Oxenfree can best be described as a low budget combination of Until Dawn and Firewatch with a touch of Life is Strange. It’s like Until Dawn in that it’s about a bunch of ostensibly friendly teenagers with deep-seated relationship problems who try to survive a night in a geographically isolated location while scary, supernatural things happen around them. It’s like Firewatch in that most of the game consists of walking long distances across an open world map while the player messes with dialogue trees which come up at pre-set intervals and interactions. And it’s like Life is Strange because at least two of the characters are really similar to Max and Chloe, for some spoiler-y reasons.
Oxenfree is also like all of those games in that it is pretty damn great. It’s one of those games that makes me eternally grateful for Steam for more or less inventing the modern indie market, thereby providing a platform for fantastic low budget games bursting at the seams with creativity like FTL: Faster than Light, Papers Please, Hotline Miami, and Limbo (Bastion and Transistor are a bit too polished to make this cut). Oxenfree is by no means perfect, but it’s overwhelmingly clear that this 4 hour game, with its wonderful characters, haunting soundtrack, and beautiful visuals, was made with a whole lot of love. Given that the game has gotten relatively little attention since its release in January, I’m urging everyone who thinks they might have the slightest interest in Oxenfree to give it a shot.
Five high schoolers go to a remote island for an annual beach bash, only to inadvertently set off some sort of mysterious phenomenon which sends the kids on a crazy adventure through increasingly surreal events and challenges. The player controls one of the five characters who happens to have a ham radio which enables her to interact with the strange phenomena. The gameplay consists of moving between locations, picking dialogue options, and occasionally tuning the radio into a particular channel through a little mini-game. Oxenfree is the only non-first person walking simulator that I know of, and instead uses a 2.5D side scrolling format. Depending upon the player’s choices, the character dynamics change and a decent variety of end game outcomes can occur.
It’s understandable if that description of the game doesn’t sound too tantalizing. But it’s probably better to think of Oxenfree’s gameplay along the same lines as Firewatch and Limbo. The gameplay isn’t the focus of the game as a whole, it’s just a vehicle for delivering a story and atmosphere. This strategy can backfire when the mechanics are marginalized to the point where they become a cumbersome annoyance, like in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. But fortunately, Oxenfree has just enough productive interactivity to make it feel like it deserved to be a video game as opposed to a movie or some other passive medium.
As well-made as the whole game is, I suspect it might end up being primarily remembered for its visuals, music, and atmosphere, much in the same way Bastion and Transistor are. It’s hard for me to actually pin down what sort of aesthetic Oxenfree goes for. It’s definitely distinctive though. It’s a sort of dark minimalism with a lot of bluish-greens and greenish-blues and maybe some Coraline influence thrown in. The visuals are perfectly complimented by an equally dark techno soundtrack (which is also reminiscent of Transistor, but less showy) which pulsates in the background during every long walk and conversation, giving the game an eminent sense of pacing and tempo.
The characters are as great as you would expect from a Telltale writer and an all-star voice cast which includes a couple of Telltale alumni, such as Gavin Hammond, who sounds absolutely nothing like he did as Kenny in The Walking Dead. What’s really impressive is that such strong characterization can be squeezed out of a short game with minimalistic visuals. With the exception of occasional in-game photographs, the player never sees any of the characters as anything but tiny sprites on a rather large screen, due to the wide camera angle. Yet even from these small sprites the developers managed to convey a lot about a character’s mannerisms and demeanor. Purely from their appearances, the player can tell that: Alex is laid back, preferring the comfort of a big coat over something more stylish, even when she’s going to a party; Clarissa is tall, haughty, and in contrast to Alex, quite stylish; Ren is short, disheveled, nerdy, and apparently quite aware of these traits; Mona is shy, and nerdy like Ren; and Jonas is older than the others, self-conscious, and looks slightly suspicious.
I wish there was more for me to write on Oxenfree’s good qualities because it really is an excellent game and I’m not sure I’ve entirely encapsulated its value. The problem is that it’s a relatively small game and most of its best qualities are aspects which simply work when you experience them. Sure, I can admire the game for squeezing a lot of characterization out of minimal visuals, but I can’t really describe how good the dialogue is beyond describing it with buzzwords like “witty,” “funny,” and “effective.”
