Spending four years of my childhood living in Italy meant a lot of warm summer nights, which of course meant neighborhood games of hide and seek or kick the can. Crouched down in a dank bush, I could feel my heart pounding against my chest as I waited for the chance to run up to the can to give it a swift kick, sending it flying as I called out “olly olly oxen free,” to let any caught players know that they were once again free. Some of that same feeling of adolescent tension comes through in the indie game Oxenfree. Developed by Night School Studio, a small development team founded by Telltale (The Walking Dead game) and Disney alumni, Oxenfree is a beautiful-looking mystery filled with a pleasing mix of humor and horror. It’s a game that doesn’t explain much at first, but fills in details along the way, giving you the opportunity to shift the story and characters as you progress.
The game begins on a small ferry taking you to a local island. “You” being Alex, a teenage girl getting to know her new step-brother Jonas for the first time. Joining the two is Ren, Alex’s quick-witted best friend, who has planned this trip in the spirit of a local tradition. The island they’re heading to is abandoned at this time of the year, save for one old woman who lives in isolation, and has played host to many groups of teens looking to camp out for the night, have a few drinks, and possibly explore some of the islands supposedly supernatural elements…
Once you get to the island, you meet up with Nona, a girl that Ren has a crush on, and Clarissa, a snarky teen who clearly has issues with Alex. The adventures on the island start off simple enough, with the five of them playing truth or dare around a campfire on the beach. Things start escalating pretty quickly though when Ren talks Alex into using her portable radio to test out an urban legend: that if you tune into certain frequencies at certain spots on the island, you might hear something altogether unnatural.
To describe more of the story would be to start spoiling some of the surprises, although your own experience might differ from my own. This is because Oxenfree has a cool conversation system that lets you, as Alex, constantly chose from different options on how to interact with the other characters. Want to be as rude to Clarissa as she is to you? Go for it. Want to tell Ren to stop being a wimp and ask Nona out? Your choice. Want to spill the beans to Nona that Ren likes her? Again, your call.
In execution, it’s pretty simple, and actually, one of the more interesting aspects of this system is how fluid it is. The incredibly talkative will be conversing to either Alex or each other. Then, when it’s almost time for your character to possibly say something, three word bubbles appear around her head indicating possible responses. All you have to do is press the button corresponding to the response you want to give and the conversation continues to flow smoothly. It feels more effortless than those in other games where the action might pause as you read the lengthier response options. Here, it’s usually just a word or two, yet I never got the feeling that the description didn’t fit the actual lines that Alex then says. Because of the fluidity of it, it’s easy to lull yourself into the dreamlike world of the game. It just feels natural, walking around with your friends as you respond to their comments.
Dreamlike is actually a pretty apt way to describe the visuals of the game. Being a side-scrolling game (think of the camera angle in Super Mario. Bros), the characters themselves only take up a small fraction of the screen, the rest being gorgeous landscapes that actually reminded me of scenes from the infamous Lars von Trier film Antichrist. That may sound like an odd comparison to make, but if you’ve seen the film, think of the sequences where Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character imagines floating through the wilderness. That kind of eerie atmosphere is present in the background visuals of Oxenfree.
The character models, as I said, are rather tiny, but there are moments in the game where they might take a selfie, which can then be viewed in the pause menu. The selfies look great, letting you see the characters drawn in lush detail, and are one of the best indicators of the dev-team’s past involvement with animation. The drawing style has all the charm of the best animated films, bringing to mind something along the lines of The Iron Giant. It’s these glimpses of the characters that help make them feel fully realized, while also serving to add a tinge of nostalgia. Even better, on occasion, the selfies might let you catch glimpses of ghostly figures that you can’t otherwise see…
Oxenfree is, at its heart, a game about nostalgia and loss. It’s set in that awkward phase of a person’s life when they’re not a kid anymore, yet not quite an adult either. As the story develops, you begin to learn more about their pasts, and, without giving anything away, you learn of the tragedies that some of them have had to experience. I actually began to notice that these revelations changed the way I interacted with certain characters, helping me better understand some of them. And as I became more attached to them, I became all the more certain that I had to make sure they all made it to the end.
In essence, Oxenfree is a game that is easy to slide yourself into. The dialogue choices you make and the actions you perform throughout the game affect the way the story progresses, making it uniquely your experience. But in addition to that more mechanical idea, the art-style and production of Oxenfree is clear enough to give you a story to follow and characters to latch onto, yet vague enough to let you mix your own adolescent memories with the dreamlike world presented in the game. It’s a wonderful balance that proves to make for a compelling journey you won’t soon forget.
It’s a game that captures the essence of my old childhood experiences… The nostalgic memories of the warm Italian nights. The rapid beating of my heart as tension continued to build. And the thrill of getting to save my friends with a ringing cry of “olly olly oxen free!”
Oxenfree is currently available on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Steam.