“Never did the world make a queen of a girl who hides in houses and dreams without traveling.”
-Roman Payne, The Wanderess
In October 2014, cousins Sean Krankel and Adam Hines founded Night School Studio and their game development debut would be the mystery adventure Oxenfree.
There is such purity, a clarity of vision with many indie first efforts of humble origins. Indie games often have a special kind of boldness to try something new on a small budget and this game is a fine example of that. Spielbergian, channeling Stephen King, however you want to slice it, Oxenfree is a teen coming-of-age story that flirts with the supernatural without stepping wholeheartedly into horror, a game with a focused, central idea.
Krankel had gained previous game development experience working for Telltale Games and Hines also had a background working with Disney Interactive Studios, but in coming together to create their own game they emphasized playing their cards differently. They knew they wanted to create a story-driven game yet storytelling structures in many games were rigidly linear or bogged down by too many cutscenes (thy name is Xenoblade Chronicles 2). With Oxenfree, they attempted to create a game where choices in conversation formed the base mechanic but players were still granted a degree of freedom, giving those choices meaningful value rather than merely choosing the “flavored” response for an outcome that was 100% predetermined.
The result of their ambition is a game which streamlines dialogue exchange by allowing the player to choose how to interact in conversation and whether to interact or not, with their choices influencing a variety of possibilities within the game’s story and conclusions. Additionally, the player character is able to move freely during any conversation, giving the game a kind of realism and engaging quality far more interactive than others which aim for a more passive, cinematic approach. Many (most?) story-heavy games force control away from the player during compartmentalized storytelling sequences. Oxenfree, on the other hand, is a game essentially told without cutscenes.
However, with the promise of freedom comes the danger of too many possibilities. Oxenfree is a fairly short game but if the player were given too many choices it could have been paralyzing or the size of the game in all of its possibilities might have become too big to reasonably complete. Branching dialogue trees are a useful implementation for giving players choices (the fundamental difference between games and film), but choices are useful only if they’re not daunting in their scale. Fortunately, Oxenfree confines its dialogue to sets of three hipster-font choices at a time.
Oxenfree follows Alex, a witty teenage girl who takes a weekend trip by boat to Edwards Island. Along for the ride is her best friend Ren, a fast-talking stoner, and Alex’s new stepbrother Jonas, who she has just met. Alex, Ren, and Jonas meet up at the beach on the island with Clarissa, who was Michael’s girlfriend, and Nona, Clarissa’s tag-along and someone Ren is interested in.
Alex and Jonas learn about the island as a former military base and the passing of its solitary resident, Maggie Adler, but tensions rise when Clarissa brings up the circumstances involving Michael’s death and Alex’s parent’s subsequent divorce which lead to Jonas becoming the stepbro. Thankfully, some respite is found when Ren takes Alex and Jonas to a nearby cave to show off some weird stuff. That doesn’t include his special brownies.
At the mouth of the cave, Ren asks Alex to use the pocket radio he asked her to bring along and together the three of them listen to otherworldly noises coming in through the static. Jonas spies something strange like a light inside of the cave and he ventures in to explore, Alex following, and that’s where things begin to go crazy. What was meant to be a overnight party quickly turns into something much darker. Figuring out what has happened to the teens as they’re separated and frightened, trying to come to grips with who or what it is they’re facing is the hook of Oxenfree.
This story is told in a unique way and its supernatural elements are not easily categorized as belonging to just another ghost story, though comparisons to monster-of-the-week format shows like The X-Files are perhaps unavoidable. It is quite easy to play the game through without figuring out what’s going on. There are optional items to discover, the letters of Maggie Adler, which flesh out the island’s backstory and fill in the details involving the teens’ encounter with the supernatural.
Just after the beginning of Oxenfree, after so much talking and without much else to do other than walk and interact with a few objects, I thought about the entirety of the game ahead and said to myself: “Oh no, is this all it is?” Well, after all, conversation is the core mechanic. The lack of action in the game may be a turn off to some people, though. It was an immediate barrier for myself but I was determined to engage with this game on its own terms and I wasn’t ultimately disappointed. Given that conversation is the heart of Oxenfree, it is all about the story. It may be something you have to be in the right mood for. Fair warning.
Speaking of moods, typically there is a distinct mood associated with each of Alex’s possible responses. There is generally a dialogue choice that is more optimistic, upbeat, caring, and kind than the others. Likewise, there is usually a choice to wield Alex’s cunning to be meaner, dismissive, pessimistic, and cutting toward the other characters. The third option seemed to be a much more neutral stance, most of the time. Taking these options into consideration is important in that they directly improve or destroy Alex’s relationships with the other characters, impacting the end of the game.
There is therefore a real sense of discovering and defining Alex’s character through her dialogue choices, rather than her optional speech bubbles merely existing as prompts for the dialogue of other characters. I opted to choose the meanest dialogue options the first time through the game, making Alex into a jerk for the sake of the hilarious responses of the other cast members. Verbally treating Jonas like an idiot seemed heartless and it succeeded in ending conversations rather than opening them up. The second time around I went with her much warmer and more understanding dialogue, which overall made the second playthrough more enjoyable than the first. Do note that the “mood” of every dialogue choice isn’t always clear.
