It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, so my memory might be a little fuzzy when I think back to those years, but it’s fair to say that it was an odd time in my life.  Teenagers physically have the capabilities of adults, all the bodily functions have relatively reached adulthood, but the mental capabilities are still developing.  It’s a like a robot that someone switched on before writing all the code for.  They’re emotional, they’re unpredictable, and there are far more layers to teenage characters than you would expect.

I love stories about teenagers put in life/death situations because their mindset is so different than that of adults.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, getting her boyfriend to take her to prom is about as important as saving the world from demonic entities.  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  while Voldemort is preparing for another assault on the wizarding world, Harry is fretting over his first kiss.  In the Persona series, camping trips and talent shows are treated with the same gravity as battling the demon world.  Teenagers have the narrative capacity to still fret over mundane real-world issues while faced with cataclysmic circumstances.

This rings true in Night School’s latest effort, Oxenfree.  It all starts with the fact that Night School has created a group of fun characters, not just teenage characters.  They aren’t the stereotypes of Life is Strange, openly talking about drugs, carrying guns to school, and viciously rebelling against anyone and everyone.  The kids in Oxenfree are so worried about being busted, they’ve traveled to a remote island and lied to their parents to ensure they would get the privacy required to misbehave.  They challenge each other about their choices and passive-aggressively poke at each other, satisfied when they elicit a reaction.

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This is who teenagers are.  You can criticize the actual dialogue all you want (I don’t spend enough time around teens to really know how they talk these days) but the way these kids engage each other is what makes them feel real.

Oxenfree also taps into that same disregard for danger as the previously mentioned tales of teenagers.  The reason Buffy, Harry Potter, and the Persona kids can devote so much brain space to romance and school work is because they’re too young to truly fear for their lives.  It’s the same reason why insurance companies jack up the price for teenage car insurance.  Teenagers drive faster because they feel invincible.  It’s clear these kids in Oxenfree feel invincible too.  Instead of waiting until morning to be rescued, they face the darkness of a scary island head on.  They do more drugs thinking it might help mellow out the process.  They still fret over if someone does/doesn’t like them.  They still try to get under each other’s skin.  Even faced with horrendous circumstances, they can’t help but devote some of their brain power to those everyday teenage concerns.

But perhaps the best part of Oxenfree, and something that sets it apart from other video games, is how it evolves one of its teenagers throughout the game.  Our main character is Alex, a girl whose life has been completely changed in the last couple years.  Her brother has passed away, her parents have divorced, and now she is being forced to embrace a new part of her family with a step-father and step-brother.  Any one of those circumstances would be enough to throw a child’s world out of whack.  Dealing with all of that at one time would be pretty earth-shattering for a teenager.

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Yet, Alex seems to take most of this in stride.  You can choose to make some backhanded comments toward your new step-brother, but for the most part it’s pretty impressive that Alex would invite this relative stranger along on a trip with her friends as a gesture of goodwill (even if her parents had pressured her into it.)  But what really makes Alex interesting is the journey she takes on this night on the island.

Alex is clearly still tormented by the death of her brother and is feeling his absence in her life. She never outwardly admits this, but it’s there in subtext and it really becomes clear when the other-worldly tormentor on the island chooses memories of her brother as a pressure point to break her mind.

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Oxenfree really is Alex’s story.  She’s the character we control, she’s the character whose eyes we use to see what is happening.  And it’s her journey that is the most intriguing.  While searching for her friends who spend their time doing drugs, making witty banter, and still concerned about high school life, Alex is learning how to cope with the death of her brother.  Alex starts the game just as childish as the rest of her friends, but by the end she’s grown up into a different person based on the choices she’s made throughout the night.  Her head (and yours by this point) is in such a different space by the end of the game that when Clarissa and Nona ask you to go dress shopping with them for prom, it almost feels insignificant.  You just survived a night with a presence from the Great Beyond, who cares about prom dresses?

High schoolers are surprisingly complex characters.  They can surprise you with their growth and they can frustrate you with their immaturity – and they should be able to do both in equal measure.  It’s what makes the teenagers of Oxenfree so great.  They’re mischievous enough to sneak out onto a island for a night of drinking and get themselves into pretty bad situation, but through this you watch one of them grow up and lead their escape.  Sometimes good teenage writing isn’t just about the words they say, but the actions that define their character and the actions of the teens in Oxenfree make them feel real.

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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