Strong narrative drives spooky ‘Oxenfree’
In recent years, the term “narrative game” has emerged to describe video games that rely on story rather than action. It’s almost exclusively applied to smaller indie titles that take chances with the medium, trusting that a certain type of gamer is interested in what amounts to a new kind of interactive storytelling.
“Oxenfree” is the latest example of this flavor of gaming experience, and it’s a lot of fun if you’re into old-fashioned priorities like dialogue and characterization. The plot could easily be transposed to a low-budget ghost story movie, or a YA novella. But it also takes advantage of the video game format, with its unique ability to give the player agency in the adventure itself.
Here’s the setup: Three teenage friends take a ferry to Edward’s Island, an old tourist destination with a mysterious past. For the local teens, this is an annual ritual – sneaking over to the island at night to build bonfires, hang out and party.
The player assumes the role of Alex, a likeable teenage girl with a complicated family situation. Alex’s new stepbrother, Jonas, has just moved into the house and he’s along for the evening. Alex’s platonic bestie, Ren, rounds out the trio. Once they arrive on the island, two new characters are introduced and the cast is set.
Things get weird when Alex’s transistor radio starts picking up transmissions from otherworldly sources. As they explore the island, the kids also come across documents and photos that serve as puzzle pieces for a story-within-a-story about the island’s past.
Anything more specific would spoil the fun, but if you play the game, watch how the designers cleverly assemble the parallel story lines through dialogue. There are literally thousands of lines of speech in the game, and each character is given a distinct personality. The usual young adult templates – the mean girl, the smart ass, the mope – become more complex as details are uncovered and secrets are revealed.
Actions and reactions
“Oxenfree” uses an interesting game mechanic to facilitate all the interactions. Dialogue options pop up in real time as conversations unwind, and as Alex, you must choose your responses quickly. You don’t have time to agonize over the “correct” responses in a given situation – which is just as well, because there aren’t any.
Each choice you make alters your relationships with the other characters, and potentially spins the story in a new direction. There is no win strategy in “Oxenfree,” just a wide range of outcomes that depend on the choices you make. Because the game is as much about characters as it is about the paranormal mystery, your decisions impact both relationships and plot. No matter what you do, some people are going to get hurt, and probably not in the ways you’re expecting.
The game’s biggest problem in this regard has to do with ambiguity. Your dialogue choices will prompt icons to quickly flash over other characters’ heads, but it’s never clear exactly how this works. It’s a real problem, because even if you try to get into character and play Alex with consistency, you have no idea what those icons are indicating. Did Alex’s reply please Jonas, or anger Ren, or both? You never really know.
Evocative sound and visuals
In terms of traditional game play elements, “Oxenfree” has some very light puzzle-solving and platforming sequences. But mostly the game is just about exploring the island and navigating the relentless dialogue. The teenagers tend to speak like real teenagers, which is a mixed blessing, as in real life. The characterizations feel real and consistent, without actually being very engaging.
Visually, the game’s painterly compositions are lovely to look at, with the ultra wide-shot framing occasionally zooming in for freeze-frame compositions with an appealing animation style. The sound design is particularly evocative. The developers clearly put a lot of effort into the music and ambient noises – play this one with headphones if you can.
Playthrough for “Oxenfree” is about four to five hours, and it’s best to go at it in big chunks to preserve the game’s mood and atmosphere. It’s a fun little thriller if you’re in the mood for a scary story. For some reason, it kept putting me in the mind of 1980s supernatural movies like “Poltergeist.” Had 21st century game technology been around in 1982, that movie might have been delivered in a game like this.
“Oxenfree” ($19.99; rated T) now available on Windows, OS X and Xbox One, with a PlayStation 4 version coming later this year.