Our look at Halloween-y games continues with Oxenfree. Unlike Devil Daggers this one is definitely intentionally spooky, but PG-13 spooky. It’s more The Sixth Sense than it is The Conjuring, but that sort of makes sense given that the game is sort of a campfire-side ghost story meets young adult novel.
Let’s step back: In Oxenfree you play as Alex, a teenager in high school dealing with the death of her brother and subsequent divorce and re-marriage of her mother. Alex is headed to Edwards Island to meet up with some schoolmates for a night of illicit teenage debauchery as is town tradition. It’s also the first time Alex meets her new step brother, Jonas, which is sort of awkward for both of them. Also intent on partying is Alex’s childhood friend Ren, who is a bit of a stoner goofus. The three of them meet up with the only other two people managed to show up for the party: Nona, who Ren has a not-so-secret crush on, and Clarissa, who dated Alex’s brother until he died and kiiinda blames Alex for his death. It’s not exactly a group gearing up to party with one another, and the first few minutes are as awkward as you’d expect. So to diffuse the tension Ren, Alex, and Jonas set off to look at a cool phenomenon caused by radio waves in a nearby cave, and before you know it they’ve triggered a supernatural event that splits them out around the island. From there you have to find your friends, solve the mystery of the island, and get out before it’s too late!
Mechanically the game is basically an adventure game, but despite the side-on camera and island setting it’s closer to a TellTale adventure game than a Monkey Island. The emphasis isn’t really on solving puzzles – pretty much all of them are solved by tuning a radio to the right series of frequencies. Instead the game pushes dialog choices and getting to know your friends as the core mechanic. And I’m of two minds about how this turned out.
On one hand, the dialog and characters needed to be really strong if it was going to prop up most of the game – and for the most part it is, even if does write highschoolers like they’ve got college-aged levels of snark. It kind of feels like an island full of Daria Morgendorffers, Jane Lanes, and Tom Sloanes – a lot of disaffected sarcasm in near monotone. Not that I’m complaining, I love that stuff (it’s practically my schtick) – it just doesn’t give the characters a lot of range and feels like it ages them up a bit more than the plot otherwise suggests. But the performances are fine and there’s enough drama between each of the characters to keep things compelling no matter who you’re with. Above all the writing tries to get every branch of dialog to feel like a natural conversation. Telling people off, cracking wise, or asking pointed questions don’t feel expressive or role-play-y but they always feel appropriate to the context at hand and are occasionally emotionally satisfying.
So the writing itself is good, it’s all pretty standard young adult teenage angst finding yourself among your friends fare, but for that genre it’s perfectly fine. The interface itself, however, has… problems. First, like in Telltale games, giving no response at all is usually an option. But the speech bubbles for determining what to say start fading almost as soon as the other character finishes speaking, which means if you wait to hear everything they have to say you have less than a second to click your answer. And that’s not the worst problem to have, because you can click on your answer whenever you want and your response will be queued… except sometimes in some dialogs it’s written such that Alex ends up interrupting her friends immediately as soon as you make your choice. So the dialog engine becomes this crapshoot of either interrupting your friends and not hearing dialog, or playing chicken with a disappearing choice selector and potentially failing to reply altogether. If had to guess why, well, the game already has these really windy paths to extend the time it takes to walk to objectives, presumably to allow space for the conversations to happen as you walk. And even then, some of them can run a bit long, and you end up hanging out at the portal to the next area to finish your chats. So I’d wager a guess that the dialog system was designed to help by keeping things snappy and moving along – you either immediately start talking, queue up a response for as soon as the other person is done talking, or stay silent and let them almost immediately let them bring up the next topic on their own. And to that end it works – pretty much no matter what you choose to do conversations continue forward at a semi-natural sounding pace without long videogame-y silences or forced dialog options. It’s not a good system, and I did find it regularly frustrating, but considering what seems to be their design goals it also seems to be working as intended.
Anyways, because of its focus on dialog and characters, Oxenfree is also one of those games where perceivable consequence is a bit tricky. Your actions can determine the fate of Alex and each of her friends, but the developers don’t want it to feel like you just need to say the magic word at the magic time to hook a couple up or make enemies with someone… even if ultimately because of the way computers work it is exactly that. But you also don’t want players to not know how they impacted people – which of the dozens of dialogs changed that ending, and which were just character building?! Too formal and it feels fake, too abstract and players feel like they don’t matter. So they’ve come up with something of a novel solution to this problem: as you play the game you’ll get ghostly visions of Alex from another timeline, which is actually another player. They’ll make a suggestion about what you should say to certain characters at certain times. But you won’t know the effect of their recommendation, or whether it was made in good faith – just that it’s an important choice coming up, and they have some suggestions on how to handle it. That way you have some vague foreknowledge of important conversation options, but they can happen in-line with other choices as if they’re no big deal. This makes the player aware of their systemic impact without making the choice itself be this big artificial thing. Then at the end of your game you get to broadcast to other players your recommendations for what action to take during those key moments of the game. Not every character’s story options are presented like this, but it’s an interesting way to highlight important dialog options while making them still feel natural and not a systems-driven branching-path-marking choice. Now, if you’re particularly cynical you could just go look up how to get any ending you want online, but I’d highly recommend you not do that. A big part of the fun – especially through a blind first playthrough of the game – is to see how your natural, non-metagamed reactions ultimately impact everyone’s story.
As for the spooky stuff… well, like I said, it’s not pee-your-pants terrifying, but it’s not designed to be. It’s a ghost story aiming pretty squarely at the tween/teen demographic, and comes in somewhere above Are You Afraid of the Dark but below teenage slasher flicks like Scream on the scary-index. Oxenfree manages to have a few unsettling scenes without crossing over into grotesque, lurid, or outright terrifying, and it’s all done in service to Alex’s story. The scares it does have push the radiowave theme pretty hard – whether it’s spooky oldtimey music heard while scanning for a specific frequency or RF interference causing the game’s footage itself to become warped or even display scary images. It uses a lot of glitches to make the game itself feel uncomfortable and untrustworthy – and let’s put a pin in that; we’ll definitely be coming back to that later this month. But for now, consider Oxenfree as a good story-driven Halloween game for bookish tweens. It’s ultimately a little slight, but I think a lot of young adult fiction tends to be that way. It’s less about grand ideas or profound themes than it is about seeing someone about your age you empathize with presented in a non-condescending way, and Oxenfree definitely manages that. Anyways, I don’t know if this is the last family friendly game we’ll be covering this month or not, but I do think it’s time we move the scary stuff up from “incidental” or “PG-13” to something a little bit more…aggressively spooky as we approach Halloween.
See you soon.