Multiple playthroughs are key to getting the most out of Oxenfree. In fact the story takes multiple playthroughs into consideration and Oxenfree is self-aware in this regard. A part of that is realizing what happens to Alex and her friends on Edwards Island so I won’t say much more here. I’ll leave the spoiler talk for the Narrative section below. Suffice it to say for now, Oxenfree is a game which benefits from playing with an attention to detail, with a good memory, and with enough interest to tackle more than one playthrough.
The 8-bit Review
The backgrounds are what you’re going to be looking at most in Oxenfree. They are richly detailed and designed with a kind of hard-edged starkness that reminded me instantly of the Disney animation in Sleeping Beauty. These backgrounds appeared painted, colored in the darkest, moodiest hues. Almost the entire game occurs at night so there appears to be special attention paid to the use of light and darkness.
Contrasted with the elegant 2D backgrounds are the small 3D character models moving over them. These are not nearly as detailed but what I think is most important to mention about them is how well they match the environments over which they are displayed. I’m sure you can think of some 2.5D instances where that’s not the case. In Oxenfree, there’s no “floatey” character models that look as if they belong to a separate game. Yeah the gesticulations and gestures of these models may leave more to be desired but again, they are so comparatively tiny that it hardly matters. They are more there to give impressions of the characters, it seems, rather than fully and realistically represent them.
Oxenfree also boasts a variety of metaphysical visuals, spatial warping, looping effects. At times this takes the form of visual static not unlike an old VHS tape on rewind. During the games scarier moments, errant images of animals baring their teeth and blueprints of machines flash for only a second or two. It may not be the most immersive effect regarding the experience of the player but it is a unique way to depict the malevolent force aligned against Alex. Together with the eerie voices coming across the airwaves, it can be quite frightening.
I’m reminded of the meta touches way back in Metal Gear Solid. I half expected the screen to say VIDEO at one point. Of course these days I guess that would be more like HDMI 1.
One thing you may notice with the music design in Oxenfree is the way in which tracks are associated with moods instead of scenes. Naturally, since the scenes may change in content depending on the dialogue choices, the underlying feelings the game wants to convey are the focus of the score. Oxenfree therefore becomes a game that easily engages the emotions. Not the demonstrative ones that lead to weeping or jumping for joy but the sensation emotions like dread and anxiety.
The soundtrack at once evokes a kind of quasi-nostalgia. You can take note in this in other media but to see it here in a smaller and more obscure project is astounding. The nearest analogy is when entertainment creates a sense of nostalgia for the viewer regardless of whether the viewer actually experienced the era under reference since the work of entertainment includes essence over substance, the pop culture flavors of the time period in question rather than any actual historical details. That’s how you get teenagers who weren’t alive before the year 2000 suddenly feeling “nostalgia” for the 80’s.
Composer Andrew Rohrmann, aka “scntfc”, was given deliberately vague or random input from the developers of Oxenfree, so there’s a foundation for the mistiness of its quality. Further, the motif of Alex’s handheld radio appears frequently in the game’s score. It has a real tactile air about it, like the audible scratching associated with dust on vinyl. Actually, I was surprised and delighted to learn that elements of the game’s sound design came out of real cassette decks and even a World War II era radio.
Finally, I should mention the voice acting. The game immediately suffers from two things in this department. Firstly, Oxenfree exhibits the stereotype of twenty-somethings pretending to sound like teenagers. Once you realize it, you can’t unhear it, and from then on it sounds like adults attempting to sound awkward and unconfident. Still, there are some memorably performed scenes in the game, so there’s that.
Secondly, there’s the wording. “I uh hello? Ugh I like I’m like I’m not sure that … ugh hello? I’m not sure that like okay that it’s really the wording? Or whatever? I could’ve been the script or y’know? Something like that? But like ugh like what ugh the like is like what?” That’s exaggeration on my part but it’s too frequently what the teens sound like as they attempt to communicate with each other across the island using the aging technology left behind in the military outposts.
I caught myself, like, rolling my eyes a few times. I’m never convinced that this is how teenagers actually talk. Wicked bogus, dog.
And now to talk about some SPOILERS! If you’d like, you can skip this spoilerific section by Ctrl+F searching Gameplay.
What occurs in the cave with Alex and Jonas forms the heart of the story. Alex tunes into the otherworldly signal with her radio and unexpectedly opens up a triangular rift in dimensional space-time. Confused voices make themselves heard across the static. Alex and Jonas are increasingly curious and horrified as the situation intensifies before they black out, experiencing a vision, then they awake in front of Harden Tower. Their friends are scattered and lost and they know they have to find them.
Throughout the rest of the game, Alex and her friends witness a variety of phenomena. Time seems to loop in on itself. Members of their group appear to become possessed. Hideous voices speak through them. It seems at times as if they’re being haunted and at others as if they’re being tested. Alex finds herself struggling to grasp what is happening to her and her friends, struggling to understand what it is the voices want.
