Night School Studio created a new supernatural thriller that has some of the best sound design in years.
Oxenfree is best described as a single-player, point and click dialog-driven narrative game with a story that follows a group of teenagers who travel to a mysterious island for a day of tomfoolery. Early in the night, the five teens head to the beach for beers, bonfires and a game of Truth or Dare. It doesn’t take long before they discover that this seemingly deserted island has an ominous history, which surfaces after they pick up strange signals on their radio emitting from a nearby cave. When they decide to explore the cave, shenanigans ensue, and it’s up to you (player one) to explore the island, unearth clues and unravel a mystery, decades in the making. What was supposed to be a fun weekend getaway takes a turn for the worst as each teen is forced to face the skeletons buried deep in their closet.
You play as audacious blue-haired Alex, who’s trying to reconcile her feelings about the death of her brother Michael while coping with her parents’ divorce and her mother re-marrying. She’s hoping the trip will award her some quality time alone with her new stepbrother, Jonas, and maybe a chance to escape her deep-seeded feelings of regret and guilt (as we soon enough learn from Michael’s girlfriend Clarissa, it was partially Alex’s fault that her brother, died). Unfortunately, while wandering through the caves, Alex unknowingly unleashes a supernatural force that causes everyone on the island to experience some sort of time-looping paranormal activity that makes it seem like they are living the same day over and over again. And because Alex realizes she is somewhat to blame for unleashing this phenomenon on her friends, she takes it upon herself to find a way to save everyone involved.
Teens, alone on an island, squaring off against deadly forces is nothing new in the horror genre. One doesn’t need to look far to come up with a list of similar stories and truth be told, Sony’s Until Dawn quickly springs to mind when thinking of a comparison point. On paper, the premise of Oxenfree may seem like a clichéd thriller, but really, Oxenfree is a near-masterpiece, a blend of mind-boggling sci-fi, and subjective storytelling that serves as a singular and timeless piece of gaming. These high school seniors aren’t just fodder – they’re three-dimensional characters with complex inner lives that you don’t often see in video games. The mystery that unravels as you explore every corner of the island is really just a MacGuffin, an excuse to navigate the heady dynamics inherent to a group of hormonal troubled teens. The real charm in Oxenfree is the character development and like the majority of great horror films, Oxenfree explores the theme of isolation, both in a literal sense and in a figurative sense.
Oxenfree, in fact, is a bit like a teenager: brooding, complex, restless, and difficult to love.
Oxenfree is primarily a game about conversation, and at the center of the gaming mechanics is a type of speech-bubble interface. Dialogue balloons similar to what you’ll see in comic strips suggest three deviating plotlines based on their color. As Alex, you can decide what to say and who you choose to help throughout your journey. Night School Studio boasts some former Telltale Games designers in its roster, and so there are clearly many similarities to other walking simulators when it comes to interacting with these characters. But what sets Oxenfree apart from its contemporaries is the speed in which these characters riff off each other. Oxenfree’s characters are constantly chatting, and you have a restricted amount of time to respond to what someone is saying much like you would expect from a real-life conversation. In other words, there are no pauses in Oxenfree. The dialogue rattles along quickly from character to character, and if you don’t respond fast enough, the conversation moves on with or without you. The same applies to your supporting cast, and as Alex, you have the power to allow someone to finish what they are saying or you can interrupt them mid-sentence and change the flow of the conversation. And if you choose to remain silent, people take notice and react to your silence. More importantly, every decision you make will test the relationships of everyone involved. For a game as heavy on dialogue as this one, it’s a definite plus that it features good writing and strong, voiceover performances delivered by Telltale veterans which include Evin Yvette and Gavin Hammon.
