When I was growing up in rural Ohio, there was a drive-in movie theater some ten minutes from my house. It didn’t have car-side speakers--you had to tune your car’s radio to a short-range FM station. Whenever I drove by the theater at night, I’d always tune my dial in to that frequency to catch snippets of audio from whatever was playing on the screen, which was situated deep in the woods, out of view.
Sometimes I’d get a few moments of swelling, orchestral score. Sometimes I’d catch a snappy one-liner. But sometimes, when the theater showed horror double-features in the hottest days of summer, I’d tune into the station and just hear screams. Sometimes all I would hear would be sounds--big, deep, Hollywood-special-effects-post-production noises, like I’d accidentally dialed into some cosmic frequency and I could hear the colossal sound of the planets grinding away in their orbits.
Oxenfree feels kind of like that.
Oxenfree is the first outing from new studio Night School, and it tells the story of teenaged Alex and her friends, who take the last ferry out to an island in the Pacific Northwest for a night of revelry only to discover that nobody has showed up. Also, the island is a hotbed of paranormal phenomena. The only tools that Alex and company have for investigating the distressing powers at play on Edwards Island are their wits and a pocket radio.
I don’t want to reveal the ways in which the spookiness unfolds, because Oxenfree is a mystery and a thriller and much of the joy is in discovering the many secrets of the island, as well as hanging out with the game’s characters, all of whom are wonderfully three-dimensional. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d finished the game that it binds you to a single save file because I felt compelled to finish the entire adventure in one feverish four-hour stretch. I went to bed thinking about it, and I woke up thinking about it, not just because I had to review it but because I had a hard time thinking of anything else. I’m thinking about playing it again after this review goes up.
Oxenfree is simple to play, as traversal and conversation form 90% of the game’s operation (a snide individual might brand it a “walking and talking simulator”). There aren’t really “puzzles,” in the traditional adventure game sense, and there’s no inventory besides your trusty radio, which you can pull out at any time and dial as you walk (and talk, even). The game’s thrust is entirely linear, and it’s always clear where you’re meant to go next. In fact, with the exception of the beach near the start of the game, you can never really go “off the path.”
There’s no particular pleasure or displeasure in traversal--Alex’s walking speed is a trifle slow for my tastes, which I understand is to allow for conversation while you’re walking--but Edwards Island is a well-crafted, haunting joy to explore. If you decide to backtrack and scour the island for hidden clues about its history (which the game entices you to do as you near its conclusion), you’ll sometimes be walking without any talking, which can be a bit tedious.
Most of the time while you’re exploring, however, you’ll be conversing with Alex’s friends. The dialogue is all well-written, funny, and sincere: from Alex’s tentative friendship with her new step-brother Jonas to her semi-awkward non-relationship with party member Nona, the characters all feel genuine. Each has their own voice, and each has their own secrets. When Alex arrives on the island with Jonas and her longtime friend Ren, you can immediately feel her caught between the two--Jonas, who seems chill enough but who she doesn’t know, and Ren, who is anything but chill but with whom she has a long history. The tension between the characters and the way their relationships shift makes Oxenfree’s narrative work beautifully.
The game utilizes a dialogue system similar to what you’ll find in a Telltale title (not terribly surprising, given that some of Night School Studio is made up of Telltale alumni): when Alex has an opportunity to join or start a conversation, you’ll see up to three different dialogue prompts, which correspond to three of the face buttons on your controller. You choose a prompt to select what to say, or press nothing it you’d prefer Alex remain silent (an option I chose a fair bit of the time).
As is the case in many games with dialogue options, the text of the prompts and the actual spoken line can differ considerably--more than once, I chose a line I thought would be conciliatory only to have Alex say something much sharper than I intended. Oxenfree isn’t a role-playing game like Fallout or Mass Effect, and the dissonance between prompt and response actually works to the game’s advantage in two interesting ways: first, it reinforces that Alex is distinct from the player. Though you are controlling her, you are not her, and when she sometimes surprises you with a line of dialogue, there’s a certain pleasure in being reminded that she is a separate individual with a defined personality.
It seems particularly appropriate that there be dissonance between what you mean to communicate and what actually comes out in a game about teenagers. In this way, Oxenfree feels very authentically a game about being an adolescent, as though someone had scrubbed all the awkward teen-isms from Life is Strange and replaced them with more realistic dialogue.
But what really makes Oxenfree worth playing--in fact, what makes it good enough that I want to evangelize it--is that it’s a really good ghost story. It hits a sweet spot in tone that not a lot of games have attempted: it’s by turn light-hearted and legitimately frightening, and you feel as though the characters are in real danger without the narrative ever turning cruel or distasteful.
While it does occasionally dip into the ol’ Big Bag of Horror Cliches (I walked into a classroom at one point and rolled my eyes at the spoooooky handprints left on the chalkboard), for the most part it’s original and clever. The origin of its supernatural antagonists sets the scene for a climax with some superb imagery.
There are nits that I can pick: The collectibles the game offers towards the end cause the pace to stumble. Oxenfree doesn’t make it clear when selecting a dialogue prompt will cause Alex to cut her friends off and when she’ll politely wait her turn to speak. The characters’ animations are sometimes hard to make out when the camera is pulled back.
But I devoured Oxenfree. I fell in love with its setting and its cast and its script. And when the closing credits rolled, I was left with powerful feelings of hope and disquiet, like the kind that I felt when I drove past the drive-in and my car’s radio faded from noise into static, and I would leave the dial untouched and listen as I drove onward through the night.