When I first learned of Oxenfree from developer Nightschool games I remember what grabbed my attention was the title of the article, Oxenfree: The Emotional Game You Need to Know About—this is all over my wheelhouse, it was like a sign specifically made for me, I devoured the article, the title summing up exactly what Oxenfree is, except they left out the part where I want to stop playing because I’m pissing my pants. Oxenfree is one of the scariest games I’ve played in recent memory, on par with Silent Hill 2 scary, it lured me in with a quaint story about youths on a high school ritual and quickly turned into nightmare fuel.
Oxenfree managed to grab me from the get go, throwing you right into the middle of a regular day for a group of high schoolers. My first lesson for the game, pay attention or you’ll miss the moment—this subtle design choice is unbelievably important in the long term. I’ve played games before where if you miss the moment the dialog is gone forever, but I ended up starting the game over only a few minutes in because I was distracted when I first sat down to play soon realizing I didn’t know what was going on.
You play Alex the lead of the story, she’s got sort of a rebellious youth look going on akin to Lindsey Weir from Freaks and Geeks (big oversized jacket and all). I quickly learn that I’m on the boat with my best friend Ren a quirky dude with a big mouth and my new Step brother Jonas who might have a shady past (at least by teen standards), Ren explains we are going to Edwards Island for a big party that the high schoolers throw ever year and everyone will be there, he also mentions we are going for other reasons asking if I have the radio he told me to bring.
Having the game start this way did exactly what it intended to, luring me into a false sense of security and forgetting that the game was going to start getting weird. Arriving at the island I learn a little about its history and inhabitants, finding only two other people have arrived Clarissa and Nona, Ren explains we took the last boat, no one else is coming. Kicking it on the beach for a while small talk is made, eventually a small argument breaks out and this is where the game opens the door (no pun intended) to the horrors that await. Needing to cool off Ren takes it as an opportunity to show me why he gave me the radio and then things start to get weird. Proceeding to tune into a station I make a light flicker on and off in a cave (I know spooky right) that’s when Jonas points out a glowing pool that definitely wasn’t glowing before. Of course we go down.
As per usual with any game I play, I always go with what I think the character would do in the given situation if not that what I would do. The thing about Oxenfree is this game pulled at the heart strings in such a way that most games dealing with emotion don’t, it was pure nostalgia, every dialog choice I was reminded of my own thoughts at that age, even with the supernatural stuff going on—all of it was so truthful. I could see Alex reacting any of those ways, because she’s at that age where you are hyper self-aware, Oxenfree managed to capture this perfectly. When Jonas offered me the cigarette it was like being offered my first smoke all over again, and I had Alex take it, she even played it off like she had smoked before, until she starts coughing(classic), it’s no wonder it hits home. Like any good game dealing with emotion it shows a reflection of ourselves.
This is why the dialog is so overly important, and why I absolutely adore the fact that if you miss the moment its gone forever. Having the dialog fade away into nothing (literally and figuratively) is brilliant, because that’s life it does not stop, for anyone, so why should it stop for a group of teens stuck on a supernatural island. Not only does this create a sense of belief, but also forms how the story plays out, there were more than a few times after my first brief restart where I missed the dialog yet I had to keep going. It wasn’t until much further in to the game that I realized how much the dialog shapes how things play out. In my play through I felt I hit every mark for what I was trying to achieve—which was just getting me and my friends off the island alive.
Artistically if you knew nothing going into this game you would probably think you were in for a cute adventure—not the case. I definitely took this for granted, learning the hard way that this was no children’s game. It’s absolutely stunning how much the Disney/Telltale influence shines through hitting a perfect balance. Presenting a flat backdrop with a muted color palate gives it the feel of a print, the characters however retain a three dimensional element with colors popping just enough (Alex’s hair being blue for instance), having such a stylized look is what tricked me into a false sense of comfort however briefly.
I’ve already mentioned the radio, but I haven’t talked about how it’s used, as well as the sound and ambiance in general. The radio not only is what allows you to communicate with the presence, but allows you to tune in to other things as well, there are a slew of stations just waiting to be heard. Musically the score of this game is phenomenal, matching the 80’s/90’s horror vibe perfectly, while still retaining a mysterious whimsy (definitely Disney influenced).
Finishing Oxenfree left me speechless, sure me and my friends made it off the island alive, but then Alex said something and I about lost it, coming back to the menu screen I lost it even more. I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t played it, but let’s just say it’s some trippy ass shit. Oxenfree lived up to be everything I had expected it to be and so much more. I did not realize the treat I was in for when I sat down, and starting my second play through will be even more exciting, and I’m sure supernaturally weirder.
Images to come soon, going to start using my own!