As the title hopefully makes clear, the iron is a bit cold for striking where this game is concerned. Night School Studio’s Oxenfree originally released over a year ago, but I only actually completed it in early January of this year. I first played the game in Autumn 2016. Despite really enjoying the initial hour or so that I put it in, it fell by the wayside as I got distracted by some of the big triple AAA-season releases that always land around that time of year. I never completely forgot about it though, and just over a month ago I started a fresh play-through. I had intended to space it out over two nights (it’s about 4-5 hours long) but was so engrossed that I played the entire game in one sitting. Yawns aplenty the next morning in work be damned! It’s never been far from my mind since, so I decided to put a few thoughts down on digital paper despite missing the boat (in this case “ferry” might be a bit more appropriate) a bit.
Note: This isn’t a plot breakdown or anything, but there will be a fair share of spoilers throughout.
Oxenfree opens with you playing as teenager Alex who, alongside her lifelong friend Ren and freshly acquired step-brother Jonas, is on a ferry. The three are headed to nearby Edwards Island: once host to military base Fort Milner and an army communications school, now a tourist trap and infamous party spot for the kids in Alex’s high school. Upon arrival the gang makes for the beach, picking up two more of their classmates, Nona and Clarissa, along the way. Some teen angst shenanigans around a game of truth or dare ensue before things take a turn for the spooky. Ren knows of a mysterious anomaly in a nearby cave involving the interception of odd radio signals. Following his lead, Alex manipulates said signals, leading to Jonas entering the cave and Alex chasing after him. This culminates in some of Alex’s radio horseplay expanding a bizarre multicoloured triangle while some unknown entity communicates with the kids through the radio. The pair wake up outside the island’s radio tower, nowhere near the cave. Separated from their friends, who they soon learn have also been mysteriously misplaced around the island, they soon find out just what their actions have unleashed as they try to gather everyone back together and escape the island. All the while, time itself begins to loop over and ghostly voices continue to reach out to them through the radio...
The game regularly prompts you to choose from a selection of responses for Alex to say when conversing with the other teens, which in turn impacts on the cast’s relationships with each other. Opportunities for drama are always on the table and the fraught situation (and hormones) can lead to tensions running high. Ren has a crush on Nona and based on your choices in Alex’s shoes, he may confess his feelings to her or keep mum. It’s obvious from her introduction that Clarissa is not Alex’s biggest fan, the reason why quickly becoming apparent and also placing Alex’s relationship with Jonas in a new light: Clarissa is the former girlfriend of Alex’s beloved late brother Michael. The player’s choices over the course of the game will decide whether or not Clarissa and Alex learn how to cope with their loss and each other. You can choose to accept Jonas as Alex’s new friend and family member or alienate him. As you may have guessed by this point, Oxenfree has a number of potential endings.
One of the absolute standout factors of this game for me is how it looks and sounds. The art style is gorgeous, like a more-mature looking Gravity Falls. Characters are crisp and wonderfully animated in their environments. Speaking of which, various locales of Edwards Island are striking and absorbing: whether you’re standing outside the Main Street’s twee gift-shop or exploring the remains of Fort Milner, each spot has a strong sense of identity. If I had one complaint, it would be that objects can sometimes get lost in the expanse of the 2-D environments, mainly as a result of the zoomed-out perspective in which the game is rendered in. Despite its cartoonish aesthetic, this game achieves some truly scary moments: the unsettling possession of Ren by the island’s entity and the first time-loop Alex and Jonas experience, featuring a ghostly game of passing a football back and forth seemingly with no one, spring to mind. Speaking of time-loops, they often use a grainy, worn out VHS effect, a bit of horror cliche I’ll admit but still effective at giving me the heebie-jeebies.
Let’s do the time-loop again...
Then there’s the audio. The voice-acting is so earnest and believable, drawing you into the conversations these kids have and lending extra impact to each revelation, joke or hurtful remark. The music always fits the scene: a mixture of lighter upbeat tracks and distorted, sinister synth, always matched to the scene the game is playing out. It’s not overbearing and sometimes there is no music at all when the atmosphere doesn’t require it. Manipulating the strange signals found throughout the island is some of the best use of audio horror I have ever experienced in a game. Towards the end, I experienced a mixture of excitement and dread whenever I pulled out the radio as the transmissions being intercepted got more and more chilling. Considering communication is one of the primary themes presented in Oxenfree (from the island’s history, to the conversations between Alex and her companions and the broadcasts to and from the ghostly voices on the other end of the radio) sound serves such an important role in this game. I feel like the audio presented in Oxenfree is one of the most important parts of its identity.
