I came to play Oxenfree [official site] just after finishing a podcast series called The Message. The Message is essentially an eight-part radio play. Its central mystery involves a strange broadcast, possibly from outer space which seems to carry with it a curse. If you haven’t listened to it I’d recommend it.
The reason I’m bringing it up ahead of telling you anything about the game is that I feel like Oxenfree is actually closer to that kind of unnerving or slightly creepy radio play which is packed with subtle interpersonal stories than it is to other games I’ve played. I also think that part of why I enjoyed it so much was that I was treating it in that same way, letting the characters chatter and the story unfold where I might otherwise have become impatient.
So let’s talk about Oxenfree. Oxenfree is the story of a group of friends and sort-of-friends who go for an overnight party on a deserted island. After an awkward game of truth or slap (it’s truth or dare but with a straightforward slap option instead of the dare) some of the group, including the protagonist, Alex, go to explore a nearby cave. The cave has little towers made from rocks balanced one on top of the other and the rumour is that strange things happen when you tune your analogue radio in front of them. But, after too much twiddling, you manage to open a rift and the evening suddenly becomes a very different, much darker prospect.
You’ll spend a lot of time in conversation, either as you traverse the various – beautifully illustrated – locations on the island or as you negotiate the various encounters the story throws up. The more unusual method of interaction in Oxenfree is by tuning a radio. Listening to different frequencies will help you find story snippets, clues and also unlock areas. It’s a really neat touch and ties into the unravelling island mystery well instead of giving you a bunch of puzzles to stop and solve. I also have a real love of glitchy effects so the tuning conceit was a constant source of pleasure and screenshots.
The island traversal is the thing I suspect I might have grown frustrated with in any other game but the conversational element transformed it. Dialogue sprouted as my companions and I scrabbled up and down, both building the relationships between them and picking into backstory. It felt like each journey was a series of tiny discoveries or little olive branches being offered and you could choose to take them or not.
I haven’t replayed the game so I don’t know the true extent of the variation you can have in Alex and her interactions. What I do know is that the base character is capable and smart and I then picked generally friendly or accepting options, even when other characters had been mean or offensive. I’m not entirely happy with that as it was more about me, the player, being conflict-averse in real life. As I found out more about Alex I started to feel like maybe she would have been less obliging. I’m contemplating a do-over where she gets to express more anger and be more selfish. It’s a weird sensation – that you didn’t quite do right by a fictional character.
The conversation was also occasionally the source of my frustration, though. I loved it when it flowed, and I loved how in the casual conversations you could choose to remain silent and the speech options would just fade out. I’ve played so many games with lacklustre dialogue and Oxenfree is a delight on that front. What I didn’t like was that in some conversations selecting an option would cut the other person off or you would just talk over them without meaning to. Other conversations would let you pick the option and then the voice line would actually trigger when the other person had stopped speaking. I’m not averse to interruptions – they actually added another interesting dimension to the chat but the seeming unpredictability of that system led to moments dotted throughout the game where I accidentally shut down a conversation or missed what the other character had been saying because I was talking when I’d actually wanted to wait. There were also a few moments towards the end where I picked a casual conversation option and continued walking only to trigger plot dialogue and have them play on top of each other incomprehensibly.
The story took me around four hours to finish and tends towards creepy or unsettling rather than SCARY. If it had been SCARY I would probably have thrown the Steam key back in Adam’s face and hidden under a duvet for a few hours. I liked how it resolved (or at least I liked how I resolved it) and how it was paced. It came together cleanly and it mostly served to support the strongest part of the game which is the discovery/building of these other relationships.
Oxenfree was an unexpected delight for me. Atmospheric, beautiful and with the ability to feel real connections between its characters.