Mulder, it’s me…I think you’re going to want to play this game.
Founded by former TellTale developers and Disney alumni, “Night School Studio” has truly knocked it out of the park with their debut title, Oxenfree. This supernatural thriller feels like an eerie assembly of Life is Strange and The X-Files and is complemented by a wonderfully poppy synth soundtrack (http://scntfc.bandcamp.com/album/oxenfree) and beautiful cartoony art style that almost immediately reminded me of Double Fine’s Psychonauts.
It won’t take long before you are hooked on Oxenfree. This spooky side-scroller begins on a ferry where you meet your leading lady Alex, her new step-brother Jonas and old pal Ren. The game establishes itself very quickly and in the first few minutes you are introduced to the dynamic relationships between characters and the witty banter that persists throughout the narrative. Playing as blue-haired Alex, Oxenfree invites you to a friendly island camp on an abandoned ex-military base turned tourist trap. Five teenagers plan on a night of drinking and partying but are interrupted when they unleash a terrifying paranormal force by means of a pocket radio belonging to Alex. Alex’s radio becomes a surprisingly prominent instrument as the game progresses and she uses the device to solve puzzles and reveal secrets scattered around the island.
It is difficult to review this game without revealing too much of the plot, it is, after all best played without spoilers as unravelling the mystery of the island’s disturbing history is arguably the most exciting feature.
Speaking of features, Oxenfree does not offer much in the way of platforming or skill-based character control but instead invites you to manipulate dialogue by selecting one of two or three options or by saying nothing at all during conversations. These selections ultimately branch into good choices and bad choices and influence the course of the narrative in a number of ways.
The nature of the choices you make may even alter the ending in quite a significant way, testing your problem-solving abilities while under pressure and even your moral compass. It is up to the player whether they embrace the character’s backstory or not. The dialogue options facilitate things like opening up about Alex’s past or asking about Jonas’ parents for example but you can just as easily choose to say something else or nothing at all. Similarly, you have the opportunity to shape Alex’s nature, for example, by being sarcastic or encouraging, snapping at Alex’s friends or comforting them during some of the more tense sequences which Oxenfree has to offer.
You will find yourself reacting very naturally to some circumstances and then really having to think about others, persistently hoping you will make a good decision and regretting it immediately when you realise you haven’t. Unfortunately, there is little room to rectify mistakes if the dialogue timer runs out or you happen to hit the wrong button (twice, in a panic!). Doubt over your own decisions makes for a theatrical proceeding of events and there is rarely a dull moment during game-play.
Oxenfree maintains an eerie atmosphere, indulging you with an awesome pop-synth soundtrack, as previously mentioned and ghostly forest sounds.
Oxenfree is incredibly driven by these dialogue options and if you’re not patient enough to wade through hefty lumps of it, one after the other, Oxenfree may not be for you. If, however, listening to chatter for minutes at a time with little input doesn’t bother you, the script is incredibly well written, witty and is often as thought provoking and emotive as it is humorous.
A well-written script falls short when it is not delivered equally as well but the outstanding voice acting by Brittani Johnson (Tales from the Borderlands) and Gavin Hammon (The Walking Dead) really enliven our protagonists, Alex and Jonas, and you may find yourself becoming quite attached to the pair. In addition, the dialogue maintains a natural conversation rhythm as characters stutter, correct themselves, interject and occasionally talk over one another.
You may find yourself missing a character who was hardly present in the game itself but whose identity was crafted by the memories and comments shared by other characters. It is a strange sensation to connect with a character who is unknown to the player but important to other characters but Oxenfree manages to evoke a spectrum of emotional responses during its course and this was one of many feelings that will surprise you as you advance.
Before the credits roll, Alex delivers a short speech, during which the player discovers what percentage of other plays made decisions similar to their own. You may be perpetually reviewing the choices you made throughout the game and hoping you had made the ‘right’ ones.
Good news for fans of Oxenfree: writer Robert Kirkman, best known for creating The Walking Dead for Image Comics, is currently working in conjunction with Night School Studio to launch a film adaptation and web docu-series based on the game.
From Mark Twain references to snappy jump scares, ultimately, Oxenfree is a deliciously unnerving interactive narrative with relatively simple puzzles, light platforming and a captivating supernatural mystery begging to be solved. Oxenfree is an excellent debut for the budding Night School Studio and we look forward to their next venture.