When Oxenfree first faded onto the screen, something rang familiar. It wasn’t just the fact that I have spent time on the foggy waters of Puget Sound, or that adventure games used to be my jam. There was something—just behind Oxenfree’s gorgeous visuals—that welcomed me in like the Overlook to Jack Torrance.
Taking hints from horror staples like Poltergeist, Oxenfree excels in its ability to immediately disarm you. The characters are simple and bright, and effortlessly banter about their school hijinx. It promises a light-hearted coming of age tale—teens out to embark on some mischief—but no sooner do you get your first taste of fun, that curious phenomena begin. And then $#!& gets dark.
In Oxenfree, you play as Alex, a teenage girl who is partaking in the annual tradition spending the night on the desolate Edwards Island. While you only control Alex, she is joined by four other high schoolers: Jonas (her newly acquired step-brother), Ren (her best friend), Clarissa (the popular, mean girl), and Nona (the shy one). By making various dialogue choices, friendships can be bolstered or destroyed as you try to solve the mystery of the island and make it through the night.
On the surface, Oxenfree appears to be like any other adventure game. Through exploration and choices in dialogue, the player gains access to new clues and areas of the world. While some items of interest appear by entering their proximity, others require more work. By tuning into certain frequencies on Alex’s small radio, the character can not only find entertaining sound clips and clues, but can also tap into the unknown. These paranormal frequencies lead to more and more disturbing activity, some of which manifests onscreen to incredible effect. It is the conversational system, however, the sets Oxenfree apart the most from other adventures.
When setting out to make the game, Night School Studio wanted to challenge a much used mechanic in gaming: the dialogue cutscene. Discarding the standard of pausing the action, forcing the player to focus on the important dialogue being delivered, Oxenfree allows controlling of the character throughout the conversation via a bubble mechanic.
When the player has the chance to chime in, a set of dialogue bubbles appear over the character’s head. These options fade as the opportunity to contribute to the conversation diminishes, and depending on how teen-angsty the player decides to play Alex, gamers may choose instead to stay silent or to walk away and completely disengage from the conversation. Thanks to this system, you can adventure over the hills and through the woods of Edwards Island while carrying on a heart-to-heart.
With on-point writing from studio co-founder Adam Hines, there truly is no wrong answer—every line (or response in reaction to a lack of a line) is a reward. Hines’ script not only delivers multiple laugh out loud moments like “Brownie Town,” but also takes off the kid gloves to presents some deeply emotional scenes that had my “allergies” acting up. Even the teenage ramblings that fill the silence are noteworthy, and kept me entertained as I made my way across the island.
Unfortunately, the dialogue also leads to several frustrations. While the bubbles allowed me freedom to move around and interact with small objects, my wanderings sometimes cued events, cutting off the current train of conversation, and sending it forever into the ether. Sometimes choosing a dialog option would also cut off the character currently speaking, clipping their audio mid word. Most aggravating, giving control to the player as to their pace of progression sometimes lead to key facts being skipped over, only to be referenced later. It wasn’t too long before I found myself settling into a cautious playstyle that had me staying closer to the group, and waiting until the last moment to select my response. Humorously, I realized that this resulted in the game looking and sounding more like a cut scene.
The visual design of Oxenfree is immediately identifiable. Opposite to the retro pixel-styling that has become so popular in the indie-game community, Lead Artist Heather Gross fills the screen with beautiful environments that vibe traditional media. The charcoal and watercolor feel is so perfectly fitting for Edwards Island that when the sharp, unabashedly digital paranormal occurrences begin, it causes a visceral reaction. The studio’s choice to completely split the art styles between the normal world and the mystical is a massive success. The digital “glitching” that distorts the screen was especially potent, leaving me feeling uneasy whenever it occurred.
The team at Night School did an excellent job at finding ways to elevate this discomfort as the story progresses, and the consequences of my earlier actions were beginning to show. Looking to slip back in and alter some choices, I came across the scariest part of Oxenfree: there are no multiple save files. I was five hours into the game, and completely stuck with what I had done. While this was most likely done intentionally to mirror the tone of the game, it made me want to rush through a later playthrough to get to the points where I felt I could change the narrative. Unfortunately, by rushing through the story, it triggered more and more of the issues with dialogue I mentioned earlier, which only compounded my frustration.
Oxenfree is not without issues, but it is a game that should be played. The story told is honest and clever, and the attempt to tell it through a new delivery system is commendable. As the first release from a new studio, it shows remarkable maturity and thought, and I’m excited to see what comes down the road from the team at Night School Studio.
This house is clean.
Like a good roller coaster, Oxenfree starts with nervous laughter, escalating to an event that leaves the character white-knuckled and wishing they had stayed home.
Night School Studio
Night School Studio
T – Teen
|Oxenfree is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version played was for PC. Code/hardware was provided by Night School Studio for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Matt learned how to play video games from his grandma, who bravely adventured with him through the “terrifying” halls of Shadowgate. He plays a lot of Dungeons & Dragons on a podcast with comedians.