The Joy of Oxenfree’s natural dialogue system

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Few games nail the ebb and flow of conversations like Oxenfree, the supernatural drama about a group of teenagers on a deserted island. The cast speak over one another, cut their friends off mid-sentence and leave realistic gaps of silence that stretch on awkwardly until somebody says “so…”, and moves on.

You’re an active part of that system. You select speech bubbles that pop out of Alex, the protagonist, and if you choose one while another character is talking then you’ll butt in. If they have something important to say then the game won’t let you interrupt, so you don’t miss anything crucial.

The game also makes interrupting feel more natural by adding empty sentences that don’t really mean anything, and that you’ll feel comfortable cutting short. A character might say something poignant and then add “But, you know, it’s something, like”, which is your cue to click away. Those kind of sentences – the kind that we use all the time in everyday speech but are ultimately redundant – are a big part of what makes Oxenfree’s characters believable.

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It also means you can choose not to speak if you want to, and the other characters will react to that. While I’m walking through a creepy forest with Jonas, Alex’s step-brother, he starts speaking about the direction we’re walking in. I stay silent despite the pop-ups. “We do know where we’re going, right?” he asks, to which I again say nothing. He sighs, defeated. “Great”.

Through these systems you can control the pace of conversations. If you want to listen to what a character has to say, you can let them speak before responding. If you feel strongly about something, you can interject. And if it feels more natural, you can stay silent. It’s all well-written, but the excellent dialogue system means that it’s not really what the characters say that makes them come alive, but when they say it.

18 Comments

  1. rusty says:

    Interestingly (for me at least) the dialogue was one of the main reasons I couldn’t get past the first 5 minutes of this game. Blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblah, it all went. Making the characters believable also made them insufferable.

    • DeepSleeper says:

      I just wanted to slap the hell out of these people every time they opened their mouth, yeah. I couldn’t get into it either.

  2. Blad the impaler says:

    I could not finish. The dialogue was excellent – but the writing was clearly intended for someone much younger that I.

  3. LewdPenguin says:

    Looking at it from a purely technical viewpoint I’d agree it’s a far better and more natural feeling system than the industry default of having 2-4 choices to choose from while the entire game world just hangs around in limbo waiting for you to respond.

    As for it’s place in Oxenfree I have to agree with the above posts, it’s a bit of a shame it’s put to use with a bunch of characters that are so incredibly irritating so much of the time, there was clearly meant to be one but it felt more like ending up in the midst of a whole herd of Cordelias.

  4. Zombra says:

    I liked the writing and the characters, even though I am not a hip teenager.

    What I didn’t like was the fact that I HAD to interrupt everyone else constantly or miss my chance to ever talk. The main character can’t wait for someone to finish a sentence before replying. It put me in the position of either being a rude bitch or having my friends complain about my silence because in simply being polite I missed my tiny window to speak at all.

    Not “joyful”. Ended up abandoning the game very quickly because of this.

    • malkav11 says:

      This was more or less my complaint too – unlike you I finished the game and thought it was great overall, but because the game wasn’t consistent about whether clicking early would interrupt or not and the dialogue choice had usually faded by the time there was a pause in one of the characters’ speech, I wound up missing more choices than I’d prefer out of a sense of politeness.

      • Samuel Horti says:

        I presume that was put in so that you couldn’t interrupt anything important. I quite liked that signalling – it meant I actually listened to what was being said.

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      phuzz says:

      And in the game?
      This is the problem I face when I’m in a group of three or more people. I can only ever spot the moment when I should start speaking just after it’s passed.

  5. adidaas says:

    In the minority in comparison to everyone so far; I absolutely adored the dialogue, characters, and game overall. Thought it was a fun little cast with good chemistry with one another. But I do fancy the north western culture of the US which this (and Life Is Strange which I also love) is highly inspired by, so hey.

    As far as dialogue system goes, Im a big fan of dialogue systems where not every choice has some world altering consequence. Most of Oxenfree’s choices do nothing but develop characters and help you role play. In that regard I can see how some people wouldn’t like the game if they’re not up for role playing a tad bit. Especially when you’re role playing a bunch of whacky teenagers.

    Still, I think the game is a fun quick romp if you’re looking for a quick small adventure. It was also one of the few times I quickly jumped in one for a second run to try out other possibilities and get another ending.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    It’s really good, though I did feel that the window to speak was sometimes too short.

    I originally started it mainly to see the dialogue system but was pleasantly surprised by the story and characters. Great atmospheric game.

  7. Tafdolphin says:

    Although I agree the system itself was well implemented (imagine a full CDPR game with that level of fluidity!) the script itself actively worked against what I believed the game was trying to achieve. The creeping unease and general spooky atmosphere were ruined by the teen-angst nattering and utterly obliviousness the characters directed towards their situation.

  8. Raoul Duke says:

    I never felt like my choices mattered at all, which quickly reduced the dialogue to “press X to continue” from my point view.

    • malkav11 says:

      There’s actually quite a few directions the game can go based on the choices you make.

      • Raoul Duke says:

        That’s interesting, and not really communicated in the game. A number of times I tried to push conversations a certain way, yet the game seemed to go in the direction of a different conversation choice.

        • Samuel Horti says:

          Yeah it does do that occasionally and it’s a bit jarring, but I can only remember encountering it a couple of times

  9. Ejia says:

    On one hand it does feel more natural. On the other, I’m one of those people who wants to see every little nugget of dialogue, so having to interrupt someone else to say something is an annoying choice between seeing all of soneone else’s dialogue vs. hearing what Alex has to say.

    Maybe it’s worth one or two more playthroughs. I still have one achievement to get, and I want to see if I can finally make Alex smooch her new stepbrother.

  10. Jaykera says:

    I’ll probably never continue the game for 2 reasons :
    1. I found the characters annoying.
    2. English not being my 1st language, I sometimes found difficult to follow the conversation with multiple characters while thinking about my answer in a limited amount of time.

    All in all, an annoying and irritating experience.

  11. genoforprez says:

    Like some others have said, the dialogue was actually one of the main reasons I did not continue playing the game. (I also prefer to mute the VO in most games of this type and didn’t like that I couldn’t do that either. And yes, I know there is a rationale for not being able to mute it, but the rationale is based on the other part of the dialogue I didn’t like, so…)