Life is Strange, We Know the Devil, and now Oxenfree. I seem to be running into more of these coming-of-age tales. Frankly, teens are often insufferable in real life, but through the lens of video games they’ve been faces within some of my favorite fiction lately. Like Life is Strange, Oxenfree wears its Telltale influence on its sleeve. Which shouldn’t be too surprising considering developer Night School Studio consists of former Telltale employees. But like Life is Strange and Firewatch, another new studio with ex Telltalers, Oxenfree improves upon its inspiration.
True to form, this coming-of-age story manages to make me look back nostalgically at my teen years, yet envy Alex and her gang. Barring all the supernatural horrors that is. The island setting, the reflective nature of its opening score, the sheer stupidity on display by the teens in pursuit of a memorable night. It’s all the memories of my high school days mixed in with the idyllic teen lifestyle I wished transpired. And though I can’t compare and contrast any of the character with ones from my own teen years directly, their core nature is something we all can see a little of ourselves in.
To be able to relate to Alex and her friends’ woes of not letting go of what has hurt them is key to enjoying Oxenfree. It’s revealed fairly early that Alex’s older brother passed away sometime in the past year or so. Through the course of story we learn of how close the two were and how her brother Michael's plans to venture out into the “real world” after high school were tragically never to be. As someone who has lost two close friends at a similarly young age, I empathized with Alex. To see a life snuffed out just as it’s beginning to realize its true potential is a wholly discouraging event. You can be crippled by the fear of lose, struggling to hold onto the familiar, only to let everything slip away. Or you force it to inspire you. To strive for the life you truly desire.
Alex is somewhere in between. She’s not sure of herself. What is she to make of her new step-brother Jonas? How does she handle Michael’s ex-girlfriend Clarissa who blames Alex for Michael’s death? And what of her best friend Ren, stoner extraordinaire who is only slightly less directionless in life than Alex?
It’s here the dialogue system comes into play, as it’s the vast majority of your interaction with Oxenfree. Like Telltale’s recent work, you only have a limited amount of time to respond in any situation. Unlike Telltale adventures, conversations have greater fluidity to them. Some of your responses can interrupt someone else. They’ll either get back to what they were saying afterwards, or the continue on, leaving whatever they had to say behind.
For video game conversation obsessives, this can be a bit of a double-edged sword. I often like to hear every bit of dialogue. In a Bioware game I’ll chat up a companion for a 20 minutes just exploring every bit of conversation I can. When I cut someone off in Oxenfree it's sometimes unintentional because of the nature of the mechanics. Not all responses are timed and some allow more of an opportunity than others, but it can be second nature to respond as quickly as possible, ending a line of speech prematurely.
Carrying on the conversation, I’m a little surprised by the aggressive praise some have given while comparing Oxenfree to Life is Strange. These teens talk way more intelligently at times than actual teens. As much as Life is Strange’s dialogue could come across as a 40 year-old disguised as a 16 year-old, it was appropriately stupid. Oxenfree meanwhile has a group of teens with the collective lexicon of an English Major. It’s not a huge gripe, as the dialogue is spot-on 90% of the time, it’s just a little jarring to hear words such as neuroses uttered by a 17 year-old.
Prior to release Night School had talked up the horror elements. What I expected was some light themes and a slightly spooky atmosphere. In actuality, things can get pretty dark for the teens. Without delving too deep into spoiler territory, the other-worldly forces at play don’t have the greatest of intentions, and Alex’s hallucinations take hard turns into the realm of the morbid. Add in some elements of time manipulation that the spectres favor a great deal and you get to witness a suicide play out in several different fashions. You never feeling quite at ease, even in the moments of levity. Plans of beach-side binge drinking are a dead aspiration in the face of inter-dimensional terror.
Further pressing the issue is the gloomy northern pacific aesthetic and 80’s synth inspired OST. It’s a mixture of classic Stephen King, with a It Follows sort of vibe, and a touch of modern counter-culture. Despite these being common comparisons with the likes of Life is Strange and We Know the Devil, Oxenfree makes them its own. It’s not horror by way of a 1,000 deaths. It’s the sort that takes well defined characters, gives them internal conflict and then forces them to face those troubles via an external force.
As you may expect from ex-Telltale devs, your dialogue choices heavily influence the outcome. All those questions I posed before about Alex and relationships with those in her group can go either way. If you’re like me you might make childhood friend Ren feel ostracized for his irresponsible nature. Seriously, who eats the second pot brownie mid-way through an encounter with the otherworldly?
Choice in games continues to evolve in such a way that making the actual choices aren’t always so transparent. Oxenfree is far flung from the “Ash or Kaiden,” YOU CAN ONLY CHOOSE ONE, do or die situations. Like its natural conversations filled with umms and incomplete sentences, choices bath in realism. They aren’t massive moments of drama, just little branching paths you might not even notice influencing the outcome at any given second.
In what has already been a year stacked with good games, with the hopefully the best still to come, Oxenfree is an early contender for my yearly top 10. It masquerades as something much more straightforward and less sinister than it actually is. Alex’s struggle with death at such a young age made it all so genuine to me. As the medium becomes more exploratory I find myself enjoying these niche experiences more and more. They may not resonate with as many folks as Destiny or Fallout, but for those they do, they strum all the chords in just the right harmony.