I’ve never attempted to hide the fact that I’m a sucker for big open-world games with complex mechanics. But games can be so much more than that. In particular, I’m fond of short and focused games that know what they want and how to get it across succinctly, without pointless filler content. Oxenfree is just such a game.
A beach party gone wrong
Oxenfree is the first game by Night School Studio, a developer studio founded by two former employees at Telltale Games. While the Telltale heritage is evident, the game has a very distinct personality both in terms of its presentation and its focus.
You’re playing as Alex, a blue-haired, unassumingly cool teenage girl on the road, or rather, on the sea, with her brand new step-brother Jonas and her friend Ren. You’re on the last ferry for the day heading for a local tourist-trap museum island, and your plan is simply to spend the night partying at the beach with a few other friends you’re meeting there.
Oh and by the way, according to local myth, if you tune your radio into certain frequencies at certain places on the island, you’ll hear ghostly messages and see strange lights. Alex and her friends decide to investigate, and – who would have thought – Something Bad Happens™.
Yes, this sounds like the start of a clichéd thriller, but thankfully, Oxenfree manages to stay away from that. The teens aren’t delegated to simple murder-fodder; compared to most video game characters, they’re well developed and believable with complicated inner lives. Oxenfree is, on the surface, a kind of ghost story with some hints of a coming-of-age theme. But there’s no Dead Space-like jump scares, nor an exhausting “psychological thriller” atmosphere. At its core, it’s a conversation-focused game that (like most good horror) just uses the creepy narrative as an excuse to navigate the complicated dynamics and relationships between the characters.
Excellent conversation system
The lifeblood of the game’s focus on dialogue is the most fluid conversation system I’ve seen in any game, both mechanically and artistically.
Oxenfree is a very chatty game – conversations with your friends are never far off, whether you’re all together deciding what to do, or it’s just Alex and another character walking and talking from A to B. The core of the system are the three speech bubbles that appear over Alex’s head whenever you can make a reply, each containing a short phrase indicating the general gist of what Alex will say. On the surface this sounds like what Telltale and Bioware has done for a long time, but it’s much more fluid than that.
From a purely mechanical standpoint (unrelated to writing and voice acting), conversations in video games – including those from Telltale and Bioware – often work as if people take turns to read out lines at each other. Not so in Oxenfree: The lines flow together seamlessly, and you can choose one of three replies at any time, often interrupting the others. The other characters carry conversations on their own, and if people are talking together and you don’t try to get a word in edgewise while you have the chance, the conversation will move on without your influence. You have to pick Alex’s replies with the sort of speed you’d expect from a real-life conversation. This can sometimes be challenging in and of itself, seeing as you have to read three short phrases and decide which one of them leads to the kind of response you’re after, all the while listening to the other kids’ continued chatter.
Oxenfree’s conversation system also excels from an art direction perspective. If people directly asks you a question and you don’t answer, they might awkwardly fumble trying to eke out a response from you. Staying silent is always an option, and the others will react naturally to that (inasmuch as that is at all possible). Conversations are deliberately awkward, with ums, uhhs, incomplete sentences, and trains of thought derailing and ending up nowhere – just like real-life conversations. This gives Oxenfree’s characters more depth and texture, and further avoids the whole “reading out lines at each other” problem.
Perhaps I make the system sound more revolutionary than it is. It’s closer to an incremental improvement on existing conversation mechanics, but the combination of thoughtful mechanics and brilliant art direction makes the game’s dialogue system an interesting experience in its own right.
The conversation system would have been dead weight if it didn’t lead anywhere, though. Having the main focus being the dynamics and relations between the characters is hard to pull off successfully, but thankfully, Oxenfree scores here, too.
For one, the characters are, for the most part, believable and relatable. A cast of teen characters, especially in horror, can easily lead to flat and token characters, not to mention groan-inducing dialogue. Oxenfree avoids these pitfalls, partly due to very good writing. The teens are surprisingly sensible – they mostly just want to get the heck away from this island rather than getting to the bottom of the mystery. While the most common conversation topic is what exactly is going on, the mysterious things that happen mostly serves to add urgency to the conversations without being the sole focus of all dialogue.
