There are many games now that strive for the game-changing, player-dependent design, and the story-telling genre of games is no exception. With games like Telltale’s lineup or King’s Quest, there are great things to come out of focusing up on a story and providing a couple choices. With this, the idea of player-driven stories has become a sought-after quality in games of today, with more and more games coming out in this specific format. One of the latest iterations is known as Oxenfree, an indie game developed by Night School Studio, and is actually associated with Skybound on this specific project. Oxenfree is a game that at first seems to be an artistic indie take on the Telltale formula. But don’t hold on to that idea for too long, as for better or worse, Oxenfree is one of the downright creepiest games to come out of the layout without ever showing a drop of blood.
Let’s start with the plot. The player controls a character named Alex, going to an island known as Edward’s Island for an annual beach party with a few friends. She brings her new step-brother Jonas with her, along with some of the awkwardness that comes with it, but tries to have fun anyway. A couple beers and risqué questions later, the fun is killed with the group and Jonas and Alex venture into a cave. Things get weird as when exploring, there is a floating triangle inside the cave, along with graffiti scrawled on the sides of the cavern. Tuning Alex’s radio makes a gigantic symbol pop into the sky and the whole group is warped across the island at different points. Now the issue is to get everyone together and get out before something else happens, whatever is doing it.
The plot to begin with is nothing too grandiose or special, but that’s some of the mystique behind it. Thanks to a very clever usage of exposition in the beginning of the game, Oxenfree puts its characters in a simple setup to give time for the player to connect with them. But the second it’s done, the creepy things start happening. What I mean is that there is a lot of eerie setup to this game, rather than the cheap jump scares we’ve come to know and…yeah. No gore of any kind, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t as or even more goosebumps-generating, as the anomalies that happen transition each other with radio interference. You’ll think one thing has happened, only for the game to suddenly warp back via interference and screw with your head until it ends. Sometimes disheartening images flash for a millisecond, or red eyes appear somewhere in the darkness for just a moment, but a lightning flash makes them vanish. Not to mention extra disturbing radio signals you can pick up near rock piles that rival the likes of P.T. A lot of the anomalies that happen in the game have no real explanation to them, which in some cases would be problematic, but a lot of the time it works to up the feeling of dread, mainly because the payoff is amazing. Oxenfree has fantastic buildup, and while some of the twists are a bit forseen, by the end of the game, the force that is behind all the mishaps will screw with your brain so badly you’ll think about life itself for a few hours.
The characters are also well-done. While they could be a bit summarized as the high-schoolers looking for a place to drink booze and eat pot-brownies, Oxenfree defines the characters enough to have your own feelings towards them, which plays into later choices down the road. Speaking of choices, the choices work a lot like Telltale’s games, where you’re given a set of choices and you have to pick only one. There is no physical action to choose between, as all of the games’ choices are done in dialogue prompts and through no action. The choice factor at first seems pretty cosmetic and only affecting certain dialogue sequences. However, this game is dangerous with its level of choice, as you’ll be sprung with something you have to figure out quick, or with a question that you think won’t have any effect. These sequences put a stamper on your heart, as it’s unclear if this will actually affect the later game or if the sequence is just a red herring. And since Oxenfree proudly shrouds itself in mystery, a lot of the events that happen make absolute no sense until the end, where the game explodes your brain to pieces, in a good way of course. This game also has multiple endings to accommodate the many choices the player can make, so there will be some endings that will leave you in a daze, as the game’s love of screwing with the player’s head shines brightly in the final hour. Not to mention some mysteries of Edward’s island can go completely unsolved depending on the ending you’re given, and sometimes you don’t get an answer at all.
The whole game takes place on Edward’s Island, of which has multiple landmarks that Alex and the gang visit to get everyone together. These include an old communications tower, some caves, and a decommissioned military base. You know, cheery stuff. The game is a hybrid 2D-3D game, as the camera is fixed 2D, but Alex can move anywhere within an allotted path. Sometimes it’s a bit confusing, as there will be times where you have to jiggle back and forth to get a prompt to pop up or to get Alex to go down a set of stairs. Also, while the coolest and creepiest stuff happen at key locations, most of the game’s objectives entail running back and forth across the whole island. There are optional objectives to do, like the aforementioned rock radio signals, but Alex’s movement is just a bit too slow for comfort, and climbing up and down the same walls can be a bit repetitive. It’s by no means game-breaking though.
One of the reasons for that is probably because of this game’s charming art direction. It’s not effect-blaring or too minimalist for its own good, as the art style for the characters and the environment design is pretty cool looking. A lot of the backgrounds remind me of pastel, with a darker background to accent the natural objects, like hills or trees. The style also has no sense of distance, something that you pretty much only see in abstract paintings. What I mean is that there is no perspective in how the background is drawn, so the effect is rare but was pulled off well in this game. There isn’t much music to comment on, although the music and radio shows you pick up on Alex’s radio are a cool touch. Speaking of sound, the voice work in this game was wonderfully performed, with teenage dialogue that didn’t make me want to stab out my eyes with a blunt roll of pencils. The level of emotion and believability that the actors were able to pull off when you can barely even see the character’s faces is a great feat.
Oxenfree is definitely one of the strangest tackles at this type of medium, but pulls it off with an unexpected level of creepiness. The game does well in not indulging itself in too much of hidden themes or a bigger purpose, but is a simple story turned one of the smartest and creepiest story games to play.