Welcome to I’m Still Talking About… My 2016 end of the year feature where I find ten games that defined the indie game scene for me this year.  These aren’t the best games of 2016, they’re not the must-plays, they are the games that have refused to leave my thoughts, the games that got under my skin.  For better or worse, these are the games I’m still talking about.

 

I didn’t really know if Oxenfree would stick with me throughout the year.  When I played it, it felt disposable – a nice effort from a first-time studio, but nothing to write home about.  Yet, I think I’ve recommended Night School’s little teenage thriller more than any other adventure game I’ve played this year – and it’s been a pretty good year for adventure games.  

The most remarkable thing about Oxenfree is how unremarkable it is.  Most games rely on larger than life characters or epic settings to help players engage in a feeling of escapism.  To compare to another game this year – a game that I will end up talking about again – Firewatch goes for the same understated narrative of Oxenfree but relies on stunning vistas and marvelous imagery to remain visually engaging.  Oxenfree is far more restrained – and I think that works in its favor.

In fact, the small moments of teenagers being teenagers is what makes Oxenfree memorable for me.  As I said in a review from earlier this year, Oxenfree is at its best in the opening moments when it allows an unassuming scene of teenage buffoonery to play out.  The simple exchanges between characters feel real, the playful interactions are honest.  Then Oxenfree gets into a creepy ghost story that, while not being the highlight of the game, manages to dig further into the characters and their relationships.

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Is it really THAT good?

Oxenfree is a very solid game.  It’s got unique and interesting gameplay with fun characters.  Night School might have made a misstep by cutting a few trailers that make the game look far more menacing than it really is.  The mystery surrounding the island this handful of teenagers find themselves on is alright, but it’s far from the highlight of the game.

Again, where Oxenfree really shines is how its characters bump off each other.  You can nitpick the dialogue, but Oxenfree is a game that loses a lot when its main character is a alone because it’s so much fun to watch these dumbs kids be dumb kids.  Games likes Oxenfree often get rough up for not being “game-y” enough, but if you think of dialogue as a mechanic (and it is, it’s a mechanic we use every day) it’s as finely tuned as you could ask for in Oxenfree.


But what of the other mechanics?  Well, there’s Alex’s radio that is used as the ultimate puzzle-solving tool in the game.  Basically whenever you’re stuck, the game nudges you toward the radio, where you spin the dial around until something happens.  I would knock it for being a little too simple, but in comparison to Telltale’s infatuation with button-prompts, this feels creative.  

Sure, Oxenfree isn’t a home run, but there’s something about it that gets under your skin.

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Okay, that sounds alright.  But what is the real reason I should play this game?

Oxenfree is a game that builds an excellent atmosphere.  The bumbling teenagers wandering around an island of horrors is rife to fall into the same kind of schtick Until Dawn mined so effectively in 2015, but Oxenfree really does manage to be a more substantial game.  Part of that is the payoff with Alex’s character arc and her journey throughout the game.  With all of the other thing happening in Oxenfree, it’s easy to miss that it is a coming of age story – and a pretty good one.  By the time you finish, something really has changed in Alex and you can see how her future will be different.

The other part of Oxenfree is it’s atmosphere.  The game could have leaned on jump-scares and a sense of isolation to create the same survival horror aesthetic that is so popular for games these days, but instead it opts for much more unsettling tone.  Everything feels off in Oxenfree.  The game is intimate and close, but you can tell there’s plenty of unexplored world for evil to lurk.  There’s often multiple characters on screen but it rarely helps you feel secure.  Your tormentor seems ghost-like but also very physically present.  There’s a dissonance to the aesthetic that works very well.

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So you’d recommend it to anyone?

Definitely.  My favorite part about games like Oxenfree is how easy they are to play.  This is the kind of game that I think works even better as a multiplayer experience with friends sitting around a TV arguing about dialogue choices and trying to figure out the puzzles together.  It’s an easy game to get your mind around even easier to enjoy.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • I wonder why we say “mechanic”? I always feel weird saying that word to describe how a video-game does something. I think I recently heard (or probably read) someone say “play device” I think. So I know others are made uncomfortable.

    I recently typed, I think the other day; it and went back to try to replace it with something else. I don’t know why. The simplest replacement I thought was “system.” System seems more natural and without pretense. I don’t know why it feels funny. It just feels arbitrarily made-up. Like saying “engine” always bothers me. People like to toss that around. But I think I reserve it for a software code-base that is incomplete. I wonder if “mechanics” and “engines” have a history. (Mechanics fix engines and so on, har har!)

    Keep it up.

    • MM

      Perhaps from Game Theory (not ‘electronic game’ as in this context but rather a sub-field of economics).
      They have what they dubbed “Mechanism Design” which is basically what you said about systems.. how their parts interact to achieve some effect.

      • I think “mechanism” would be a much more grammatically satisfying word than “mechanic.” I think maybe, now that you mention it, that it might annoy me because it feels very close to “gimmick” — which incidentally is what I hear inside my head whenever people say mechanic 😉

        • MM

          True. Nice catch as I was thinking of “mechanic” as a particular use (inflection?) of “mechanism”. Indeed, they could be used separately and I agree mechanism sounds better. (re-insert your joke about mechanics here ^_^)
          I guess with the increasingly shenanigans of the triple A industry, what you heard inside your head may be the more accurate term : ) Hopefully the economy will get better and less of it would be necessary? Cheers.