Indie Wonderland: Oxenfree

A few hours in

So Oxenfree, er… It has kind of a slow start, as is probably a core part of this sort of story experience. But once it go, it go. After flipping the proverbial dead man’s switch with That Thing In The Cave, Oxenfree wastes no time ramping its weirdness up to 11.

Random, non-meaningful example

I basically spent all my time from ’11 PM’ onward running around Edwards Island, desperately trying to figure out what was happening, find and rescue my friends, and score some way off this rock before Something Bad Would Happen. It was a wild ride, frankly, filled with weird twists and unexpected plot beats, and the sense of relaxation after waking up on the final boat under the light of the rising sun is hard to put into words. And then I sort of turned around and started doing it all again.

Picture mostly unrelated. I just like Ren’s earrings.

Since Oxenfree is basically a linear narrative-driven game, it might sound like high praise to say that I started playing again right after finishing. There’s a little more to it than that, so let me qualify that statement by saying that I didn’t just reboot Oxenfree because I wanted to see it a second time. A significant part of it was definitely that, but there’s also… It’s like a Transistor thing, okay. And no, if you’re wondering, I will not qualify that statement any further.

To get back on the critical path of this review (such as it is), I did actually enjoy Oxenfree a great deal. It’s an engaging, interesting adventure game, that draws it strength from incredible atmosphere, good character writing, and a great application of Spooky Nonsense that manages to resist the temptation of simple jump scares to instead do something far more interesting. I won’t say it’s without flaw, or necessarily For Everyone: Most of the gameplay can accurately be described as ‘island-walking adventure, except without the neat unblockable part, and particularly in the latter part, the slow pace of movement and the large map can combine with some ‘optional’ pixel-hunting fetch to produce deep sense of tedium. Still, all in all it’s a good game, and while I’m going to try and remain spoiler-low I’ll give the same advice here as I gave at Night in the Woods: If my initial descriptions here are piquing your interest in any way, it’s probably a safe bet to just buy the game and play it for yourself.

And, as a side note: since Oxenfree is ‘also’ a linear story-driven adventure game with platforming elements and a horror undercurrent, it’s very tempting to compare it to Night In The Woods all the time. I’ll try to keep that sort of thing to a minimum, but just so you know. Although, honestly, a more interesting comparison point is probably the free under-appreciated Steam game Moirai, but… Listen, if you don’t know what that one is, just download it and play it for yourself. It takes like ten minutes and it’s really cool. It’s neat, it’s free, and you might come back to this review and find you suddenly understand what I’m talking about. All it takes you is some time.

Just time.

Alright, getting into this review proper:

Oxenfree‘s first and most outward hook is its great sense of atmosphere. The whole game takes places on Edwards Island, and for the story to have the kind of effect it wants to have it’s necessary that the player buys into the setting: That you’re alone on a dark, abandoned, hauntingly creepy island. And for me, at least, Oxenfree managed. A great deal of credit goes to the graphic design: The play areas and background are presented in a painted style that’s mostly recognizably realistic, but that departs just far enough from photorealism to instill a constant sense of uncomfortable weirdness in your surroundings. It’s not anything major or immediately eye-catching, but… The trees and the paths and the angles are all just a little bit off. They’re exaggerated, and elongated, and curved in ways that don’t quite match perspective, resulting in a sense that puts a constant sense of low-level unease on the brain.

Adding to that, the dark muted colour use paints a beautiful picture of a grim, foggy night, the kind of night where you’re glad you wore a jacket but you’d still rather be indoors with a mug of cocoa. Fog and low visibility are almost constant companions, and I’m sure you understand how much that contributes to the island’s welcoming nature. Again, it works primarily because it’s very close to nice: On a sunlight afternoon, the picturesque painting style and colour use make for an exceptionally nice place. I know this for a fact because there are a few moments where you actually get to see the island like that, and…

Look at how non-spooky this looks!

But generally, Edwards Island looks less like that and more like this:

It’s so good though! Muted blues and dark colours for the tone, eerie red light to instill a sense of danger. And those steps in the distance are just *weird*: even when walking on them, they never quite make sense.

And then there’s the sound design, the final contributing factor. I’m sure you can imagine how good use of subdued environmental sound, your wind and your rustling trees and your crickets, can really close the proverbial sale on the atmosphere of a place like this. That’s not all Oxenfree does in the sound department, though. It’s not much I can talk about without spoiling too much, but sound and music are recurring elements of the plot and recurring themes in the mood setting. Nowhere is this exemplified better than by the radio, which you can pull out and tune to stations of your choice at any time. Most of them are empty static, but every now and again you’ll find short glimpses of existing stations. News speeches, or cartoon voice clips. Or something that sounds like Morse code. Or… But I’m already saying too much. The long and the short of it is: The combination of aesthetic, colour use, deliberate space design, and audio use give Oxenfree an amazing sense of unsettling, oppressive, creepy atmosphere.

It’s through this atmospheric place that you’ll spend most of your time running. Gameplay-wise, Oxenfree is… I could beat around the bush, but what I want to say is that it’s basically a 2.5D walking simulator. A very atmospheric and engaging walking simulator, but all the same most of your time will be spent navigating Alex & Co from point A to point B.

Seems like this game has quotes for every occasion. But more on that later.

I don’t like the term ‘walking simulator’, though; I hate that it’s become part of our common vernacular. It’s entirely dismissive of a genre of games that use limited mechanics to often great effect. Case in point: Oxenfree, where walking through Edwards Island is not a chore, but an experience. Maybe we should call these games something else, what do you guys think? We need a term for these games that recognizes that sometimes, it really is the journey that matters more than the destination. I’m leaning towards something like ‘Travelogue’, but suggestions are always welcome.

Anyway, critical path: Oxenfree isn’t necessarily the most engaging game mechanically. A good 90% of your problems are solved / objectives are met by walking to a certain place. The other 10% usually take the form of simple point-and-click adventure games. Well, ‘simple’: uncomplicated point-and-click adventure games, as far as the genre goes. Some of them can be really tricky to suss out, particularly with all the weirdness that tends to go on.

A bunch of puzzles involve tuning the radio; enough that the classification ‘point-and-click’ is probably statically inaccurate.

Oxenfree only veers into overt hard challenge territory twice or so, and it’s honestly incredibly jarring when it does. I would count both of these occurrences as the experiential nadir of the game: Suddenly, the doors lock, and the game introduces a time-limited puzzle with suggested Terrible Consequences for failure. I say ‘suggested’, because I don’t actually know what happens: I solved the first puzzle in one go (with only a little bit of looking up), and reset the second puzzle after failing it once because screw you, game. You don’t suddenly get to pull the rug out from under me. It’s possible this wouldn’t have had consequences later on, or maybe it would have: I see Oxenfree as being capable of either outcome. And I say ‘experiential nadir’, because narratively they achieve their objective: A sense of tense uncertainty, showing the player that the rules can change at any time — best keep your eyes open, and be sure to listen to that radio! The introduction of what feels like a fail-state is just jarring and out of place: It breaks the cardinal rule of video game horror, which is that you want your player to always fear that they’re going to lose and die without actually going through with it.

Exceptions aside, Oxenfree is generally pretty good at building meaningful tension. Part of it is the aforementioned atmosphere, which constantly keeps you on edge. But what’s equally important is the game’s willingness, and ability, to supernaturally mess with the characters and with the player. There are… Things, that can happen, weird things, things that I’m trying to avoid describing in too much detail. All I’ll tell you for sure is that these are not jump scares, nothing that low-level horror. Rather, these… events play with game rules and preconceived player notions in interesting ways. Particularly the first time, just figuring out what’s going on is a minor journey. And just as you think you see the shape of how it resolves… The effect of individual events varies, with some being exceptionally strange and some being the aforementioned ill-fitting puzzles. But the cumulative effect is that it starts making the entire island feel unsafe. And that’s exactly what a horror game wants. You learn early on that weirdness can strike at any time, and that no place or no person is ‘safe’ — no, not even you. It makes you constantly doubt your own perceptions, and anticipate weirdness around every corner — there’s no better way to put a person on edge than by having them imagine all the ways they could be terrified. And Oxenfree manages to keep the conceit relatively fresh: Even later in the game, when you’re ‘used’ to things, it still creeps up on you at unexpected places and twists your expectations.

I do adore that your characters get genre savvy later in the game too: In this situation you can (but don’t have to) have Alex call out that she knows what’s happening isn’t real.

This, basically.

The final cap in Oxenfree‘s experience-building is the quality of its character writing. The game features only a small cast, but uses that cast to fairly good effect. All characters are well-developed and fleshed out. Each character has their own voice, both in the narrative sense and in the played by a voice actor sense — though the latter isn’t as remarkable as the former. Even in limited interactions, you quickly get a good idea of who each character is: Ren is laid back and playful, hiding his anxiety through hyperactivity and jokes. Clarissa is curt, and mean, but while unfair there’s a reason she projects so much of her anger onto Alex. Nona is… well, Nona. Of the five, Nona gets the short end of the stick a little; it’s possible to never spend any quality time with her at all, if you’re in the habit of making bad decisions. Alex and Jonas tend to get most of the screen time — or at least, they did in my game, might be possible that that’s dependent on choices — so you get to know them the more comprehensively. Their burgeoning relationship as newly-minted step-brother and -sister is interesting, but hardly the focus: Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that most of what they talk about is ‘whatever the fuck is going on right now’. Still, all characters talk about all sorts of things, and a great deal of casual character development and worldbuilding happens during the walks from place to play. I like it, in a way: It might seem out-of-place for two comparative strangers to joke about hobbies while running across a haunted island, but I like to think that’s the way I would cope, too. Certainly more productive than my back-up plan, Freak Out In A Corner.

