It’s hard not to admire what Oxenfree is trying to do. And in many ways it succeeds. Once the credits rolled however, it left me wanting more, but, sadly, not in a good way.
For years now there’s been a debate in the world of video games as to whether or not games should try to be like movies. Some say yes, while others say no, games should be like games. On the ‘yes’ side there are the distinctly cinematic games, like the titles Telltale has become known for. Oxenfree takes the same narrative adventure genre and approaches it from the other side of the spectrum.
As non-cinematic as a graphical game likely can be, Oxenfree is a 2D sidescroller in which the camera is pulled far back. So far back in fact, it doesn’t even matter whether the characters mouths are moving when they talk, because you can’t see it one way or another. A notable design choice from the onset, the zoomed-out view manages to give the gorgeous painting-esque background more of a focus, and emphasizes the real important aspect of the game, the dialogue choices.
Players step into the shoes of Alex, a teenage girl who is headed to an island for a party with her friends and her new stepbrother, Jonas. As the group explores the empty island and discovers/unleashes a paranormal terror, they talk. And that witty, interesting back and forth is what’s at the center of Oxenfree.
There are no puzzles or anything to impede the player, just the choices and consequences built into the interplay between Alex and the four other characters. Presented through options popping up in minimalistic speech bubbles above Alex’s head, the conversation rarely stops, possible inputs coming and going quickly as the other characters continue to talk with each other. To its credit, the dialogue is handled masterfully. Though the idea of interrupting characters, or simply not saying anything, isn’t new to the genre, Oxenfree makes the interactions, and the resulting flow of conversation, smoother and more naturally fluid than almost any other game.
That’s not to say the system is perfect though. The fact you can walk to the complete opposite side of an area while still carrying on a normal conversation with someone, who’s no longer even on screen, upsets the level of realistic human interaction promised by the core mechanics of the game.
The rapid, participate-or-not back and forth only works due to the drawn back camera angle, insuring facial animations, for instance, don’t get in the way of being able to say something at any moment. The unfortunate side effect is then that it’s left solely to the voice acting to convey the entirety of the emotion involved in any given scene. While the voice acting is phenomenal, it’s a similar case to film actors performing entire roles with masks on, a feat of which only some of the best actors in the world are truly capable. Simply put, even the most emotionally charged arguments or confessions in Oxenfree pack less of a punch because the player is quite literally removed from the situation, observing it from a long ways off.
Due to this, regardless of how attached and involved I got in the lives of Alex and her friends, the tough choices I had to make just never felt all that tough. I never agonized over a decision or grew emotionally invested in the things happening. The characters are fully realized, believable teenagers with distinct personalities, histories, secrets, desires, and everything else you could ever ask for from a fictional character. But it felt as if their interactions and relationships were always something I was merely spectating, not deeply engaging in.
Despite its flaws, the strength of the dialogue and characters would be more than enough to make Oxenfree well-worth playing, if only the remaining framework of the game was up to par. From very early on it’s made clear the island Alex and her friends are trapped on is unquestionably haunted. The remainder of the game is then spent simply dealing with it, rounding up everyone and finding a way to escape. For a narrative driven game, the sad truth is, beyond the character relationships, there’s just not all that much narrative there.
Much like last year’s Life is Strange, the game introduces time-travel to proceedings. While Life is Strange used time-travel as a part of the story and the gameplay, adding a new spin to the choice-based branching narrative formula, Oxenfree just doesn’t manage to do anything quite as interesting. Save for one point, the time travel is more something that happens to the characters than it is an element giving the player more interesting things to do.
And finally, that brings me to one the only element of Oxenfree I truly can’t find the good intention behind. In the latter half of the game, after the player has already been through the entirety of the island, its revealed that there’s a set of collectable letters, explaining the history of the haunted island, spread out and hidden everywhere. What this actually means in practice however is that the letters are now sitting on the ground throughout the entire map, where the player has already been. To find them means backtracking. Everywhere.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be as inexcusable if it wasn’t simple enough to see there are letters to collect (a tab for it on the pause menu) from the beginning of the game. This caused me personally to have already explored looking for them. As it is though, introducing the potentially narrative rich collectibles only near the end of the game comes off as a seemingly shameless attempt to pad the game’s playtime and utterly disrespectful to the player. Making matters worse, since all dialogue and interaction is tied to progression, backtracking comes complimented with an absolutely silent group of characters, making it feel all the more out of place in the rest of the game.
I am never one to complain about how long or short a game is. If it presents an emotional, engaging experience that feels fresh and intriguing, a game could be only minutes long for all I care. After finishing my four and half hours with Oxenfree though, I was left with a hollow feeling, not affected emotionally one way or another, and with many of my questions still unanswered. This was only exasperated by the fact the game crashed twice during that time.
While well written, exceedingly well acted, and witty, the dialogue and the character interaction can only do so much. It’s an interesting, potentially incredible system worth seeing, but more than anything, it makes me intrigued to see what developer Night School Studio will do next. Hopefully they will iterate and fill in around the gem hidden at the heart of Oxenfree.