I’m not going to lie, I restarted Oxenfree within the opening twenty minutes. I’d barely made it to the island and learned everyone’s names, and I headed back to the opening credits. I restarted because I was scared I’d approached an important decision carelessly and locked myself out of something important. In a typical Horror game I’d be scared to run out of ammo and health, or round a dark corner and meet something horrible – but Oxenfree is not a typical Horror game. I was afraid I’d accidentally hurt a friend, and now time’s arrow (and the game’s autosave!) had committed me to the consequences of my actions.
I needed to rewrite the record, but I’d have to reset the game and lose it all. It would haunt me for the rest of my playthrough if I didn’t, so I rewound.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.
Oxenfree is a game of a tiny thousand decisions, all of which come at you fast. You play as Alex, a teenager who heads to the mysterious (and fictional) Edwards Island for a beach party at the request of her best friend Ren. It’s a kind of ritual for high-school juniors, plus Ren’s sister used to work on the island, so everything is set for you to sneak over with a case of beer or two. You aren’t strictly supposed to be there unattended – and there are plenty of rumours of spooky phenomena – but who cares? It’s junior year and Ren insists. Plus, he lets you play with the shortwave radio.
Along for the ride is Alex’s stepbrother Jonas, though things with him are more strained. Exactly how strained is something you’ll get to decide for yourself, though the broad strokes are always the same: there’s a distance between you and Jonas brought on by the absence of your brother Michael, and the disruption the new marriage causes in your lives. Jonas is fine, but Edwards Island is a place of great significance for Alex and Michael, so Jonas tagging along only adds to the strain of his move into in Michael’s old room upstairs. He’s never meant to be a replacement for her brother, and Alex knows this, but his existence obscures Michael’s memory in a way she can’t shake. Jonas means well, but Alex doesn’t want her life to change. Who would?
We have a perky best friend, a set of new siblings with issues to work out, a high-school tradition, and a maybe-haunted Pacific Northwestern island to explore. What could go wrong?
Well for one, Alex’s relationship to her new stepbrother strains her friendship with Ren. Then there’s the fact that no one showed up for the party and it’s just Alex, Jonas, Ren and the two girls from school: Nona, who is quiet, and Clarissa, who is a full-time bully. You’ll have to figure out what her deal is later. Then, there’s Ren’s obsession with the nearby cave – the one that seems to respond to your radio when you tune to a certain frequency.
There’s something in there, you’re sure of it when you see some weird phenomena outside. After Jonas dashes in headlong, you know you have to follow. When you see a strange shape floating along the cave wall, you seem to harness its energy with a signal from the shortwave radio. Then, things get very, very weird.
But back to my reset early-on.
Oxenfree is a narrative game at heart, which means there’s no combat and no finicky inventory to worry about. Whatever puzzles you encounter, they’re mostly linear in nature. For the most part you’ll wander the island, see the sights, and maybe uncover a spooky mystery or two. Genre-wise it’s is a narrative coming-of-age adventure game with impeccably clever, funny writing and a great deal of heart. And maybe ghosts.
That alone would be enough to draw me in, because that combination of words is catnip to me. There’s more to it, though. Remember time’s arrow?
Oxenfree autosaves any time you do anything, and locks in your actions for consequences down the line. This is nothing new in adventure games, especially since Telltale came on the scene: players make decisions with far-ranging consequences that are difficult to telegraph because you never know when they’ll become relevant. We rarely ever know what good or bad are in any given moment because these decisions are a spectrum, not a binary. All you can do is try your best – but Oxenfree takes it a step further by bringing Teens into the mix.
In Oxenfree you don’t make choices, you make conversation, and Teens talk fast.
Oxenfree might be the first game I’ve played to approach Teen dialogue honestly. Characters are going to interrupt each other a lot, and they’re not going to be nice about it – so developer Night School Studios worked it into a game mechanic. It’s kind of revolutionary. Whenever you see something in the environment that seems interesting, you can check it out – and that will trigger Alex to begin speaking. This might be in the middle of exposition or a monologue from another character, but Alex doesn’t care: she’ll just blurt it out and derail the conversation. If someone is speaking nearby (and someone is always speaking aloud nearby) you’ll see vague response prompts pop up over Alex’s head, and you’ll have to choose whichever one represents her feelings best. Everything takes place in real time, so you’ll only have seconds to think, as Alex, about the situation. Every conversation becomes an act of constant, passive roleplay.
I learned this lesson the hard way in the opening scenes, and from then on I don’t think I ever waited for another person to finish speaking before I chimed in. If you wait too long Alex will simply remain silent, and while silence is sometimes the right choice, saying nothing can be incredibly meaningful.
In terms of gameplay this means that whenever you’re running around checking things out, you also have to have an eye on your conversation. Silence is an option, but conversation is the only way to access the story because the story is these interactions. They’re the game. You need to be listening carefully at all times and considering what you might want to say in return because Oxenfree doesn’t have combat – it has Teens. Every major decision you’ll make is made in real time while someone awaits your reply. You’ll rarely have more than a couple seconds to formulate a decision. Running out of ammo simply means having nothing to say, and in Oxenfree it’s much more frightening than any ghost.
On my restart run I stuck to my guns and watched the conversations carefully. I avoided hurting Ren’s feelings right off the bat and managed to build a kind of ramshackle friendship with Jonas, all while putting out fires between my friends whenever possible. The hours flew by and I discovered the weird mystery of the island. I received an ending fitting of my playstyle and the relationships I’d built – with a couple twists. By playing Oxenfree like a roleplaying game I discovered one of the most engrossing Horror experiences in years, and one in which I felt like a real participant, instead of an audience member.
I’ve deliberately avoided going into the game’s themes of loss and distortion – and how those distortions mirror Alex’s own fraying life – and the way the metaphor of the radio tuner breathes new life into the haunted coming-of-age. I haven’t mentioned the subtlety of its writing or the dignity of the relationships it builds between characters, or the ways it respects player agency in how those relationships turn out. I haven’t gotten into the genuinely creepy ghost-story that takes place in my own back yard, or how I had more genuine laugh-out-loud moments with this game than anything in recent memory. Or how its hand-painted style is gorgeous and proves a perfect canvas on which to render all sorts of digital horrors and oddities. All of that is best discovered on your own.
I just think Oxenfree is brilliant and spooky in all the right ways. I can’t wait to rewind and see what else is hiding on Edwards Island.