Just one year ago, the new developers Night School Studio released the indie-exploration game Oxenfree. With a team comprised of Disney and Telltale Games alums alike, their first venture was kind of destined to be something special, and they delivered. There are tons of reasons you should check this game out, or revisit it if it's been a while.
Oxenfree is a supernatural thriller with a coming-of-age story interwoven through its glitchy, staticky fabric, taking place on the fictional Edwards Island. Characters Alex, Jonas, Clarissa, Nona and Ren are a motley crew of teenagers chilling out on the beaches for the annual summer party, all with their own motivations and brand of typical adolescent awkwardness.
With the innocuous use of a toy radio at the mouth of a glowing cave, the night takes a disastrous turn and the friends find themselves at the temporal mercy of maligned ghosts that patrol the waters.
As Alex, the player must resolve the unfinished business the specters impose on her friends, and escape the island unscathed without invoking their wrath. However, this goal may not be so... linear. Here's the teaser trailer.
If that wasn't enough to sway you, read on for a non-spoilery summation of Oxenfree in celebration of its one-year anniversary!
1. It's visually striking
One cannot deny that this game looks beautiful. From the dim, blue and streaky hues of the beach to the woozy flashbacks of a sunnier time, the art direction is central to immersing the player in Alex's story.
Each of the little polygonal characters is designed and move in its own individual fashion, and there are a ton of diverse tributes to the teenagers in fan art, fan mixes and so on. This charming aesthetic just works so well as a contrast to the dark shadows lurking across the dimension, and bolsters that supernatural horror twist.
The nightmares are worth it for the art. I'm sure someone famous must have said that, at some point.
2. The writing and dialogue are authentic
Teenagers are confounding creatures for most literary masters. Of all the demographics, they seem to be the hardest to write and script authentically, and even the best attempts are a tad cringey at times.
Nevertheless, the cast of Oxenfree represent the whole Brat Pack experience of being a teenager really, really well. Awkward silences? Check. A stumble-trip over their words? Check. Accidentally inciting an embarrassing moment and wishing that the sand would swallow you up? Check.
In all seriousness, the dialogue and its structure is inspired. Alex actually sounds like a teenager — no "How do you do, fellow kids?" instances here. The characters interrupt and talk over each other, and the game gives the player several options on how to respond to others' comments. There's even an achievement for not saying anything at all throughout the game.
Will you be sarky? Will you reassure them? Depending on what the player selects, Ren, Jonas, Nona and Clarissa react to how Alex acts, signaled with pop-up thought bubbles. These direct the many multilayered endings to the events on Edwards Island, so choose carefully!
3. The soundtrack is next-level
Scntfc composed a totally unique accompaniment to the game, intrinsically tied to the environment and its themes. Even in the jaunty, light-hearted tracks for Epiphany Fields or Towhee Grove hide a deeper, unnerving frequency. The melodies linger long after the game is complete.
The soundtrack held clues for the supernatural origin of the static heard on Alex's radio, and for the ARG that had the coolest reward at the end of the pursuit.
4. The supernatural horror is genuinely unsettling
I won't insert some spiel about how "I don't scare easily, but Oxenfree is really spooky," blah.
Firstly, no one believes that statement anymore, even if it comes from the most seasoned of horror fans.
Secondly, Oxenfree is terrifying, but not in the conventional manner horror games tend to employ. It's the unseen and unspoken that will give you the shivers. While characters begin to doubt themselves and their surroundings, the sudden jolts of static and screen-tears sharpen the foreboding atmosphere.
The scares bide their time, generating an impressive slow-burn haunting that will change how you see old analog radios forever.
5. It's a death-positive game
Oxenfree's narrative has been described as death-positive. That doesn't mean that the player dies a lot — a fact that certain other games pride themselves on for whatever reason.
It means that at the core of the game, shrouded by the bizarre events of the night, is the acceptance that death is an inevitable, unfortunate accompaniment to life. And sometimes, it happens when we are the least prepared for it. It's painful and complicated and harrowing and difficult, and we all process it with our own ways, on our own timelines.
The narrative is a mature exploration of a topic most mainstream games don't like to delve into: the perfectly imperfect loop of grieving a loved one's loss. Many players have found solace and strength in the game's message to move forward, however hard it may be — to honor their passing by appreciating life as it is now, not as it used to be.
6. The beach, 7 AM
Yeah, I'm not going to say too much about this in order to keep my promise about not spoiling anything. But, know this, dear reader: it unsettled me sufficiently enough that I refused to go downstairs alone into the dark kitchen to get myself a glass of water. At four o'clock. In the afternoon.
7. New Game+
Night School Studio released the New Game+ addition for Oxenfree in June of last year, which was a fantastic free update for fans. With this mode, new locations, new dialogue and new endings are unlocked — and crucially, Alex will remember her decisions from the previous playthrough.
It's an extra dimension to the dimension-bending narrative, and it might provide closure on just what the mystery of the old decommissioned military island is.
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Adventure, Mystery, Horror
Release date: January 15, 2016
Creator: Night School Studio
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