Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree
October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit. For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games. Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful. For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page. First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.
Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island. During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry. The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.
The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree. Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael. Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.
Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold. Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player. Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.
The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile. When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select. The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent. Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking. And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.
As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress. At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur. Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay. These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge. The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments. It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.
Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing. What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa. I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this. Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary. There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension. Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough. It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story. As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.
But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it. A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either. The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game. Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had. By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment. It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.
I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree. I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game. I did enjoy many parts of it. But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities. Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it. I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do. You know, I can only ever really speak for myself. Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case. Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone. However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series. It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.