I want to preface this post with a disclaimer that I’m attempting to be as spoiler free as possible.
I won’t reveal any big plot points beyond the basic premise of the game, and I encourage you to play it to find out what happens for yourself! I will, however, be discussing central themes and mechanics of the game, so if keeping those things secret would make the game more enjoyable for you, save this post for after you finish playing.
Oxenfree, a 2016 game by Night School Studio, released to positive reviews, but quiet fandom about a year ago. I played the game when it first came out, and loved it, but I’ve recently picked it up again on the Nintendo Switch. A year is a considerable amount of time in some ways. Since I first played this game I’ve finished my comprehensive exam, immersed myself in my dissertation, moved, got a new cat, had some personal life changes, etc. etc.. The game feels different now in a way that’s hard to explain, but for this post I’m going to try to.
The game follows Alex, a high school senior who’s going to a semi-illegal beach party with her best friend Ren, his crush Nona, Alex’s new step-brother Jonas, and Clarissa—whose relationship to the group becomes clearer as the game progresses. The crew begins encountering some spooky things once Alex tunes her radio to a weird frequency and soon Alex begins a quest of self-discovery and memory and healing.
If this summary seems vague, that’s because it is. The meat of this story isn’t the gameplay mechanics or the puzzles—it’s the plot. The very intricate plot that gets slowly revealed over the course of several hours. There are a few key points this game covers, all of them favorite plot tropes of mine:
The main gameplay mechanic of Oxenfree is time. The past few years have been a great time for video games about time and manipulating it. SquareEnix’s Life is Strange, an episodic narrative game about a girl who can lightly manipulate time was released a year before Oxenfree to rave reviews and a horde of fans. It deals with similar themes, tackles similar social issues, and ultimately leaves the player emotionally impacted—just like Oxenfree—and yet the Night School Studio’s gem has been overlooked where Life is Strange has gotten a (lackluster) sequel and cult following.
One major difference in Oxenfree is that Alex can’t control time. Not really, anyway. Certain parts of the game are looped over and over, forcing Alex, and the player, to cycle through the same dialogue options and scenery while the screen becomes more and more distorted, with lines jagged and moving across the screen like an old VHS tape. During these scenes, the thing the player feels most is frustration. You can’t really do anything about these time loops, at least not until the game lets you, and you’re forced to relive the same scenes over and over—to the point that I once thought the game was broken.
But really, that’s the whole point. Alex does receive some new dialogue options in these replayed scenes, mostly variations on “Oh no, we’re stuck in a time loop!” and “It’s happening again!” These limited new options show that Alex is aware of the past and that it influences her future. Alex’s involvement with time becomes even clearer once the player realizes early in the game that her brother died in a horrific drowning accident before he was supposed to go to college. Alex’s past and the ghost of what her brother’s future could have been haunts her. At the beginning of the game, Alex has clearly repressed this past to some extent, casually talking about her brother’s death (if you choose those dialogue options), but parts of the game force her to literally relive moments with her brother, which is more painful than I—with no experience of losing a sibling—can imagine.
During these scenes, Alex seems caught somewhere in between enjoying the time with her brother and regretting that she can’t do more to change the past. Oxenfree offers that wish fulfillment, though, with several different endings to the game. One ending sees Alex’s brother brought back to life, even. But even that sort of wish fulfillment comes at a price—bringing back Alex’s brother means that she never met or will know Jonas, her step-brother, who she bonds with over the course of the game (if, as always, the player chooses it). Emotions aren’t neat things, but the game seems to suggest that time has a lot to do with the grieving process, and that erasing a tragedy could drastically impact the way life has unfolded after it. I’m not one of those people that always says “everything happens for a reason,” and I’m not sure the game would say that either, but events in life are connected in strange ways we can’t anticipate. And good things can come from horrible times of life. I feel like we have to believe that, sometimes, to keep going.
Relationships and Being Young
I’m almost 30 and while I’m still friendly with one or two people from high school, we’ve all chosen different paths in life and we don’t really talk anymore. That’s OK, but it’s a change—a change that’s hard to fathom when you’re actually experiencing high school, when friends forever seems to be an attainable thing. In the game, you might see your friendships crumble (the choice is yours!), but it feels natural because all of the characters are preparing to graduate high school and move on to different parts of their lives. The game forces Alex to make moral decisions—about drugs and justice and ethics—that she might not encounter otherwise until much later in life. Playing the game a few times a year apart, I found myself making different decisions on Alex’s behalf.
My first time through, I shamed another character for indulging in a pot brownie. I prioritized all other characters above him, as punishment, and openly blamed him for many mishaps throughout the game. By the end, he shunned me, explaining that he couldn’t even remember why we were friends to begin with. I felt guilty. To be fair, a lot of the enjoyment I get out of these sorts of narrative games is the emotional impact it has on me, but this felt worse than usual. It felt like I had destroyed Alex’s relationship with her best friend.
Repercussions for player decisions are a staple in the narrative game genre. TellTale has perfected this to the point that I often quote their formula of “_____ will remember this” in tabletop RPGs and in my daily life. Oxenfree doesn’t operate on a specific moral compass, and it doesn’t give players any indication of how they’re doing, aside from how other characters respond to Alex’s actions. The goal of games isn’t to imitate life, but the purpose of narrative games is to tell some sort of story, created collaboratively with the player. The story part has always been the most important to me. It’s what makes good games art. That being said Oxenfree achieves many of its narrative goals because it allows the player to inhabit Alex’s life without the added mechanic of numbers or data about decisions made throughout the game. You—like Alex—have no real insight into Ren’s mind, or Jonas’s, or sometimes even your own.
Growing up isn’t a linear experience, and there’s no set life event or age that makes one an adult. Oxenfree is about supernatural things, and time, and how the past affects the present, but it’s also about growing up and how the path to maturity isn’t always clear or neat.
Oxenfree is a game for everyone, not just people who consider themselves “gamers” (if I’m being honest, I hate that term anyway). Some people don’t understand why narrative-based games are popular right now, why fun gameplay isn’t enough for some players. My best argument is that story matters, regardless of how fun the mechanics of a game are. Narrative games like Oxenfree mimic the experience of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, which was one of my favorite types of media as a kid. Making decisions in real life—especially as a teenager—can be difficult. Narrative games allow players to experiment with decision making while also exploring stories about a variety of topics, including growing up (one of my favorite types of tales). Safe spaces for exploration are important for people in general, both teens and adults, and games like Oxenfree are working to make sure more people get the opportunity to play with narrative.
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.