the end and it’s revealed that you’re the model wearing the full body armor. I thought that I had picked out an avatar at the beginning of the game! I spent so much time scrolling through the models and deciding which to use.
Oh, yes! I was also surprised when the avatar revealed herself; it took me out of the fantasy. Like, Oh, this isn’t me moving through this world; it’s this model I recognize with long black hair.
I actually feel like I’ve seen her in an Instagram ad or something.
Oh no, back in the simulation already … What did you think about the conclusion? You retrieve the Sword of Excalibur and win the game, and your prize is a meditative breathing exercise. The hoodie along the way that said “Free” made me laugh.
I also laughed when the breathing exercise first came on screen, because it was surprising and weird to see at the end of a video game. But I also kind of liked it. To be honest, any reminder to breathe these days is okay by me.
I just wanted to win that branded Balenciaga sword!
Ha, that’s the moral of the story: Buy a Balenciaga sword. I’m sure it will be for sale in real life.
We can only hope.