Oxenfree draws from classic horror films, carefully balancing a story that is both character-driven and plot-driven and catering to player agency with multiple endings. It builds on teen movie horror tropes in a way that doesn’t feel clichéd, mostly due to the medium in which it was created. Three-dimensional characters, clever and economical game mechanics, and multiple realistic endings – this game is proof that the horror genre isn’t just far from dead; it can be revitalized.
SPOILERS AHEAD – Do not read if you have not finished the game. You have been warned.
Like the majority of horror movies, Oxenfree explores the theme of isolation, both in a literal sense and in an interpersonal sense. While the teenagers of this game willingly placed themselves on an island with no reliable means to leave until morning, the events that unfold will test their relationships to one another. How calm and reassuring can they be while scared out of their minds? What hard choices will they have to make? Will the protagonist isolate herself from the rest of the group because of the choices she makes? Isolation is a common theme in horror because it evokes fear; if a character is alone, they are more vulnerable physically and psychologically.
Along with isolation, there is an underlying theme of sacrifice that becomes evident at the end of the game. While the player has the choice to literally sacrifice Clarissa to the ghosts, there is no way to keep Jonas in Alex’s life and have Michael back at the same time. If the player creates a situation in which Michael never died, Jonas will no longer be a part of Alex’s family and life. It the player chooses to have past events unfold in Alex’s life as they were meant to, Michael will remain dead at the end, but Alex will have Jonas in her life. Sacrifice plays into the inherent chaotic nature of horror and can be present whether or not the motives of the opposing force are clear.
Speaking of opposing forces…while some motives of the monsters or villains are not clear, usually they are driven by revenge. The ghosts in Oxenfree are angry because they feel they died for nothing and were forgotten soon after – angry because their lives should have meant something. They are seeking revenge for transgressions of the past. In order have that revenge, they need to capture the souls of innocent people – sacrifice. Everything ties together.
While the specific details of Oxenfree story tell a unique story, the major plot points are those that have been used in many horror films: teens go away to party; scary things start to happen; teens discover information that will help them fix the problem; teens follow the information; things seem to be fixed, but a twist at the end tells the audience it isn’t. Horror films of the ’80s are well-known to have this same plot progression or something very similar – “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Cabin in the Woods,” and “The Evil Dead,” to name a few. Oxenfree is devoid of gore, taking a hard supernatural approach instead.
Here, five teenagers stay on an island after dark. One of them, Ren, wants to show his friends the “cave anomalies,” which are triggered by tuning into a radio station while standing at specific points inside the cave’s mouth. Jonas proceeds further into the cave, and Alex must follow him. Once inside, Alex uses the radio to trigger a major anomaly – a portal opens and, shortly after, scatters everyone around the island. From there, Alex and Jonas must find the others and come up with a plan to stop the ghosts from possessing everyone’s bodies. The key to stopping them and trapping them back in their plane of existence lies in Maddie Adler’s – who passed away just days before the group made their way to the island – notes. Realizing that they must tune directly into the source (passing over into the ghost world), they have one shot at gaining their freedom before sunrise.
Also common in horror is the trope of summoning “the unexplainable” by manipulating a physical object, like reading from a book or playing with a device. In “The Ring,” the horror is manifested by a video tape, and in “Hellraiser,” the horror comes from that creepy puzzle box. In the case of Oxenfree, the evil the summoned by a radio. These objects serve similarly to a talisman, something that binds the real to the supernatural.
While some may argue that the overall temperament of the characters makes them seem older than high school students, it really harkens back to the characters in ’80s and ’90s films that revolve around an ensemble cast. “The Breakfast Club,” for example, features intelligent and well-spoken young men and women. They may have “earned” a Saturday detention for making a poor choice, but they take their punishment with as much grace as they can. The audience has the pleasure of watching these characters mature greatly over the course of a film as they not only learn valuable life-lessons themselves, but they teach us the same, regardless of our age. The film “10 Things I Hate About You,” while adapted from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, also portrays an eclectic cast of characters with verbal chops not seem in the majority of “teen” movies and TV shows today, “Freaks and Geeks” excluded. The dialogue is incredibly witty and features fully fleshed-out characters, even in Joey “Eat Me” Donner, who audiences love to hate. So, the characters in Oxenfree are not “too old for their age”; they are a representation of when teenage characters were written as intelligent, complex individuals, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see characters like that again.
