Storytelling in games has become pleasantly varied in recent years, not just in terms of mechanics and methods of delivery, but in the kinds of themes that are explored and emotions that are channeled. Wish fulfilment fantasies, grandiose epics, and aggressive, macho posturing is still dominate, but recent years have seen a growth of more personal, intricate tales like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, and Ori and the Blind Forest.
Created by a small studio made up of former Telltale and Disney staff, Oxenfree is one of the latest games to court this trend, and it does it with a sense of finesse and grace that few other games can match. It’s a game that combines mystery, adventure, and even horror, but at it’s core, Oxenfree is a powerful, moving coming of age tale.
A group of teenagers go to a deserted island for a party, but get more than they bargained for when strange, supernatural creatures start causing trouble. As a framework, it’s a typical “cabin in the woods” setup, but it’s just that - a framework. And rather than using this to create suspense and set up scares, like most teen horror stories do, Oxenfree uses that foundation for nuanced exploration of friendship, family, rivalry, and grief.
With former Telltale writers at the helm, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Oxenfree is very similar in its structure. Guided by the story, you explore Edward’s Island, regularly being prompted to choose how your character, Alex, responds to those around her. In dealing with Clarissa, who - to start with, at least - is your typical high school Mean Girl, you might fight bitchiness with bitchiness, or you might try and be the bigger person. You might welcome your new step-brother Jonas into your family, or you might be standoffish with him.
There isn’t any grand, branching narrative here; barring a brief epilogue for each person, what you say and do won’t have any major impact on the plot. Instead, it does something far more important, and affects how these kids relate to one another over the course of the game, and how they navigate the various quirks of their relationships: Ren’s crush on Nona; Clarissa being the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s late brother; the rivalry between Ren, Alex’s best friend, and Jonas, her new brother; the weird, almost Bart-and-Millhouse-like power imbalance in Nona and Clarissa’s friendship.
That this is all happening within the context of a horror story that becomes more than a bit unsettling makes these relationships all the more meaningful. This isn’t really a horror story as such, and it probably won’t make you jump, but there are some really clever fourth wall-breaking tricks that really sell the idea of the island being haunted. It’s very, very creepy, and made even more so by the game’s surreal papercraft aesthetic.
Haunting melodies are omnipresent and almost deafening, until you try and focus on them...
The role of music and voice acting can’t be understated, both in terms of the creepy aspect and the characterisation. Alex and Jonas are played fantastically by Erin Yvette (Snow White in The Wolf Among Us) and Gavin Hammon (Kenny in The Walking Dead), and while the rest of the cast - Britanni Johnson, Avital Ash, Aaron Kuban, and Joe Zieja - may not be as well known (yet), their performances are just as good.
The score is an atmospheric, synth-heavy affair, very evocative of ‘80s cinema, that perfectly fits the tone of each scene. This is particularly true of some of the more tense parts of the game, where the haunting melodies are omnipresent and almost deafening, until you try and focus on them - at which point they seem to fade into obscurity, like a floater in your eye.
My only real issue with the game is that I felt it ran a bit on the long side. For most of the game, the pacing is right on key; a slow burn to start with, but picking up intensity as the situation becomes more dire. Then, most of this buildup is spent on a fake ending misdirection, taking a lot of the wind out of the real ending an hour or so later. The fake ending is a time-honoured storytelling technique that can be very effective, but I feel like it doesn’t really work here.
It’s around the same time that the island more or less opens up fully, and should you choose to do so, you’re free to roam and gather collectibles that are now scattered about. Had these been available earlier, I’d probably have gleefully collected every last one (I’m a sucker for collectibles), but they’re a distraction from the plot and appear when the story is at its most momentous.
Still, these are no reason not to play the game; they’re minor inconveniences in a game that is, for the most part, excellent. Equal parts poignant and eerie, with just enough humour thrown into the mix, this is welcome product of a gaming landscape that’s more diverse and exciting than ever.