Oxenfree won't make you scream. It's not that type of horror game, if it's even a horror game at all. It's not the sort of game that Let's Players and Twitch streamers will milk for entertaining jump scares. Instead, Oxenfree will stick in your mind and leave you unsettled when you're trying to sleep. It'll make you care about seeing its characters safely through its trials. More than anything, Oxenfree will have you coming back for more.
You might remember that Oxenfree was first on my list of most anticipated games for 2016, and it has my gaming year off to a great start after its release on January 15. Well, it was released on Steam on the 15th, but Aussie Xbox users will have to wait a bit longer, unfortunately. Oxenfree will also be getting a Windows 10 native release in the near future. It's retailing for $US19.99 on Steam, and though that might seem a little steep for a game that takes only four to six hours to complete, Oxenfree has surprising replayability.
When we first found out about Oxenfree we compared it to last year's surprisingly good teen horror game, Until Dawn. After playing Oxenfree the comparison doesn't hold up as well. Until Dawn is a gleeful, campy homage to classic teen slasher films, almost playing like a game version of Cabin In The Woods. Oxenfree is more like last year's indie horror flick It Follows -- slow, considered and creepy, something that stays with you long after the momentary terror of overused jump-scares would have faded away.
Oxenfree sets you on Edwards Island, a former mining outpost and later military base with a heap of spooky potential from the outset. Alex, the character you control, is heading to the island on the last ferry with her best friend Ren, and her new step-brother, Jonas. To make things just a little bit more awkward, this is the first time Alex has even met Jonas.
The night is meant to be a huge island party, a Senior year tradition the characters have been hearing about for years and are finally getting to experience themselves -- but it's not off to a great start. To begin with, no-one's turned up. Usually the turn-out is around 20, but Alex arrives on the island to find that she's one of only five people who actually arrived. Things only get worse when they accidentally tune into a supernatural phenomenon while playing around with their radio.
These early scenes -- getting to know Jonas, the awkward attempts at actually having the beach party, a quick game of 'Truth or Slap' -- set the tone of the game from the beginning. Made by Telltale and Disney alumni, the core of Oxenfree is its characters and your interactions with them. As Alex you have the chance to make or break a friendship with each one of your fellow students on the island, and each decision has consequences. The developers describe it as a 'coming of age' story -- only you get to guide Alex through said coming of age, and even venture into the sore points of her past.
Playing through Oxenfree for the first time, it doesn't feel like much will be different on a second run. There's no obvious symbol like Until Dawn's butterfly effect, letting you know that the course of the plot has been changed -- although characters will indicate with a little thought bubble when their opinion of someone else has changed. The flow of the story and the dialogue is just so nicely done that it just feels like whatever course of action you're taking is the course of action that you were meant to be taking.
Speaking of dialogue, it really makes the game work. Oxenfree has matched talented writers with talented voice actors to make the first game that realistically captures teen characters. There's none of the "hella" awkward dialogue that was so distracting in Life Is Strange, nor the overplayed stereotypes of Until Dawn. These characters actually seem to belong in the modern day too, incorporating smartphone culture in a way that doesn't seem forced and actually becomes a part of the gameplay.
In true teenage style, the characters are always taking photos to forever preserve certain moments -- whether they're partying on the beach or being stalked by a dark, supernatural force. These photos -- actually lovingly rendered paintings of certain scenes -- can change with the decisions and the relationships throughout the game, which surprised me on my second run through.
Interestingly, the dialogue in this game will go on without you. Every time you are given a set of dialogue options, they slowly fade, eventually disappearing completely. The other characters won't sit around and wait for you to answer. If you miss a line in a conversation then the other characters will just go on without you, or they'll think you're ignoring them, or maybe they'll just call you out on being distracted.
It's surprisingly fluid -- you can even interrupt a conversation to point out a feature of the landscape, and the conversation will just continue on from there. The only downside to the huge volume of dialogue is that often you have much more to listen to than you have levels to walk through. I often found myself waiting at the level exit to finish a conversation before I could leave.
Sound in general is what drives Oxenfree. Sure, the game has some gorgeous backgrounds, fun characters designs and interesting effects, but let's be honest -- everything that makes this game special happens in your headphones (which are highly recommended for a quality game experience, by the way). The game's soundtrack has a perfect ambient-chill-meets-unsettling kind of tone, reminiscent of Boards of Canada and the music from one of SCNTFC's other projects, Sword & Sworcery.
Beyond the music, the heavy use of the radio as a game mechanic also lends itself to this theme. The radio is kind of your universal problem-solving tool. You use it to pick up information about your surroundings (which definitely turns out to be useful later), to explore the supernatural forces of the island, and to pick up little secrets called 'anomalies'.
A lot of people have asked what the game's title means, and to Australian audiences it may not be as immediately evocative as to Americans. It comes from the phrase "olly olly oxen free", used in certain kids games like hide and seek. While the name doesn't directly tie into the game (it's not anything like Until Dawn where they literally say 'until dawn' at least twice) it feeds into a theme of childish games that runs through the supernatural element of the story. It doesn't take long to realise that this supernatural force is just toying with you.
A little while before the game's release, Night School Studios released a blog post called "Dead Voices in the Air", detailing the theory that sound lives on forever, and that everything ever transmitted over radio could still be bouncing around up in the atmosphere. No spoilers, but the game plays with this theory in a huge way, and the background reading really added to my own experience of the game.
Even the most supernatural sections of Oxenfree play with concepts and events that, at a stretch, could have actually happened in real life. The game missed some of its potential to be truly wide-awake-in-bed-at-night scary, but it took the opportunity to instead focus on the characters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing either.
The ending of Oxenfree takes a little from the likes of Telltale games and Life is Strange, letting you know what outcomes you got and what percentage of players shared this outcome. Unlike the other games that use this system, however, Oxenfree doesn't tell you what the endings represented by the other little slices of pie are, leaving you wondering how such a large percentage of people (in my case, at least) deviated from your in-game choices.
Unlike many other games, where I would be tempted to just Google alternate endings and be done with it, Oxenfree is such a compressed and thoroughly enjoyable little experience that I can't wait to take Alex through it all again -- but this time, a different Alex, and a different outcome.