Oxenfree from Night School Studios got the distinct honor of ranking number four on my Top 10 Videogames I Didn’t Get to Play in 2016 list. I had originally tried buying the game during the Christmas holiday sale, but this was back when my Xbox One decided to stop working when it came to accessing the store and other menu options, and so I moved on. Then, thanks to the Humble Day of the Devs 2016 bundle, I got a copy on Steam for a few bucks, but just never got around to installing and/or launching it. Thankfully, my waiting and reluctance-ness paid off, as Oxenfree is a Games with Gold freebie for this month, which means I got to play it comfortably from the couch with a controller in my hand. Woo, go me, go waiting.
What is Oxenfree? Y’know, other than a word most famously known for its use as a catchphrase in hide and go seek. Well, it’s a supernatural thriller starring a group of teenage friends who accidentally open up a ghostly rift on Edwards Island. You play as blue-haired Alex, and you’ve just brought your new stepbrother Jonas to this overnight island party that quickly goes horribly wrong. Also there is Clarissa, who used to date Alex’s deceased older brother, Ren, a light-hearted stoner, and Nona, a shy being that may or may not have feelings for a certain pot brownie-loving, easily excitable goofball. It’s kind of a point-and-click adventure, but with little pointing and clicking and more wandering around the island, chatting with your friends, and solving radio-based puzzles to battle ghosts and close time loops. Also, gorgeous background art.
Ultimately, Oxenfree is a game primarily about conversation. Thankfully, there’s a simple and extremely effective speech-bubble interface for all of these interactions, with each dialogue choice tied to a respective button on the Xbox One controller: X, Y, or B. This allows you to still walk around a scene and interact with items or climb platforms using A while people speak around you. You can also, much like in every Telltale Games title these days, stay completely silent and not pick a response, and there’s even an Achievement for doing this all the way to the credits, tough as that might be.
Here’s what makes the talking in Oxenfree interesting–characters are constantly chatting, and it is up to you to have Alex respond at the sort of tempo that would be home in a true-to-life conversation. This means you can interrupt someone or wait until they are done to say your piece, and each action feels just as natural as the other. There’s no pausing and waiting, you need to react quickly and naturally, and if you don’t, the conversation moves on without you. This realism can lead to frustrating moments where you simply don’t have time to respond accordingly or you can accidentally cut off someone mid-sentence and never know what they were planning to say in the end. Thankfully, the writing and voiceover work is strong, full of charismatic and everyday voices from industry staples like Erin Yvette as Alex, Gavin Hammon as Jonas, and Britanni Johnson as Nona. These definitely feel like teens talking like teens.
Oxenfree is short and punchy, but I expected that. A couple hours at most, but I played it in two separate sessions. It doesn’t waste time, which is a funny statement when you understand that several of its puzzle sequences are about being stuck in a Groundhog Day loop. These scenarios are easily solved through repeating actions, and the only real puzzles involve Alex and her portable radio, which can be tuned to specific stations. Find the right one, lock in on it, and open up a channel to communicate with the angry, vindictive ghosts of Edwards Island. The “glitchy” effects and how you continue to interact with a scene going topsy-turvy and quickly changing from one second to the next are unreal and captivating. I also found a lot of the ghosts, especially when taking over one of Alex’s friends’ bodies, to be extremely unnerving though I’d never call this a horror game.
Endings are where it matters most in Oxenfree, and I don’t know how many there ultimately all and refuse to look it up, but there’s definitely more than one. I am happy with the one I got. Based on your conversations with friends and actions taken, you can end up with some hating you or falling in love with others by the time credits roll. My choices resulted in a mixed bag of outcomes. Often with games like this, I usually stick to one single playthrough and cement it in my memory as the only way that story could have unfolded because, to me, that’s how it all went down. Though I am very much interested in a second go-around where Alex is mute and doesn’t react at all to the terrifying things happening around her.