Part of what makes a game great is how it affects you well after you’ve put the controller down. Do you miss the characters you bonded with over hours of gameplay? Are you left wondering what happened to them after the game ended? Do you find yourself in a pool of emotions every time you think about what transpired? I played Oxenfree a year ago and I’m still thinking about the decisions I made, the mysterious forces I provoked, and the events that unfolded. As we head into the last week of October where we celebrate ghosts and evil spirits I felt like now was as good a time as any to revisit the characters that I left behind and rediscover the magic of this supernatural thriller.
Developed by Night School, this chilling adventure game is about a blue-haired teenage girl named Alex. She’s a little rebellious (but what teenager isn’t) and is going through a traumatic time in her life, especially for someone so young. Together with her group of friends, and her brand new stepbrother Jonas, Alex sneaks off to Edwards Island; an old military outpost and the setting for the annual Senior year beach party.
The party ends up being kind of a dud when only five people show up for what was supposed to be the big Senior bash. Alex and Jonas arrive with Ren, a stoner and Alex’s childhood friend. They meet up with Nona, a shy girl and Ren’s crush, and Clarissa, who has a complicated relationship with Alex. While set in the present, you may pick up a Goonies or Standby Me vibe between the setting and this cast of characters.
The group of misfits are hanging out with a radio and spotty cellphone service, seemingly having a good time until things take a turn for the worse. While on the beach, playing their version of Truth or Dare around the fire, Alex, Jonas, and Ren decide to head off to explore the caves. Outside the caves they find small piles of rocks. Ren explains that they were put there by the kids that came before them and instructs Alex to stand near each pile and tune the radio until she cues into some weirdness. A scratchy pulsating sound emits and a light flickers from the cave each time Alex dials up the radio. After taking a few turns tuning the radio, a light from the cave eventually draws the attention of Alex and Jonas. They decide to venture inside to investigate, leaving Ren behind because he’s too stoned to function.
Once inside the cave Alex and Jonas come across an inexplicable floating triangle. Alex cues the radio to a channel that once again emits a weird noise. But this time the weirdness from the radio forces the floating triangle to turn red. It begins to expand, creating three points that connect until one massive green triangle is floating above them. The screen begins to get staticky and suddenly a cryptic voice calls out, “Hello.” Alex tries to communicate with the mysterious voice, which speaks to her as if it’s tuning different radio channels trying to find the words needed to communicate; kind of like how Bumblebee communicates with Sam in Transformers, except far more terrifying. The cave starts to shake and the image on the screen begins to cut out like a warped VHS tape. An hour later Alex and Jonas find themselves in a field on the other side of the island, with no recollection of how they got there, and without any idea that they accidentally opened a ghostly rift.
The duration of the game is spent piecing together what happened, while simultaneously managing your relationships with your friends and dealing with the forces that were unleashed in the cave, which by the way, possess the characters and alter space and time. Alex must find a way to save her friends and get off the island or they will be trapped there for eternity.
Communication is key in this walking talking game. Instead of your typical cut scenes players are able to freely wander the map while talking with the characters. The developers wanted to create an experience where the conversation felt natural and you’re not stopping down to watch a discussion or a new plotline play out. It’s certainly a refreshing take on how characters can communicate in a game but it does force players to pay attention to what’s being said while multitasking.
You play as Alex and control her responses which shape her relationships with her friends and stepbrother. The way you respond to your friend Ren, for example, could bring you closer together or tear you apart. Alex could be as moody as you want her to be or as cheerful as you want her to be. This left me feeling conflicted because part of me wanted her to respond as a teenager would…but using my adult brain, I wanted Alex to act more mature than she probably should be acting at her age and in her situation.
Speech bubbles will appear over Alex’s head when it’s her turn to respond. Players are able to choose her response but you’re only given a limited amount of time to read and consider your options before the speech bubbles fade away. This often left me pressured to think quickly and sometimes choosing a response I didn’t intend to choose. On the other hand I can appreciate this tactic because if conversations are meant to feel natural and even paced, you don’t have time to dilly-dally on your choices.
The decisions Alex makes throughout the course of the story will decide the outcome of the game. So spilling someone’s secret or being dismissive toward a character may seem like a fleeting moment at the time, but could bite you in the ass later. There are also numerous possibilities for every piece of dialogue. For every decision made a new branch of dialogue is created, giving each player a unique experience to the story. What might happen during my gameplay for example, may not ever occur in yours depending on the choices we’ve made. As the game progresses the stakes are raised and more weird and unexplained events take place. The monsters become more aggressive and as the characters try to escape the island they find themselves caught in a time loop repeating conversations they’ve already had or reliving moments that have already occurred.
It takes about four hours to play through the main storyline, but with 12,000 lines of text and 1,200 pages of script the game can feel much longer. Admittedly with my background as a Story Producer for TV I’m sensitive to the fact that time is precious. If I’m working on a show that can only be 42 minutes long but I have 20 hours of footage, I have to decide what makes the cut and what doesn’t. Every piece of content has to have significance, there’s no room for filler. With a game like Oxenfree that solely relies on dialogue I wondered how much of it was really needed.
The dialogue between characters is not the only form of communication. The radio that Alex uses is a key component for how she is able to speak with the mysterious forces on the island. The monsters use radio signals to communicate and dial up different words to formulate a complete sentence. It’s a really interesting method to use for giving the monsters a voice but with the different tones and voices used it was sometimes difficult to follow what they were trying to communicate. This was especially unfortunate when you’re forced to respond to them but you’re not exactly sure what you’re responding to.
Musician and sound designer, C Andrew Rohrmann aka SCNTFC, utilized both digital and analog components to create the warped dynamic sounds and chill electronica soundtrack for Oxenfree. In addition to computer generated sounds he would manually play reel to reel audio tapes together to create the game’s signature distorted sound. With an appreciation for authenticity he even used a genuine World War II radio to make the shortwave radio noises. Each character has their own melody that cues when something in the story happens that pertains to them. In general the music reminds me of the score from Stranger Things or an old 80’s thriller movie, but with an oddly meditative tone to it. While the soundtrack is incredible on its own, Rohrmann has also hidden some secret messages in his music. The track “Beacon Beach” for example, reportedly has a melody that’s in Morse code.
Lead artist and illustrator, Heather Gross, pulled from her own memories of hiking in the woods as a child to create the world of Oxenfree. She even designed Alex’s look based on the outfits she wore as a kid during those hikes.Taking place in the fall at night, the dark environment feels like an eerie interactive storybook. The scenery is 2D but the characters themselves are 3D giving depth to the painted images. Subtly is key with the artwork for this game. While you don’t see each individual leaf on the trees, they are drawn in a way that suggests the leaves are there. Even the monsters the characters encounter from the rift have a subtle yet terrifying look to them. This subtlety can also be at a disservice though when trying to determine what parts of the environment you can interact with. For example, a piece of a cliff may be meant to climb but might not be obvious to players as something they can interact with as it’s perfectly blended into the rest of the setting.
Oxenfree at its core is a coming of age story about Alex and her friends. Mix in some paranormal activity and you’ve got yourself an enthralling story filled with twists and turns. I cannot stress enough that once you finish the game, you must immediately replay the story. Even if you don’t play through the whole game, at least watch the first few minutes once more. It will mess with your head in a way that I never thought possible from a game like this. I can’t say what happens at the end but it’s a big reason why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and why I needed to visit the characters and Edward’s Island again.
Oxenfree is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android, Microsoft Windows, and OS X.
Check out the trailer below: