Indie Wonderland: Oxenfree

Random Jarenth Trivia: You know what bit of game dialogue has managed to stick in my mind for almost seven years now? It’s from Alpha Protocol, the section where you have a shootout with the coked-up Russian gangster (I won’t pretend to remember his name). And one of his voice taunts he uses now and again is something like, “Oh, American! Come out, come out, wherever you are! Olly olly oxenfree, whatever the fuck that means.” It stuck with me because whatever the fuck does that mean? I know the phrase, but I’ve never understood what it means, or what the context is. I want to reiterate here that I’ve been thinking about this for seven years.

But you know how I’m finally going to put this to rest? No, not ‘just fucking Google it’, what kind of pedestrian do you take me for? My plan is to play Night School Studio’s Oxenfree. Surely the best source to finally put the source of this weird saying to bed is a tangentially titled game about a bunch of teenagers spending the night on a spooky island!

What could possibly go wrong with this plan?!

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, medium-high.)

(Game source: Bought it myself, apparently.)

Opening

Hmmm. Just *feel* that knowledge, flowing into your brain.

Well. This is… minimalistic. Title, meet grey screen. Nowhere to go from here but up.

I was wrong. Nowhere to go from there but *sideways*.

Oxenfree is one of those games that’s low on the options. For graphics you can alter the resolution and ‘disable effects’, and for sound you can do… Nothing? Am I seeing this right? As far as I can tell, there’s not a sound slider in sight, which is honestly very strange. Valuable Options menu real estate is instead taken up by the choice to ‘start over’, ‘documentaries’, and something called ‘Skybound Insiders’, which I don’t even know what to imagine about.

Turns out it’s some publisher-exclusive club you can sign up for to ‘receive news about Oxenfree and more’, i.e. something that in no just universe should crowd out the very basic functionality to alter or mute the sound balance.

I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but as far as first impressions go, this is not great. I can feel my neurons slowing down their response rate as we speak. Let’s dive into the game proper and hope it’s a little more colourful!

Initial impressions

“It used to be a military base,” someone (apparently) called Ren says, as Oxenfree starts by rolling white intro credits on a grey background.

No, but for real. It’s not just developer title and game title, this section actually introduces the cast voice actors and the music creator in white-on-grey format. While a person you haven’t met yet talks about something you don’t understand yet.

It takes no less than thirty seconds before the screen finally resolves. It turns out the grey I’m looking at isn’t just featureless grey, it’s a foggy grey evening sky. And as the camera pans down, I slowly start seeing things: Mountains, trees, water, and a boat. There are people on the boat. Maybe Mysterious Ren is one of them?

Ren, noticing that I’m not paying a lot of attention, decides to call me out directly. “Alex. Hey. Still with us?” This teaches me two things: a) I’m Alex in this scenario, which is a new experience for me, and b) I’m expected to answer this question.

In one of three colour-coded patterns.

Let’s add to that c) I have to answer this question fast, as the text balloons start fading out after a few seconds.

Wow, Oxenfree. I know I complained about your slow start just now, but there *is* such a thing as overreacting.

“I’m listening,” I select, because I was actually listening. Alex answers… something vaguely related to my choice. “I can watch the hypnotic rolling of the waves and listen to you at the same time.” Ah, I see. It might have been prophetic that I opened this review with an Alpha Protocol story, because that’s very much what I’m reminded of right now. Can I look forward to a whole game of hope-guessing that the text summary actually matches what my character ends up saying? That’d be a treat.

Anyway, in case you were wondering what time it was:

Ren, unfazed, shifts his attention to Jonas, the third person on this boat. For tiny pixelated characters, they’re honestly pretty distinct: I can make up Ren’s scruffy blond hair, Alex’s red jacket and teal ponytail, and Jonas’… it’s either a haircut or a hat. The voices are distinct too, and so far the voice acting is fairly okay: Won’t say it’ll win any prizes, but it hasn’t made me cringe yet. And the clever use of colours in the subtitles and the speech balloons makes it easy enough to suss out who’s who.

Ren, Alex, and Jonas chat some more, doing a little scene-setting: Apparently there’s something going on between Alex’s mom and Jonas’ dad, and Jonas just got into town today. As the boys talk, they walk inside, and inspired by their example I try hitting the WASD keys — and sure enough, I’ve got full Alex control. I walk inside as well, up until a bench with a white circle underneath. The circle turns into the word SIT, so I press a few buttons; it’s Spacebar what does it, making Alex sit down.

I sit for a while, listening to the two boys talk. There’s some establishment of Ren and Alex being childhood friends, which Ren sets up with a half-creepy ‘naked babies’ metaphor. I’m given a chance to reply, but decide not to, just to see what happens… after a few seconds the text balloons fade out entirely, and the conversation just naturally continues from there. That’s actually nice. I’ve always liked the conversations in Telltale-style games like The Wolf Among Us where you can choose to just not say anything, which my socially introverted brain appreciates as an option. In lieu of talking, I instead decide to get up and walk around the boat. There’s a few circles on the upper level, which conveniently teaches me that I can walk up stairs just by walking into them. There’s a water fountain to drink from, and a steering wheel to appreciate, and…

The boat radio interrupts to tell us that we’re almost at Edwards Island. It’s gotten dark pretty quickly, while I wasn’t looking. Ren suggest taking a quick boat picture, which I think is supposed to serve as the de facto tutorial for moving around and interacting with things — because this is the first time Oxenfree shows me button prompts for walking and interacting. It also serves as the de facto tutorial for grabbing and tuning the pocket radio Alex carries around, because… Apparently Alex feels the need to carry around a pocket radio?

