It’s hard to predict what turns Oxenfree will take. For a game that draws on the essence of a 80s or 90s horror flick, it takes many of the identifying tropes and defenestrates them. Gone are the archetypes of the virgin and the promiscuous girl. Gone are the jock and nice guy stereotypes. Ren may fit slightly into the stoner stereotype, but he’s not putting himself in danger by destroying his mental faculties. These are teenagers headed to a virtually deserted island for some nighttime shenanigans, but these are far from the characters we are used to seeing with poor decision-making skills. Combine that with accidentally opening a rift to a lot angry ghosts, and you’ve got a recipe for a game that is sure to impress even the toughest critics of gaming narratives.
Players will take on the role of protagonist Alex, who is on her way to Edward’s Island with her best friend Ren and new step-brother, Jonas. On the island, they will meet with Clarissa and Nona to start their party with a beach bonfire, complete with drinking and playing Truth or Slap. Clarissa gets too personal with the questions and, with some choice dialogue selections, players will get their first deep insight into the depressing backstory of Alex and start to see how their choices can affect the outcome of the game.
The developers rightfully boast an intelligent conversation system that changes the story and relationships based on every decision made. Interlaced with realistic dialogue, their system creates characters that are fully realized, layered with complexities. Even Nona, whose personality surprisingly comes out despite her lack of dialogue compared to the other characters. This could be disappointing to certain players who wish her depth was more concrete, but it could also mean that they need to go through the game a second time to choose different people for Alex to bond with.
In my initial play through with Alex, I chose to build on the step-sibling relationship, to learn more about Jonas and Alex as individuals and as new family members. Admittedly, anyone choosing the same path will get more in-depth information about those characters, but another play through will give the player an opportunity to spend large chunks of the game getting to see, for example, the best-friend relationship between Alex and Ren unfold.
Mechanically, the dialogue options are simple, yet essential to shaping others’ opinions of Alex. Sometimes, choosing a dialogue option isn’t necessary at all; the game will continue the story without any input, which also works to keep the pace moving consistently. The moment when a dialogue option is compulsory, other characters will chime in to remind you to pick an option, in a conversational manner that doesn’t break the immersion.
The gameplay itself is stripped to the basics. Players will move with the standard WASD keys, jump or climb with the spacebar, and open doors with the enter key. The most complex aspect is a simple right-click of the mouse to bring up Alex’s radio and holding down the left mouse button to scroll through the stations. Also, there are certain points where the player must move their mouse in circles to play World War II-era tape machines, but Oxenfree isn’t about the gameplay; anything more than what it has and it would take focus away from the story and clutter the mechanics.
That said, there were points where the movement of the characters could have been sped-up or certain areas shrunk to help fill in the few gaps that were created by a lapse in all dialogue. For example, in the beginning when Alex follows Jonas into the cave, a jump or rock wall could have been removed to help keep the flow of the story consistent. On the other hand, I could have been anxious to reach Jonas, to make sure he was okay and to see what he found in the cave. Either way, I wanted Alex to move faster down the path, to climb faster up the walls.
An interesting and effective storytelling aspect in itself is the sound. The first moments where Alex, Jonas, and Ren channel the ghost signals at the entrance to the cave set the entire tone for the rest of the game. The player is given one dialogue option in particular to describe these sounds: painful, my favorite choice, because it’s a word with many qualities and describes the events that will unfold perfectly. Also well-done were the voices that emit from the portal-like triangles. Each moment was reminiscent of a “spirit box” or an audio-only device that rapidly scans through multiple audio channels to make it easy for ghosts to say something in real-time.
From those portals, single words are said by different voices to form mostly coherent sentences. If you’ve watched enough ghost hunter shows, you’ve probably seen that device used before; the voices that emit from the static are sometimes a little too clear and a little too cryptic. This even goes for some of the anomaly points, which were cleverly designed as three rocks stacked one on top of the other (rock formations outside the cave excluded). This is the universal trail sign for “danger.” While the transmissions you pick up from these spots are not inherently dangerous, they provide you with extra information about past events on the island, mostly grim. In all, there are 12 anomaly points to find throughout Edward’s Island.
The graphics have a whimsical quality, carefully designed with bright and warm colors that stay consistent throughout the game. They juxtapose the sinister undertones early on, then serve as a beacon of hope that everything will turn out alright, that Alex can save Jonas and her friends from the ghosts that are hell-bent on stealing and keeping their souls.
Last but not least, the voice acting: as strong as this story would be by itself on paper, the superb talents of the men and women chosen to portray these characters made falling in love with them (yes, even Clarissa) so easy. The tone, cadence, every line of dialogue delivered enhanced every emotion put forth by the text.
Oxenfree earns its well-placed sentimentality by emotionally attaching the player to the characters and engrossing them in the story. Brownie-points for straying away from the easy tropes and for giving the players the ability to create a personal connection to the game. There is so much more to rave about, but the beauty in this game is experiencing it for yourself.
Platforms: PC/Steam, Xbox One, PS4 (recently announced) | Developer/Publisher: Night School Studio | ESRB: Pending | Controls: Mouse/keyboard, Controller
This review copy of Oxenfree was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.