Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

 

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Posted on October 6, 2016, in Essays, Halloween Gaming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. It was on Steam sale the other day for a hell of a low price in my opinion. I really enjoyed this game, the ending left me quite interested if you know what I mean (no spoilers!).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Looks like a nice game for players that enjoy figuring out the “right” dialogue lines.

    Btw, if you’re looking for more games for this year Halloween series, I’ve heard some positive reviews on The Final Station but haven’t played it yet, maybe you’d feel like giving it a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your recommendation. I actually had never heard of The Final Station. I already have a plan for the games I’m going to post this month, but I’ve put this game on my Steam wishlist for later. It reminds me of another game that was recently released. Have you ever heard of Death Road to Canada?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t heard of Death Road to Canada but looked it up on Steam and it seems to be fun. Randomly generated story is an interesting twist. And it’s also nice to have a local multiplayer to play with friends.

        Unlike Death Road, The Final Station is quite linear (so far).

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  3. I know I will play it sooner or later, looks promising and I’ve read great thing (trying to avoid spoilers).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This looks like a fun game to get me in the mood for October Halloween shenanigans. Thanks for a great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have not played this played this game. I find the story interesting, four friends being placed in a terrifying situation, while discovering the history of the location, and the mechanics of the conversations. I was also interested in your opinions about horror fiction. With computer games, I feel it is difficult to create a sense of tension as the player has control over the character (unlike horror films where the viewer is forced to follow the characters into scary situations) and easily scared players would stop playing the game before reaching the terrifying parts. The graphics do look too cartoony to be scary though.
    How do the time loops occur? What happens when they are reached? Does the story provide an in-depth history of the island? How does timing the responses affect the conversations? How do the different conversation responses affect the story? I remember the horror games from last year and enjoyed reading the reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought the graphics were fairly appropriate for the game. It’s not so much a gruesome type of horror, but more a tale of ghostly possession, and as such I didn’t think it needed a particularly high level of detail. The time loops occur at specific points in the story at specific areas. In a time loop, every time you try to leave an area, you reappear at the beginning and events play out slightly differently (usually more disturbing) with each time you go through the loop. The island actually is given a very detailed back story, and since its a tourist destination, there are little sign posts in each area that give the player some history on the island. Timing the responses is mostly about not interrupting other characters. If you speak too soon, you might cut off somebody else while they’re talking and miss an important piece of information or annoy them. Based on how your relationship is with each character at the end (based on your conversation choices), the final part of the story is slightly different.

      I’m glad you enjoyed last years posts!

      Like

  6. I really enjoyed this game. I didn’t find it scary, as such, but I thought it was tense – especially at the beginning, and maybe the first time the time loop happens. It did lose some of that tension as it went on, I feel, but it still had me gripped until the end. I even started replaying it straight away to try and work out a way to escape ‘the ending!’

    The conversation system and great voice acting make it worth a purchase all on its own, IMO. But then, I am really into story driven, dialogue heavy adventures, and I’m a fan of ‘walking simulators,’ so maybe it’s no surprise that I would say that…

    Like

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