Usually games are in a hurry to get you to the good stuff: the superpowers, the shootouts, the platforming.  It’s rare that a game takes a long time with setting up their world or gameplay before getting into the meat of it.  The Elder Scrolls usually have a quick action sequence to teach you the basics before shoving you out in the world, Ori and the Blind Forest probably has one of the longest introduction sequences I can remember in a platformer before getting into the heart of the game.  This is often a good thing.  We don’t want to sit through a bunch of scripted sequences, waiting for the game to inevitably hand over the steering wheel.  We want to be part of the action, we want to have control of the situation.  That’s what makes video games so great.  Oxenfree is the outlier in this circumstance.  Whereas normally I’m anxious for a game to hurry up and get me to the heart of the gameplay, I could have spent forever listening to the teens in Night School’s coming-of-age adventure game yap about their relationships and high school drama.  I was far more into that than the ghost story being told through the rest of the game.

Oxenfree tells the story of Alex, a girl with a heavy past and a new step-brother, Jonas.  Alex brings Jonas on a camping trip to a local legend of an island.  It’s a popular spot for teens to hangout and get drunk – which is exactly the plan for their plan for the evening.  Especially when Alex’s friend, Ren, tells her that he’s brought along a girl he’s into, Nona, and her friend, Clarissa, who is a not-so-great part of Alex’s past.  The set-up is totally high school.  A night of campfires, under-age drinking/smoking, sitting around and talking about high school nonsense.  And it’s here that Oxenfree feels the most honest and at home.  We’ve all been these dumb kids, even if the drinking and smoking weren’t your thing, we have each known the feeling of sitting in a circle with a couple friend’s you’re close to and a couple friends you aren’t and trying to act like you’re having the best time of your life.

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But Oxenfree doesn’t revel in the high school stuff for too long.  Quickly the game diverts your attention to the fact that Alex is picking up weird signals on her radio.  Following these signals and exploring a dark and ominous cave leads to a series of strange events that prevent Alex and her crew from escaping the island.  Using her radio to communicate with the otherworldly presence and navigate her way through the island, Alex has to gather her friends and save them.

There’s never really a horror element to Oxenfree.  The game is certainly unnerving at times, but it doesn’t have the jump scares we’ve seen in so many previous horror entries.  Instead, the game really indulges in its atmosphere.  The simple yet effective art drenches the screen with oppressive darkness and an echoing soundtrack that fills the empty spaces with unsettling tones.  It’s an impressive package and while the game usually keeps your physical perspective distance from the characters at a premium, the dialogue does a good job of opening them up and making the experience still feel intimate.  After hearing the painful teenage dialogue from Life is Strange, Night School’s group of teens are far easier to listen to.  They might be a little too clever for teenagers, but being as I haven’t interacted with teens since I was one, I’ll avoid being too nitpicky on that account.

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The dialogue is important though because that is what stands front and center in Oxenfree.  The work of Telltale alums is pretty obvious as Alex will almost always have multiple ways she engage her friends in dialogue and the game shows a unique flair for making each choice feel different and believable at the same time.  Alex is spunky and brave while still having the reservations and uncertainty that every high schooler is familiar with.  

Night School doesn’t make a big deal about its choices in-game, and it wasn’t until the end of the experience that I even realized how my dialogue had affected the narrative.  Unlike Telltale games, where it’s pretty hard to miss which choices branch out the story, I really didn’t realize I was making choices in Oxenfree.  Not realizing your choices affect other people is a pretty teenager thing to realize.

The other mechanic in the game is Alex’s radio, which can be taken out and used to pick up strange signals, communicate with ethereal beings, break people out of possessive spells, and open locks.  It’s a handy device.  Toying around with the radio is a neat distraction, Night School hides secrets and collectibles that require the radio to discover.  But it’s not a very satisfying gameplay mechanic.  Every time your progress is impeded you pull out the radio and just start fiddling with the dial expecting results.  Occasionally, you’ll have to flip a switch here or pull a lever there, but when things go sideways you’ll likely be turning to your radio.  It’s not a bad mechanic, at least you never feel frustrated or stuck, but there’s no real satisfaction to these moments.

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The game’s better mechanics are you when you communicate with the spirit, which enjoys playing games.  Engaging in a grisly game of hangman is quite chilling when you feel Alex or her friends could legitimately end up dangling from a noose any second.  The game finds ways to make these moments challenging and frightening, but they only occur about twice.

Oxenfree is a strong rookie effort from Night School games.  It builds believable characters I was invested in, while using some simple design to create an impressively unsettling atmosphere.  Its ghost story is one that is effectively told and certainly chilling, but it’s far from the highlight of the game.  My favorite moments in Oxenfree were the simple ones.  The ones that just let Alex be a teenager surrounded by other teenagers.  I liked these kids, and I wanted to spend more time with them when they weren’t being haunted by a ghost.

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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