As it turns out, she and her friends are trapped in a time loop on Edwards Island, reliving the same night over and over again. When the game ends, Alex explains what happens to her friends, based on her dialogue choices in each playthrough, including or excluding Clarissa. The entities threaten to trap Alex and co. in their loop unless Alex chooses to leave Clarissa behind, and the beings explain in cryptic terms that they will attempt to bloom their consciousnesses into her to live through her body. Depending on if Alex deals with them and abandons Clarissa or not, the ending of the game will be different.
Alex can even learn how to send herself messages across her radio back in time to prevent herself from ever coming to the island.
Collecting the aforementioned letters of the deceased Maggie Adler sheds light on the entities persecuting them. They are the “survivors” of the USS Kanaloa, a submarine with an experimental nuclear reactor which was accidentally sunk by friendly fire due to Maggie Adler mistaking the Kanaloa’s coded messages as an enemy transmission. When the submarine sank, the explosion from its reactor didn’t kill the crew. They were instead thrown through a tear in space-time into another dimension where their consciousnesses deteriorated beyond human semblance and where they began to forget their original identities. Another ending (if all letters are collected) involves confronting one of the entities with its human name.
Maggie and her friend Anna had attempted to communicate via radio with the survivors of the Kanaloa, but that ended in tragedy when Anna was absorbed through the rift into the consciousnesses on the other side. These entities want to live again through the teens but they have to ensnare them in their time loops in order to make numerous attempts to successfully possess them.
I think that this is one of the more unique horror tales I’ve heard. I’m glad it was more inventive then a traditional ghost story.
One of the more perplexing elements to the story (from a distance) is when Alex finds herself hurtled further back in time to when her brother Michael was still alive. These are more than just flashbacks. Knowing what she knows now, she’s able to influence his life and his decisions for good or ill. Taking the right dialogue paths, Alex can convince Michael to break up with Clarissa or not, remain in town or leave for school… she can even prevent his death, apparently. This was something I read about the game and I wasn’t able to achieve that in dual playthroughs.
This time travel into Alex’s more distant past seems like much more of a godsend than the harassment of the survivors of the Kanaloa. I’m not certain that the entities were the cause of it. Seeing Michael again seems to have a comforting effect upon Alex than anything she experiences at the will of the “ghosts”. All that to say I don’t know why these particular time trips are in the game and what’s causing her interactive visions of Michael, but they do provide a backdrop for the game’s characters.
Ultimately, this is a story-heavy game with a story that is worth exploring.
As concerned as it is with dialogue, there isn’t much else to do in Oxenfree in terms of gameplay. Two things really made me think that I wouldn’t ever want to play this game again and they were backtracking and slow movement. Alex moves at a sluggish pace, notably in the larger areas, even at a sprint and many areas must be passed through multiple times in order to complete all of the game’s objectives. Time loops where you’re trying to figure out what’s going on alongside Alex as she repeats walking down paths again and again merely add to the frustration.
Surprisingly, I eventually didn’t mind the length and pace of her excursions by the time I hit the second playthrough. It was as if I settled into Oxenfree’s pacing. Even conversations that I thought would be tedious to have to sit through a second time became more interesting as I pursued different branches of dialogue and discussions broadened or deepened in new ways.
Still, if you plan to experience everything Oxenfree has to offer, you’ll need a generous helping of patience.
There are so few things to learn about Oxenfree’s gameplay. Essentially everything you’ll ever need to do you’ll do in the first fifteen minutes. It’s a matter of choosing the dialogue branches you deem most appropriate and then the second or third time through rectifying your mistakes or reinforcing your achievements. Where the game becomes confusing, it’s incumbent on the nature of the story as a mystery to be confusing. The gameplay itself is immediately plain.
Oxenfree demands to be explored across multiple playthroughs, as I’ve mentioned. For me, the story became interesting enough and provided enough new material a second time through to warrant another playthrough. That’s weighed against the slow burn of trying to figure out what’s going on while evil entities play games with you, so I expect that the replay value here may be very dependent upon personal taste. Just understand that the game takes multiple playthroughs into account. If you’re to play Oxenfree at all, it should be more than once.
There are a lot of unique elements in Oxenfree. I don’t play games like this too frequently so a lot of the structure of the graphic adventure or the visual video game novel is, well, novel to me. That being said, I can attest to the distinctiveness of Oxenfree’s supernatural side. It’s not the traditional spooky story, in that respect.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Overall I enjoyed my time with Oxenfree. It’s not a game that is easily forgettable. It packs a storytelling punch in such a short amount of time. It succeeds in being frightening with being completely terrifying, enticing in its mysteries while remaining grounded in the desires of its small cast of characters. At times it can be a plodding experience but Oxenfree rewards those with the determination to see it through. Plus Oxenfree makes for a great handheld experience on the Switch.
But now I’m creeped out by my car radio.
Aggregated Score: 7.4
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