The other characters are also brought significantly more to life by having things going on between them, from grudges to secret crushes. Still, while the game doesn’t revolve entirely around Alex, the focus is nevertheless on balancing the relationships between Alex and the other characters, and deciding what kind of person Alex is. There isn’t any definite answer here; it’s entirely up to you how friendly or bitchy you want to be (and to whom).
Conversation options aren’t evidently good or bad, and they influence future dialogue and relationships in subtle ways. How the other characters’ perception of you change in response to your replies is opaque by design, imitating the subtlety of real-life relationships. The ending can play out in several slightly different ways depending on your choices throughout the game, and there is never any single choice labeled “press this button for that ending”. It’s more fine-grained and subtle than that, without any one choice obviously leading to this or that change in the outcome.
Good writing aside – with the game being as chatty as it is, it could have been intolerable if the voice acting was poor. Thankfully, it’s anything but, starring Telltale veterans such as Erin Yvette and Gavin Hammon (e.g. from The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us). Most of the cast does an excellent job, and the combination of natural conversations and great acting means that the dialogue in Oxenfree isn’t boring or painful to sit through.
The soundtrack also deserves mentioning, with synth-heavy electronic beats that are either eerie or wistful depending on the situation. I also really enjoyed the kind of hand-painted, pastel visual style – the environments you walk around in are gorgeous, and the characters fit in nicely instead of looking like movable objects in a static background. The art style makes the characters seem a bit small, which makes everything that’s happening seem much larger than you, to good effect.
Could have been more
While the game excels as a walk-and-talk teenage conversation simulator, it can be a bit light on gameplay. I respect their decision, and they do make it work, but not without a few pacing issues. Notably, since there is little to do except talk, you might feel bored walking from A to B when there is no dialogue going on. Granted, most of the time someone is in fact talking, but even that can be problematic: There are several objects along the way that you can interact with and comment on (still within my definition of “little to do”), and I was always afraid of permanently interrupting an ongoing conversation by “activating” an object in the environment. Thus, I often found myself waiting for the conversation to end before interacting with objects and moving on in silence. (I think the previous conversation continues normally after the characters have talked about whatever you interact with, but I’m not sure – which, admittedly, kind of speaks to the benefit of the seamless conversation system.)
Apart from conversations, Oxenfree is really light on interactivity and challenges. There are no real puzzles, and a few of the auxiliary mechanics feel a bit awkward and contrived (I can’t say more without spoiling things). While each region of the island has a hidden note you can find detailing the island’s history and the current situation, these notes are fairly few and easy to find.
Finally, while I enjoy short and concentrated experiences, the game could have benefited from being a bit longer. Five hours in, just as I was really getting to know the characters, the game jumped rather hurriedly to a conclusion. Not so hurriedly it felt entirely out of place, but it could have cashed in on the player’s deepening knowledge of and investment in the different characters by expanding the story a bit.
Oxenfree can best be described as a simple and focused walk-and-talk teenage conversation simulator, and in this regard, it excels. The voice acting is great, the conversation mechanic is fluid and interesting, and the art direction makes conversations sound natural. The eerie narrative undercurrent highlights the characters’ personalities and the dynamics between them and makes the conversation aspect of the game a worthwhile experience in its own right. Deciding what kind of person Alex is and how she relates to the other characters is a natural and interesting drive for the game.
The game is not without flaws, such as the occasional pacing issues and some contrived mechanics that could have deserved more thought. There are also few real challenges in the game, and at around five hours, the game cuts the show short just as you’re really getting to know the characters.
Still, the conversation system alone is reason enough to experience this game, and I’m sure I’ll play all future games thinking “I wish they did the dialogue like in Oxenfree”.