But Oxenfree does have two shortcomings which I can describe in detail, so I’ll do that. To do so, I’ll have to reveal some important details about the end of the game, so **SPOILERS** ahead.
Pro-tip: if you want the best outcome in any narrative-choice based game like a Telltale game, Firewatch, Until Dawn, or Life is Strange, just be as nice as possible to everyone all the time.
Ok, this might not entirely be Oxenfree’s fault, but I can’t help but notice the game continues this annoying and pervasive trend in narrative-choice based video games. I got the best possible ending during my first run through Oxenfree (unless you really hate Clarissa) simply by not being an asshole. I was nice to Jonas by not calling him an idiot, I was nice to Ren by not slapping him, I was nice to Mona by talking to her, and I was nice to Clarissa by not bitching her out… and by not erasing her from existence.
Maybe this trend can be chalked up to some grand philosophical statement about how the best way to live a good life is to be nice to people, but that doesn’t mean it’s not boring. I want narrative-choice games to start shaking up the formula. That doesn’t mean the best outcome should be achieved by being needlessly mean to everyone all the time or something, but it’s repetitious, and frankly, unrealistic, that simply telling everyone what they want to hear all the time will always lead to a good outcome. I don’t think there is an easy alternative, but I’ll be looking out for one.
What is Oxenfree’s fault is the decision to cap the very end of the game with an asinine twist which undermines the emotional power of the entire narrative. After spending a roller coaster of a night on this island, during which friendships were made or broken, romances started or ended, ghosts were communicated with, and possibly someone was brought back to life, it turns out that the entire narrative exists in an endless time loop which immediately restarts after Alex and the gang leave the island. In other words, everything Alex (and by extension, the player) did throughout the entire game was entirely pointless, at least within the confines of the in-game narrative.
Why did the writers do this? What point does it serve beyond adding shock value? How does it connect to the story’s themes, goals, or lessons? Tharsis has the same twist, but Tharsis is a mechanics-focused game which uses its story as a marginal aspect to enhance the Dark Souls-style atmosphere of dread and morbid inevitability. What’s Oxenfree’s excuse?
As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have one. This is the ultimate pitfall of twist endings. Sometimes creators think a twist is so cool and mind-blowing that they don’t bother to think of its wider implications on the narrative. An example that comes to mind is the movie, The Mist, which ends with the protagonist mercy killing his friends and son only to be rescued moments later. Unless the intended message of the movie was “life is meaningless and awful and everything will always be terrible,” it was a horrible ending which undermined all of the previous events in the story.
That’s my best guess as to what happened with Oxenfree. One of the writers said, “hey, wouldn’t it be so awesome if…” and that was that. And it’s a real shame because everything in Oxenfree’s ending before the last few seconds is so goddamn great, and good video game endings are quite rare. I was on the edge of my seat as Alex entered the cave to negotiate with the ghosts, and was then transported into some sort of alternate time line where she had the chance to save her brother’s life. I actually had to pause the game at a few points to carefully think about my decisions. Could Clarissa and the rest of the group be saved, or was it worth it to sacrifice my least favorite member of the group for the sake of the rest? Could I actually change the past and save Alex’s brother? Or would trying to do so only cause butterfly effects and screw up present events like it seems to do in every other time travel story? (This is where a lot of the Life is Strange similarities come into play.)
But it turns out that my carefully deliberated decisions meant nothing within the context of the game’s world. Whether or not Clarissa is banished from reality or Alex’s brother is revived, or Ren and Mona get together is ultimately irrelevant because the loop restarts as soon as they all leave the island. Bleh.
The only way that twist could have worked is if the writers had fully committed the entire game’s story and mechanics to it. For instance, imagine if instead of having just Alex’s brother and Clarissa potentially get blinked out of existence, the game could have let every character besides Alex experience that fate. Then when the player restarted the game, which in the story’s canon is a restart of the time loop, the characters who were lost on the previous playthrough wouldn’t be in the new timeline unless Alex (ie. the player) could figure out a way to bring them back during the events of the game. Now that would be a cool twist, and a fantastically inventive way to tie a theme to the game’s mechanics.
But Oxenfree didn’t go that direction. It went for a quick shock followed by disappointment.
The ending twist is by no means game breaking, and given how quickly it comes and goes, I’m honestly not that upset by it. I just wished the developers had shown better judgement and given an excellent game the final moments it deserves.