I’ll tell you what’s really scary though: the unknown. Not what you’ve seen or heard, but what you might have. There are a number of times where the game challenges your visual perception; maybe it was just me, but I always felt like the strangely human-shaped mark left behind after the football time loop I mentioned earlier looked like it was watching me with beady red eyes. It is more present in the audio though: I found myself replaying intercepted signals again and again, trying to figure out what I was hearing, getting drawn further and further into the game as a result. Edwards Island has its own history, heavily associated with radio communications technology and the military, some of which can be pieced together by finding letters scattered throughout the island by Margaret Adler, a deceased, former resident of the island and communications officer during its time as a military base in WWII, with direct ties to the entity that the kids interact with throughout the game. Oxenfree lets you figure out a lot of what’s going on, but enough is left up to interpretation to keep aspects of the mystery alive, which has in turn sparked many a message-board debate as players attempted to piece together the full story. If a game built around a mystery is able to achieve that kind of interest then I think it stands as a testament to a job well done. At numerous points throughout the experience, you pick up a transmission of a song that Alex’s stepbrother Jonas’ late mother used to sing to him. As the game progresses and you learn more about the nature of the mysterious entity, it becomes more and more likely that it is just a manipulation tactic used by the specters of the island to achieve their goals - but I never found out for certain. Towards the end, you have the choice of indulging the understandably distraught and intrigued Jonas in listening to the song one last time, trying to communicate with what may be his mother or telling him to ignore it as a likely ploy by the entity to push on through to the game’s climax. I chose the later and honestly I think it was the right choice, passing an emotional hurdle placed by the game. I don’t know for certain though and I’ve realized since that I don’t want to, choosing instead to keep one of its many conundrums alive in my mind.
As horror games go, Oxenfree relies less on jump-scares (it has some, through which effective use of audio once again is the standout) and more on piecing together the island’s history and how the bizarre circumstance that played out there now place the cast of teens in genuine, terrifying peril. It’s hard not to empathize with Alex and Co. as they gradually figure out the intentions of the radio voices and then race to escape the fate they have in store for them. If you’ve never felt like something with more power than you has placed you in an uncomfortable or even scary situation that you feel you must escape from you are either a) said higher power in which cause I’m your number one fan, spare me the guillotine or b) clinically dead, give your pulse a quick check to be sure. Despite its fantastical paranormal implications, Oxenfree is rooted in all-too-human emotions and flaws which I found to be genuine and relatable. Every character introduced throughout the story - from the teens to Irene and even the entity itself - are portrayed as complex, neither truly good or evil, their motivations and reactions presenting multiple points of view from which to be understood.
Kids these days and their selfies I tell ya.
In my opinion jump-scares are a garnish: effective at moment-to-moment horror, but not enough to leave a long-term impact. What this game achieved for me is a lasting impression. The plight of Alex, Jonas, Ren, Nona, Clarisa and those associated with Edwards Island lives on in my mind, still piquing my interest and thought over a month after completing the game and surely inviting me to play through again soon. I won’t spoil the ending I got (and bear in mind there are multiple depending on how you play) but there is one common aspect of all of them (bar the super secret one of course!) that made my eyes widen, the controller go limp in my hands and left me motionless for a few moments in the early hours of that morning while the credits rolled.
Do yourself a favour. If you love great sound design, games with complex and relatable characters, and solving mysteries or horror games that think outside of the box, play this game. It’s not very long, it’s not very difficult and it is 100% worth experiencing. It’s available on Windows, Mac, Linux, Xbox One and PS4 (which is what I played it on). Oh and one more thing:
As the title hopefully makes clear, the iron is a bit cold for striking where this game is concerned. Night School Studio’s Oxenfree originally released over a year ago, but I only actually completed it in early January of this year. I first played the game in Autumn 2016...