Oxenfree is a game that was merely a faint blip on my radar this year. Night School Studio released the supernatural-mystery adventure game in January for Xbox One and PC, and a few months later for PS4. This made me a little late to purchasing the game; plus I was honestly not all that interested to begin with. I had just finished Tales from the Borderlands, Gone Home, and Life is Strange – a story driven, dialogue tree crazed, multiple-ending spree, and the idea of going through that again so soon was not very enticing. So here I am in September finally getting around to a game that is bound to be on a few ‘Game of the Year’ / Top Ten lists, and boy am I glad that I did.
Oxenfree is brilliant. The story is touching, witty, and downright scary at times. It’s a coming-of-age tale that is wrapped in the teen-movie genre of the 80s, and Poltergeist. The story is what shines here the most – so much so that Robert Kirkman (creator of The Walking Dead) plans to make a movie adaptation with his company Skybound Entertainment.
The game is centered around five teenagers who take a trip to Edwards Island, an old military base turned tourist-trap, to stay overnight and explore some of the island’s mysterious locales. You play as Alex, a sarcastic teen girl attempting to settle some left-over emotional damage from the death of her older brother, Michael. At the same time, she meets Jonas, her new step brother, and attempts to get to know him.
Tagging alongside is Alex’s best friend Ren (witty stoner), Ren’s crush the ever-brooding Nona, and Clarissa, Michaels ex-girlfriend who is constantly at odds with Alex. The island getaway is supposed to be a party, but no one shows up. Then it attempts to turn into a chill hangout over beers, but very early into the night things turn for the worse in a weird, supernatural way. Time is thrown off, people are disappearing and reappearing elsewhere, and strange things are happening to the island and to the characters. The stress and paranoia caused by these events create for some great character building, and revealing moments.
On paper it sounds a bit cliché, right? But it truly isn’t. The characters are written extremely well, and they don’t fall into a typical, annoying, standardized teen personality. There is depth in their personalities – mostly with Alex and Jonas who you’ll spend the most time with, but it goes for everyone, and each personality and backstory will get fleshed out more through the game’s fantastic dialogue options.
Each dialogue option that pops up is an opportunity to build onto the existing story, while also influencing the ending and how the other characters perceive you. It’s seriously so well thought out! There is not a single choice that feels lazy or ill-conceived. There are three ways to say a single thought each time, and each time it can have an impact on the characters and the game’s endings. There is a lot of talking in Oxenfree (like, A LOT) so it’s good that the writing is solid enough to make each conversation feel necessary.
As far as gameplay goes… there’s not much here. You spend your time navigating winding trails and climbing stone cliffs, going to and from one place to another, and using a radio to tune into radio signals that are scattered across the island. That’s about it! There’s not much to it, but the light puzzle-solving, frequent conversations, and gorgeously hand-drawn environments will keep you distracted well enough to endure each trek.
The art direction is whimsical, and subtly depressed. It has a great way of making itself suit each moment. Alex and Ren can share a friendly banter while walking through a field that makes everything look and feel fuzzy and safe, but the very same location can feel grim and spooky after experiencing more of the games supernatural phenomena. The environments are not only beautifully crafted, they are meticulously thoughtful.
That being said, after my first play through I felt underwhelmed. Yeah the game was good, but it wasn’t great. It wasn’t the masterpiece that I’ve been hearing so much about. Then I started a new game, and my mind was almost immediately changed. I understood. I get it now. I’ve played through my second time and the game ended DRAMATICALLY different. It’s not always so dramatic though – sometimes the characters just hate you or like you more. Oxenfree's story, and dialogue options are a bit different the second play through also. Playing a second time is integral to the experience, and if you get it just right it’ll blow your mind. That’s what it did to me. I can't really get into the 'Why' without spoiling the game for you, just take my word for it - you won't regret it.
Night School Studio’s first game has got me waiting with bated breath for their next big one. The game’s story is damn near flawless, the characters are unique and compelling, and the art direction’s painterly atmosphere is beautifully haunting. Its attempts at gameplay are fairly shallow, and the radio mechanic somewhat falls flat, but it makes up for this in it’s fascinating characters and involving dialogue tree. The music is stellar, and the game is just short enough at 4/4.5 hours to warrant the necessary second play. I look forward to having conversations about the ending with you in the comments. Please. I really need to talk about this.