Some have argued that the repartee between the cast rings false and their responses to the supernatural elements seem unrealistic. There is some truth behind this since often Alex and her friends don’t seem truly frightened by the paranormal and rather than frequent hysteria, these teens remain, for the most part, calm. I think the problem really has more to do with the art style than the actual script or voice acting. You see, while Oxenfree features gorgeous hand-painted 2D characters and environments, it also relies heavily on the voice cast since the characters appear quite small onscreen. In other words, there are no close-ups, zooms or dollies that can capture their facial and body expressions outside of a few minor gestures and movements like arms flailing and reactionary headshakes. I’m guessing when Nightschool Studio sat down to record the voice work they had to decide between having the actors deliver their lines in constant panic and screaming at a high-pitched volume – or – something soothing, calm and easy on the ears. I think they made the right decision but regardless of how you feel, I believe the voice acting is so good that these minor quibbles never take away from what the game is really about. As for those that say the teens don’t feel authentic, I wholeheartedly disagree: They bluster, bicker and trade insults, then suddenly expose their most guarded feelings. The conversations are the game’s lifeblood and thankfully, the teens of Oxenfree are refreshingly likable. With an excellent script behind some amazing voice-over performances, the teens never wear out their welcome. Oxenfree, in fact, is a bit like a teenager: brooding, complex, restless, and difficult to love.
Oxenfree benefits substantially from the ongoing emphasis on the sounds of the unseen horror.
While this is definitely a coming-of-age tale, it’s just as much as a ghost story inflected by a deeply atmospheric soundtrack courtesy of the electronic musician SCNTFC. Oxenfree’s sound design is so good I’d wager it features the best soundscape of any game available on the Nintendo Switch – and it’s aided with a clever twist since Alex must use a radio to tune into the supernatural side of things. You see, Oxenfree relies largely on Alex’s receiver which she carries everywhere to generate scares. With the press of a button, players can access eerie, ghostly radio frequencies that unlock doors, warp the environment, reset time, and reveal the dark history of the island they are stuck on. You never really know what you’re tapping into when playing Oxenfree but the radio is essential when investigating the mystery at large. In other words, Oxenfree benefits substantially from the ongoing emphasis on the sounds of the unseen horror. The effect is phenomenal. Senses kick into overdrive, ominous sounds fade in and out, and the mix of visuals and sounds begin to cross over from the radio waves into Alex’s mind, and the lines between reality and the subconscious become blurred. It’s all open to interpretation and there is a lot to interpret. And while the dial is severely limited for the first half of the game, it eventually expands fleshing out both the characters seen and unseen.
Oxenfree is unapologetically story-driven and extremely light on gameplay – and to be fair, that may not be what everyone wants when purchasing a game. There are no real puzzles to solve, bosses to battle or even quick-time events to challenge your reflexes. Getting off the island becomes the priority which means you spend a lot of time exploring – but all that is really required of you the player – is to decide how you want to respond to conversations and adjust the dial on your radio. I’ve been told that the long walks from area to area have tested the patience of some of my colleagues who say that jumping over obstacles, climbing up and down low cliffs and walking down narrow, twisting paths through the dilapidated military base takes too much time. To be fair, it takes less than two minutes to cross the entire island and more importantly, these long walks are somewhat essential since they afford the characters time to interact, and between the sarcastic teen chatter and awkward stand-offs are genuinely touching moments. There are choices to be made as you travel throughout the island, and based on what you say and who you say them to impacts everyone’s future. Without it, the game just wouldn’t work.
Alongside the main story, there are several items hidden throughout the game to collect (which players can uncover if they choose). This includes letters from the island’s single resident, Maggie Adler which explain what happens to the dead Marines and hints at a gruesome coverup. I recommend seeking them out in order to better understand what happens in the past, present, and future.
Like most walking simulators, Oxenfree’s story also branches depending on the choices you make, and it’s possible to get one of a few different endings but no matter what ending you get, sacrifices must be made. And that’s the beauty of Oxenfree, by giving players the agency to tell the story they want and creating emotional connections to the characters, every ending comes with a heavy price to pay. While the horror elements are what grant Oxenfree its narrative urgency, the character interactions are the best part of the journey, and like most games that offer players a choice, the results of your decisions – much like life itself – aren’t always satisfying.
Oxenfree is an astonishingly imaginative, poignant, genre-defying tale of loss, grief, guilt, revenge and time travel wrapped in a ghostly mystery that’s just as dark and disturbing as adolescence.
- Ricky D
** Spoilers below **
For those curious, I somehow managed to get the one and only happy ending, or at least I thought it was until it wasn’t and I realized Alex and her friends were doomed and stuck in an endless time loop no matter what. If you’ve played the game and didn’t get the secret ending, I’ve embedded a video below by Gotchi3 that shows what happens.