The immediate narrative justification is that Ren’s friend is saying something on the radio. The delayed narrative justification is a secret, insofar that Jonas doesn’t know what it’s for and the other characters decide ‘not to spoil it’ — which works as a way of keeping secrets from the player.

It turns out that what our heroes are doing right now is traveling to the secluded Edwards Island, after dark, for a traditional last-year-of-high-school party. All the students get together to trespass on the island after all the shops and parks close, drink cheap booze, and get up to the sort of things teenagers get up to when they’re alone and drunk. I don’t know who thought this was a good setting for Alex to meet her new stepbrother Jonas for the first time ever, but fine, whatever, we’ll roll with it.

At least everyone’s looking forward to it.

We make landfall on Edwards Island and make our way up the hill and to the party. There’s more chatting: Alex and Jonas talk about the new living arrangements they’ve been thrown into, Ren talks about the island being a kitschy tourist trap. There’s a monument to a sunken submarine, and if I want to, I can pull out my radio and tune it to 102.3 AM to get the audio guided tour.

Might as well lean into being tourist trash.

About a minute’s worth of walking and chatting sees us reach the top of the hill. One ‘puzzle’ later opens up the fenced-off path beyond, to the beach. Ren pulls out a handy map, showing the scope of Edwards Island, and the many many people waiting for us on the cliffs and at the beach!

Take ’em all in. You’ve never seen a party quite like this.

Okay, so there’s just two other people. Nobody else could make it, alright? Some people had a thing, and other people had another thing… I always thought the point of these yearly traditions was that people showed up for ’em, but then I skipped the senior celebration of my own high school to play Smash Brothers with friends, so what do I know? I meet Nona, who Ren is totally crushing on, and Clarissa, who seems less than thrilled about the idea of me being here, Jonas being here, or anyone being here in general, herself included. Herself especially.

I can’t blame her. So far this party’s kind of tame.

I mean, I’ll be honest: That makes it *exactly* my kind of party. But I understand that it’d be a disappointment for people expecting a ‘twenty-deep rager’.

I grab some beer and drink it, because that’s a thing you can do in situations like these. I grab some rocks and throw them at the sea. Woo. Then Clarissa suggests we play ‘Truth or Slap, which is… pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Clarissa asks Ren about Nona, so he starts waffling about how he just sees her as a friend… Which I know is a lie, he just told me earlier. So I shout it out loud — beer, remember — and get to slap Ren right across the face as a reward. Man, this party fuckin’ rules!

Then it’s my turn, so I ask Clarissa something — I kinda want to get to know why she dislikes me so much. A softball question about worst fears, you get the idea. Then Clarissa bounces it right back and asks me about my parents’ divorce, forcing me to relive and re-tell the traumatic memory of my brother drowning when we went swimming in a freak storm.

Man, this party fuckin’ sucks.

Jonas, here, profiling himself as the voice of wisdom for the group.

Ah, but luckily, Ren saved the best for last — the surprise hidden from Jonas and from me, the player. The three of us (leaving Nona and Clarissa behind) hop a fence to the mouth of a nearby cave. As Ren tells it, there are certain places on the island where you can tune your radio into some freaky stuff. Also as Ren tells it, he’s eating a weed brownie right now, so, you know. But I stand by the assorted piles of rocks and tune my radio up and down, and… Holy shit, it actually works! Where ‘it’ is a strange deep hum coming from the cave, and also lights. How does tuning a radio make a cave light up? I don’t know, and neither does Jonas, but that sure as hell isn’t gonna stop him from crawling into the dark, narrow, unexplored cave to find out.

And since Ren’s on a one-way trip to Magic Towne and Clarissa and Nona don’t really care, guess who gets to crawl in afterwards to go find him?

Then…

Then some things happen. Then, some things happen, and I realize right off the bat that these are the sorts of things that I probably don’t want to mention by name in a review. These are the kinds of things probably experienced on your own. Which isn’t too much of a problem, since I don’t really know how to describe the things that are happening? It’s all definitely super weird, but otherwise hard to put into any descriptive terms. ‘And then the world got signal interference’?

Listen, your guess is as good as mine.

All I can tell you is this: Two or so minutes later, when the light clears and the darkness fades out, I find myself in a field I’ve never been, behind an electric fence I’ve never crossed, with a headache I don’t remember earning. It’s 11 PM, Jonas is here but nobody else is, and the only reason we’re not both freaking out is that we don’t have enough of a grasp on what just happened to properly translate it into freak-out triggers.

That’s a lie, we’re totally freaking out.

So I think it’s safe to say that, at long last, this party has finally started. Now I just need to figure out how to get out, er, alive.

Onto page 2. >>

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