Present day, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. At 8pm on a Friday night, five teenagers arrive on the military base-turned-tourist attraction Edwards Island to hang out, drink, and go ghost hunting. They might not survive the night.
Chances are you’ve seen a horror movie with a setup like this, but you’ve never played a game like Oxenfree, the debut from Night School Studios. Let’s get this out of the way up front: Oxenfree is a story-focused, dialogue-heavy game with next-to-no puzzle-solving. If you’re looking for a traditional adventure game, look elsewhere. At the same time, it’s not a Telltale-style interactive drama (despite some of its team having previously worked there). Most of the 4-5 hour experience is spent exploring, conversing, and listening. A story does unfold, but it’s more like you’re living through it than directing the action, thanks to the game’s fluid dialogue system.
You play as a blue-haired girl named Alex and are almost always accompanied by one or more of her companions: her dorky best friend Ren, her nice guy stepbrother Jonas, the quiet girl Nona, and the queen bitch Clarissa. They’re easily stereotyped, but each of these characters has more going on than appears on the surface—you just might need multiple playthroughs to plumb their depths.
The third-person perspective is zoomed out, with the characters relatively small on the screen so you get a good sense of the area around them. I liked this aesthetic and only minded the lack of dynamic cameras and close-ups during a few “Do you see what I see?” type conversations where I didn’t know what I was supposed to be looking at. On PC you can play with a gamepad or the WASD and arrow keys (plus the mouse to select dialogue options), with navigation reminiscent of a side-scrolling platformer. Most movement occurs to the right, left, up, or down, but Oxenfree does have some depth with the ability to walk “into” or “away from” the screen. Compared to a platformer, however, Oxenfree’s navigation is low-key, with climbing a rock or jumping a gap as simple as pressing a button or key.
The creepy-island-at-night setting would be wasted if the group stayed on the beach drinking all evening, so of course they split up early. (Much like in a horror movie, yelling “Don’t go down there alone!” at the screen has little impact.) Thankfully Alex is rarely totally alone—she usually has at least one companion, with the non-playable character(s) following and chatting away like teenagers do. Alex can join in, with dialogue options giving you a choice of how to play her (friendly, bitchy, etc.). If you don’t respond quickly enough (or simply choose not to) she’ll stay silent, which can also have ramifications.
Oxenfree’s meandering conversations reminded me of Richard Linklater movies like Dazed and Confused: the dialogue is quick, entertaining, and authentic (at least to my 37-year-old ears). It’s a big step up from the dialogue in that other recent young adult game, Life Is Strange, which frequently tried too hard to sound young. One of the game’s strongest elements, Oxenfree’s script is natural and often funny, but it also takes surprising turns when the prattle turns to issues of consequence, such as recent deaths in the family that Alex and Jonas are coping with. Voice acting is consistently good, bolstered by writing and audio design that have conversations overlapping, trailing off, and suffering awkward pauses. Even the interface for conversations is fun and unassuming, with Alex’s dialogue options appearing as talk bubbles overhead that gradually fade away if you take too long to choose.
My only complaint about the running commentary is that it sometimes distracts from the present goal. I’d find myself pausing, waiting for a character to make their point, before I realized they were just making chit-chat while we traversed from one area to another. I guess I’m not used to conversation just happening in a game, without the usual “now let’s stop what we’re doing and pivot to face each other while a dialogue tree fills up the bottom half of the screen” pretense. But overall I loved the dialogue—just as well in a game that’s mostly dialogue! If you’ve ever stood in line at Starbucks about fifteen minutes after high school let out, you’ve heard these conversations firsthand. Oxenfree is the only game I’ve played that recreates them so well.
But do you want to play a game about kids hanging around in Starbucks? Probably not, so it’s a good thing Oxenfree has a scary story at its core. Formerly a military base and now home to a museum that honors the lives lost on a submarine sunk during World War II, Edwards Island has become a legendary hangout for teens looking to party and connect with the dead. For this purpose, Alex and company have brought along a hand-held radio—you can pull it up at any time and rotate the dial to try to find a signal. In certain marked locations you can tune into a guided tour that provides historical background and context for the island’s landmarks. Tuning to other channels offers up clues that enhance the suspense and may relate to the central mystery.Continued on the next page...