Alex, the protagonist, is grappling with some major life-changes – not uncommon to what many teenagers are going through right now or what adults have gone through in their youth. She is dealing with the death of her brother, her parents’ divorce, her mother re-marrying and gaining a stepbrother. Under the surface, she is also dealing with survivor’s guilt; as a possessed Clarissa points out by the bonfire, it was Alex’s fault that Michael, her brother, died. If Alex had not convinced her brother to go swimming with before he moved away, he never would have drowned.
Through the dialogue options, the player can have Alex choose to defend herself, but it’s Clarissa that gets the final word in before Nona cuts her off. Clarissa is exploiting Alex’s survivor’s guilt while also expressing that she has not forgiven Alex for her perceived transgression. To an extent, Alex has not completely forgiven herself, yet has managed to move on the best she could at her own pace.
Through flashbacks and present day interaction, Clarissa is revealed to be much more than a bitch with a chip on her shoulder. The player learns that Clarissa dated Michael and was a happier person during that time. A scene between her and Alex shows Clarissa’s appreciation for the three of them spending the day together and her worries that Alex might feel like she was taking Michael away from her, slowly dissolving the sibling bond. Regardless of the player’s interaction with Clarissa at this point, we learn earlier in the game that Michael passed away a year earlier. Reasoning says that Clarissa is still heartbroken over losing her boyfriend because of her hatred toward Alex, but the player doesn’t see her feelings for Michael in much detail; she/he must assume that it was traumatic, or else she wouldn’t be harboring a grudge toward Alex for a long time. Also, Nona alludes to Clarissa having “a rough time,” but doesn’t offer an explanation. Because of these specific lack of details, the player doesn’t get to forge as strong of an emotional bond to Clarissa as Alex, so it becomes easy to hate Clarissa and makes her the perfect target for full-on possession.
For players to create the strongest bond between Alex and Jonas, they have to go into town with him to retrieve Maggie Alder’s wavelock device. It is on this new mission that Alex discovers more about Jonas personal life—the passing of his mother, specifically. In a macabre way, they bond through the death of a family member alongside becoming a stepsibling to each other. How much or little the two of the bond is ultimately up to the player – be nice to Jonas and make him feel welcome or ostracize him? Jonas is a guy with a heart of gold, struggling to deal with many life changes beyond his control.
It’s easy to not bond with Nona for the entire game. In fact, there is only one real chance to do so and that involves leaving Ren and Jonas to argue in the communication tower while taking Nona into town to get Maggie Adler’s device. During this time, the player will learn that Nona skips class a lot to practice ballet and that she is Clarissa’s emotional support system. Nona has a quiet disposition—not necessarily shy, but will take a backseat if it looks like someone else is in charge. However, when it seems like nothing is getting done, she’ll pull everyone back to center and don’t make her angry. If the player decides to tell Nona that she/he traded their freedom from the ghosts with Clarissa’s life, Nona will go nuclear in a way that only quiet people can make scary.
Ren is the only character that fits into a classic horror archetype more so than the rest; in a world of Jocks, Cheerleaders, Virgins, and Nice Guys, he would fall into the Nerd/Stoner realm. He is filled with information and is the one to suggest that the group explore the weird phenomena—a seemingly harmless suggestion, but there is almost always a character in classic horror films that think it’s a good idea to “read from that old book in the basement.” At the same time, he is the comedic relief who enjoys a little brownie “magic.”
The most common ending involves everyone leaving the island, bonding with Jonas, and getting Ren and Nona to date. However, it is possible to leave the island with less or more people than you came with. For instance, it’s possible to erase Clarissa from existence by leaving through the portal during the final encounter with the ghosts. Alex will wake up on the ferry as the group is leaving the island, confused; her friends will have no idea who Clarissa is. It is also possible to bring Michael back, with or without his relationship with Clarissa intact. This option will void any character development for Jonas, turning him into a stranger who just moved to town with his dad that Ren invited to the island.
The player can also ruin their relationship with the other characters by the end of the game. Jonas will hate Alex if she blames Jonas for everything, tells him that she wants to sacrifice Clarissa, and keeps him from “contacting his mom.” The same can be done with Ren by rescuing Clarissa first, leaving Ren behind at the communications tower, and also telling him about the plot to sacrifice Clarissa.
In classic horror fashion, the ending to Oxenfree is left open, regardless of the ending that the player comes to through their choices in the game; the player will hear the sound of a tape rewinding, and then Alex will start talking about how she better get going or else she’ll miss the ferry.
Much of modern horror doesn’t have the same effect as it used to; the themes and tropes have become so formulaic that they become predictable, which takes away the main thing horror relies on to function properly: the element of surprise. Oxenfree puts the element of surprise back where it’s needed by giving players the agency to tell the horror story they want and creating emotional connections to the characters.