I certainly enjoyed frolicking through the creepy, demented island paradise of Oxenfree, but its odd design choices, unfortunately, set it a few steps behind its narrative and dialogue-driven colleagues.
Do you like the 80s? Do you enjoy films like E.T. and all those other classic Spielberg sci-fi stories. Or maybe you’re more a fan of the horror films, where a group of oblivious teenagers are forced into an inescapable whirlwind of spooks and scares of the supernatural kind. Or maybe you’re more the type who just wants to play a narrative-driven video game with a rock-solid atmosphere. Whatever it is you like, I have a strong feeling that Oxenfree will be able to fulfil some kind of preference you might have.
That very distinct 80s feel is apparent throughout the 4 hour run-time of Oxenfree, even in the opening scene. First we notice that the main characters are a group of teenagers, so check that off the list. Then that sweet, synth soundtrack begins to play, and they start talking about how they’re going to have a great time partying and getting drunk together on a remote, abandoned island, while their parents believe they are somewhere else entirely. The set-up here isn’t anything majorly new, but certainly evokes that nostalgia we all so dearly love. I, myself, am not a quote-unquote 80s kid, but I was a huge fan of last year’s Stranger Things, I did enjoy watching E.T. and, while I do recognise their flaws, there is something weirdly lovable about films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street.
Meanwhile, Oxenfree does share a lot of similarities to a lot of these things, but it never feels like a rip-off of past work. Unlike Stranger Things, where some sequences do come dangerously close to downright plagiarism, Oxenfree never feels like anything more than a skilfully-crafted homage to those times. And skilfully-crafted this game is; from the beautiful hand-painted backgrounds to the extremely well-animated and lively character models, there’s a certain level of polish, of time and care, that really shows off the wonderful talent sunk into this game. Looking at screenshots and clips of the game should be more than enough to strike your fancy.
Another aspect of narrative-driven games that is a requirement in order for your project to succeed is the characters and the writing that defines their personalities. Thankfully, this writing is fantastic. It’s one of those stories where the backstories of not only your character, Alex, but the characters around you are unravelled gradually through cleverly crafted dialogue and subtleties. Your feelings towards some characters may well change as time passes, and that, in my personal opinion, is a sign that you have done something truly interesting. Quite honestly, the actual plot here involving ghosts and other dimensions and alternate realities…it’s just not important. What this game is really about is telling these individual’s stories and allowing the player to make their own mind up. There’s no amazing hero or despicable villain — there’s simply people with flaws and problems, warts and all. The “time loops” that appear time and again serve less to progress the story, and more to unveil the inner workings of these damaged people, all interconnected by a huge event Alex may have caused herself. It’s perfectly paced, it’s perfectly acted, it’s all…brilliant! It truly, truly is! Which is why the system that it’s inevitably tied to is so frustrating.
I’ll just say it: Oxenfree’s dialogue system is indisputably fucked. Not just broken fucked, which it is in some areas, but fucked due to a bafflingly odd design choice by the developers. You see, this is another game with multiple dialogue options to choose from, a la Telltale Games or BioWare, and like Telltale Games specifically, you have a limited time to choose what you want you character. That in and of itself isn’t my main concern — Telltale tends to give the player exactly the right amount of time to assess the situation and come to a decision, or even the opposite, inputting a heavy feeling of panic and tension to a conversation —; my biggest issue with Oxenfree is that this time given is just too fast. The dialogue is designed in such a way that your options will appear for a time, but disappear the moment the other character finishes talking, or very soon after that. This extremely tight window becomes frustrating fast, as I found myself having to make huge decisions with barely any time to think about it and assess how said decision would affect my relationships with the various characters, and the relationships between one another. There’s a big decision to make about two-thirds of the way in, during a moment of real tension due to all the weird shit going on around us, and as I listened in to what the characters were saying and their various reasons as to which way I should lean, all of a sudden the option was gone and the game made a decision for me. By the end of the game, you realise that was the best decision to be made at the time, which got me thinking: what if the game did that on purpose? What if the developers wanted me to get the best possible ending, and so deliberately made it difficult to make that decision on the first run? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wanted a good ending for all the characters in this game just as much as anyone else, but once the game begins to feel manipulative, it sort of loses its magic for me.
Then again, that’s probably a big, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory that I’ve managed to conjure up in my over-analysing mind, so don’t worry about that too much. The point remains, however, that this dialogue is still poorly designed, and the problems don’t stop there. There was another decision entirely which may well have affected my relationship with the character in particular, Clarissa, by the end of the game. Once again, there was a decision to be made that the player is given extremely little time to process, but afterwards I was required to stand up and walk over to Clarissa. However, I genuinely couldn’t due to a glitch where I was unable to leave the sitting position I had put myself in. Weirdly enough, afterwards when I was required to move again, the game took me out of that position for me. This bizarre glitch wasn’t the only one. There were multiple instances of other characters trapped in an endless climbing animation that moved them nowhere. Another instances involved a magical floating drink. While I would never call the game buggy or broken, these issues did persist throughout.
On top of the aforementioned odd dialogue system, there’s a few instances of overlapping lines where they shouldn’t be, and characters’ lines cutting short for me in some cases, but not in others. I presume the desired effect is to have the character finish speaking before whatever dialogue option the player chooses begins, but if that’s the case, that mechanic needs serious fixing. Another inconsistency is whether or not the player can interact with objects during conversations. During the first hour or so, this isn’t an issue: you can keep listening to the characters chat or you can change the subject entirely. But as I progressed through the game, there were a couple of moments where I was unable to find the object which would move the plot along, meaning a lot of backtracking ensued.
These little inconsistencies and issues may not seem like much, but they detrimentally destroy the brilliant atmosphere and mystery I was initially fully immersed in. In a narrative-driven game like Oxenfree, it shouldn’t be too difficult to nail the overall very simplistic gameplay down. Controlling the radio was also a pain with a mouse and keyboard, and based on the fact this was an ID@XBOX game, I assume the gameplay was designed to be more suited for a controller. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong! It’s just a little frustrating when it takes a while to find the right frequency during a scene where time feels of the essence.
But at the end of the day, the most important aspect of a dialogue-heavy video game is, of course, the dialogue and how it tells a story and develops its characters. Ultimately, if that’s the thing you’re looking for, Oxenfree is absolutely worth its £15 price tag. I think this game’s immense popularity is less down to its fantastic writing, and more so due to the nostalgia it evokes. That seems to be the trend in recent years, not only in films and TV shows, but in video games too (list some games on the screen with their user ratings on Steam). And if that’s the way indie games are headed, the cynic in me is desperately crying loud, ‘please stop this! We need original content!’ But the gamer inside of me could not agree less.