There’s not all that much I can say about the dialogue system that I haven’t already. It’s basically Telltale-style, with all the ups and downs that entails. Well, not entirely: I do think that in Oxenfree your specific choices can actually matter a great deal. They certainly do during the aforementioned bad puzzles, but overall, I know of some things that are influenced. The only other thing that’s even worth mentioning it that it’s sometimes a little fiddly mechanically: Selecting the right text balloon in time can be tricky, especially in stressful circumstances.

That’s it. That’s literally all the criticism I have here.

Again, it all serves the overall experience. The way Oxenfree doles out scares and weirdery is a great use of narrative tension, and a great payoff to all the atmospheric buildup, character writing, and the lore and stories you’ve been hearing over time. And it really lifts the play experience to a high level.

As long as you’re playing on the critical path.

See, thing about Oxenfree is: A lot of the time after the initial cave thing, you are relatively free to go where you want. Not a lot of places are locked off, with only the Adler House being exempt. There’s usually a story reason for you to keep moving, and the game does close off locations in cases where it wants you to get going. But especially after you find the second radio, you receive a lot of freedom… at the exact same time that you a second free-roaming objective. I balk at calling it a side quest, but you get the idea. Throughout the game, Edwards Island has been littered with stone piles like the ones at the mouth of the cave, and you’ll probably remember at some point that you can catch weird signals if you tune your radio there. Oxenfree is fairly straightforward about how there are 12 of these overall, it’s right there on your map. A second, similar fetch quest opens up halfway, one that involves letters from the past and a promise of some explanation. In both cases, if you’re into Oxenfree, you’ll probably want to get all of these. And that involves walking around the Edwards Island map. All of the map.

It’s this part where Oxenfree‘s Travelogue gameplay falls apart a little. The reason this game works is because it’s tense, focused, and full of surprises. But when the world opens up, it’s no longer focused. When you realize the story essentially stops until you hit the next story beat, the tenseness drains. And the weird surprises only happen as a part of that story. So for however long you need to either Collect Them All or grow bored and more on, Oxenfree transforms from a really cool horror story game into a pixel hunting slog. Even there, it often manages to be at least somewhat interesting, but it’s by and large the weakest point of the game on the engagement curve. This is the part where I popped on a podcast, let’s put it like that.

You’re still going to want to do this, because the letters and the anomalies are extra drizzles of weirdness sauce on an already savory cake of quiet unease. But I’d have preferred it more if it was possible to get all of these over the course of normal gameplay, that’s all I’m saying.

It’s a small part of the overall experience, thankfully, and for the most part Oxenfree manages to captivate. It managed to captivate me, at least, all the way until the ending. And beyond. Which…

Final thoughts

Listen, I want to talk about how interesting the post-ending was. But I can’t, okay? I didn’t even end up doing much with it, partially because of time limitations and partially because of what it was. But just the existence of a twist like this… I adore this sort of stuff. If you play Oxenfree, do yourself a favor: Start a second game after clearing the first, at the very least. No need to see it through very far, but at the very least it’s really cool to see. And who knows? You might get drawn in again. Stranger things have happened.

Pictured: A stranger thing, that happened.

Wrapping up: I’m glad I played Oxenfree. It’s a cool experience, interesting and engaging and strange, using atmosphere and clever writing and a willingness to play with expectations to great effect. I still don’t know what ‘oxenfree’ means, but I’ve come to accept I never might. If the trade-off for that is that I got to play this cool game, that’s a deal I’m willing to accept. Maybe you’d be willing, too? The twenty dollar Steam price tag may scare some people, so handle your budget as appropriate. But if you can afford it (or spot it in a sale), it’s an experience well worth playing through at least once. Maybe try taking a look?

Oh, and one final suggestion: If at any point a character named Jarenth should show up in your game, disregard any Michael-related advice she gives you, okay? That doofus had no idea what she was saying. Just trust me on this one.

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Jarenth wants to extend his warmest thanks to Mumbles, Dr. Labcoat, and Boosmell Spooplord, for giving him bad advice. If you’re one of those, particularly the latter, come say hi on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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