It’s been almost four months, and I still don’t know how I feel about Oxenfree. There’s no denying it’s a good game: it’s incredibly beautiful with a strong, unified aesthetic; it has a eerie-yet-charming soundtrack; it has simple but unique mechanics, an engaging cast, and an intriguing narrative. Oxenfree feels like a game that has something to say about friendship, and death, and the nature of humanity.

I’m just not quite sure what that something is.

See, it’s been four months, and even though I know, objectively, that Oxenfree is “good” — as I’ve put it — I don’t know if I liked it. In fact, I feel pretty strongly that I didn’t. Part of that has to do with the litany of game-breaking bugs that I and other users have encountered in it (bugs that, four months after the game’s release, still have yet to be patched out). But a more significant part of it has to do with something strange that sits at the core of the game’s narrative: Oxenfree has absolutely no idea what it wants to say about the nature of fate.

(Note: spoilers ahead!)

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Choose Your Own Adventure

On the surface, Oxenfree would appear to be a game all about choice. Making choices is a core game mechanic, and in the spirit of a Bioware or Telltale title, players are assured that the choices they make will have lasting consequences. This focus on choice and free will is well-grounded in the narrative, much of which is focused on the fallibility of choice — how the consequences of making a choice too quickly, or without a full consideration of the facts can be devastating to everyone involved. One of the emotional themes that threads itself throughout Oxenfree’s story is that of regret: Alex’s regret over what happened to Michael (and, possibly, over decisions she makes on the island), and Maggie’s regret over what happened to Anna and the USS Kanaloa. Regret — an emotion founded in action and choice — is posed as a theme in direct contrast to grief, which is, in turn, a reaction to events which transpire outside one’s control. The game puts forth several questions and, depending on player action, several answers: it asks whether or not “fated” events can be avoided, and whether or not grief can be overcome through action and forgiveness.

Oxenfree’s narrative has a very decided opinion of fate, which mirrors the quote: “Fate determines who enters your life. Your actions decide who stays.” The game attempts to evoke a narrative about how your choices can affect not only your relationships but your relationship to yourself. By allowing you to potentially alter the game’s timeline — both by playing through and correcting “timeloops” and by potentially allowing you to alter the course of your own life through its “flashback” sequences — it sets up a universe in which free will is paramount. By placing such an emphasis on player choice, it intends to speak to the power that we all have over our own destinies.

And that’s a great narrative. But almost nothing about the game actually supports it, mechanically.

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Not Enough Smoke in Mirrors

In Oxenfree, you have the ultimate power to choose your fate… except when you don’t. There are a bunch of predetermined things that happen in Oxenfree no matter what action you take — Clarissa jumping to her supposed death, for example, or Ren and Jonas arguing in a way that forces you to choose between them. There is no action you can take to prevent these things, or even to change them all that much, although the game often presents it to you as though you can.

To that end, the actions you do take can have results that really shatter your illusion of choice. Illusion of choice is a central tenet of gaming — but that illusion is broken pretty much as soon as you figure out that your choices don’t make an actual impact on the gameplay. And Oxenfree doesn’t do a very good job of showing you the potential of the path untaken, or of hiding the parts of the game that are very solidly on rails.

For one thing, the way you manipulate the ending feels very arbitrary; it doesn’t feel correlated to the choices you actually made in the context of the game. There are very specific ways to get the endings you want, but they’re often imprecise, and the ones that are known to work feel random. They seem to exist outside of the rapport you’ve cultivated through general gameplay. I didn’t get an ending that corresponded closely to the choices I made or the relationships I felt I had with characters at all, and it was apparently because I made certain, unannounced “key choices” in a way that was contrary to the relationships I felt I’d established.

I felt I’d established a fairly close relationship with Jonas, for example — despite some initial rockiness between us, I felt we’d connected. I told him I thought of him as my brother. We’d shared conversations about our childhoods and what we thought of one another. We’d shared our experiences with loss. I’d entrusted him with information about our adventures that I hadn’t entrusted to others. I even let him go into the ether to speak with his mother when the time came. But when he and Ren exploded at one another, I chose to take Nona with me to town instead of choosing between them. And so, despite us establishing a healthy in-game rapport, when the game tallied up our relationships at the end, it stated — to my shock — that Jonas and I had remained distant. Oxenfree’s “key choices” frequently don’t seem to be weighted more significantly than any other choice, in context. This makes it feel, in the end, like you’re playing an algorithm, not a game that responds authentically to your input.

Furthermore, it frequently feels that you have no choice but the one you’re making, even though you’re presented with multiple choices every time. Timed choices make the narrative feel like it marches relentlessly forward with or without player input. And the way the game “resets” at the end makes it really feel like your choices don’t matter. Like the game’s “timeloop” sections, it feels like everything you just did just got erased, and you’re the only person who’s going to remember it. All of this lends itself to a game that feels very “fated,” despite the fact that it’s supposed to be all about choice and free will.

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The Reality

To Oxenfree’s credit, it is extraordinarily difficult — if not currently impossible — to make a video game that truly subverts fate, mechanically. After all, in a video game, everything is technically ‘predestined.’ Events always happen when triggered by a certain player action; some amount of action is always outside of player control. In a single game, player will always be asked to make the same set of choices. There are limitations on how you’re allowed to interact with the world and how it can possibly respond to you.

In Oxenfree, as in all games, there are a predetermined sequence of things that will happen: Ren will get high, Jonas will explore the cave, and you, as the player, will open the rift. You have to. It’s the only way for the game to progress. It’s really hard to argue that your actions aren’t predetermined when, mechanically, they are.

As a result, Oxenfree’s message about fate — about it being possible to change the outcome of certain events by behaving differently — is fundamentally undermined by its mechanics. All this leads to a degree of dissonance you can expect to experience as a player. Oxenfree wants you to feel like your choices matter; like your choices could fundamentally alter reality itself. But there’s no possible way for them to actually support that in as grand a way as they’d clearly like to.

And that, in the end, is the thing that I think bothers me about Oxenfree. Its aspirations are noble, and it clearly longs to spread its wings and soar. But, unlike many other indie games with similar aspirations, Oxenfree does very little, outside of narrative, to convince the player that those aspiration have been realized in-game, however humbly. And so, instead of feeling like it’s taking you flying, you spend a few hours sitting in a cage with somebody desperately trying to convince you that you aren’t caged at all. Oxenfree has plenty of good, interesting things to say, but it doesn’t convincingly implement them, which makes its message ring hollow. And whether that’s choice or fate, it means that four months from now, I will probably still be sitting here, trying to figure out if I liked it or not.