An eerie adolescent adventure sending out the right kinds of signals
Radios have a funny relationship with the supernatural in fiction, don’t they? It could hardly be said to be ‘fear of the unknown’ that prompts their usage; even the smallest child has at least a vague idea of how they work. Yet there’s something about this analogue technology, capable of revealing the hidden signals that perpetually surround us at all times, that makes it an ideal window in narratives for more outlandish, fantastical elements. Tune in to the right frequency in the right place, and out of the pounding waves of white noise, patterns seem to form. Familiar voices? Music? Or just meaningless garbage? Couple that with their usage in wartime systems—where the metal box on a desk could potentially relay a soldier’s dying screams, or a nonsense message containing cryptic instructions, or a monotone synthesised voice reciting a series of numbers over and over—and it’s easy to see how they might be presented in a chilling light. Oxenfree is a teenage supernatural mystery with its sights focussed squarely on this tone, and while it weaves the eerie secrets of the wireless into its narrative in a compelling and remarkably well-presented way, the same can’t be said for its mechanics.
Everything begins, like many ill-fated adventures, with a trip to an isolated locale. You are Alex, an ordinary-ish high school girl teetering on the terrifying brink of graduation, and you’ve taken the ferry to a quiet coastal island with a group of like-minded chums and acquaintances to deal with the impending threat of adulthood in the classical fashion: by drinking yourselves catatonic on an isolated beach by a bonfire. The cast is introduced promptly, with a pretty standard scattering of teen drama archetypes—the quiet one, the prickly one, the chill one, the tough one who’s been through some unspecified rough times—and for a while, at least, the game is happy to let you just slip into the shoes of a young person awkwardly discussing their future with their peers (because I definitely haven’t experienced enough of that already, thanks Oxenfree). Something is definitely up with this island, though: its only living inhabitant passed away only a few days ago, an abandoned military base clings to its cliffs like a sleeping beast of concrete and rebar, and they say that if you stand at the mouth of the beach cave and tune in to the right frequency, you can hear something struggling to be heard above the waterfall of static. Before everybody’s had a chance to get good and drunk, you unwittingly release that something, and thus begins a struggle to keep yourself—and your friends—alive until… well, if not dawn, then at least until the ferry arrives.
Let’s be honest right off the bat: Oxenfree is very much a game dominated by its narrative. You could call it an adventure game, if you really want, but it’s the kind of adventure where most of your input is concerned with nothing more than playing out your role in the events taking place around you. Puzzles occasionally roadblock you, and we’ll get to those in due time, but there’s nothing about them that suggests they’re a particularly intrinsic part of the experience. You could probably take the interactivity out of Oxenfree entirely without it suffering too badly, and yet I’m still glad it’s there. It’s easy to look at a linear narrative with minimal gameplay and ask why it couldn’t have been a movie, or a book, or a series of three-panel comics on the back of cereal boxes, but I don’t want any of those things. I want to play as Alex, even if the definition of ‘play’ in this instance is to just walk and talk until we can all go home.
I suspect I partially owe this to Oxenfree’s lovely dialogue system, which is the closest I’ve seen a game get to simulating what it’s like to have a natural conversation with actual human beings. Dialogue trees are all very useful for extracting every last titbit of quest information from an innkeeper as you both stand poker-straight facing one another, but their inherent structure is so rigid and systemic that even Cleverbot wouldn’t call it a real discussion. Changing topic isn’t as simple as picking another menu option unless you happen to be in a court hearing, and nobody in the history of humanity has abruptly cut off a discussion with simply “I have to go”, unless their next course of action was to call the police and bolt all the doors on whoever they just finished talking to. Real conversation flows, diverts, and relies on everybody involved to support and steer it, and that’s exactly how Oxenfree approaches things.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about how your input is handled—picking A, B or C from a list of predetermined, distinct responses—but what matters is the way it’s worked into dialogue. You aren’t the driving force behind every conversation; you’re a participant, mired in the same social conventions as everybody else. The game doesn’t stop everybody in their tracks so you can deliberate over your choice of words; your chance just organically presents itself, often as little more than a minor break in the chatter, and if you can’t decide on what to say in time then you simply won’t speak up at all. It’s a very human way of doing things that more or less obscures the invisible flow-charts driving every exchange. Still, the system isn’t without its stumbling blocks: often your options are presented while somebody else is still talking, and it’s completely ambiguous whether picking your response early will cause you to politely wait for them to finish or just sharply cut them off like they were about to reveal what they caught you doing in the shower block on summer camp. The end result is identical, of course, but I’m invested in playing this role, alright? I’d like to have some fine control over it.
It helps that the dialogue itself has clearly been written by an actual human being, rather than a committee of wastepaper baskets that achieved sentience by absorbing a phenomenal amount of discarded Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction. I find it hard to believe that anybody in the group talks like an authentic teenager—not enough memeing, for one thing—but given that that would probably make them about as likeable as a swarm of horseflies, I’m prepared to accept ‘twenty-something with a propensity for saying “like”’ as a reasonable substitute. The game focusses on the relationships between the characters as much as it focusses on the supernatural forces—normal person relationships, not awkward stumbling adolescent romance, thank god—and this opens the door on a lot of rather humanising conversations that are a joy to engage in. It’s not just a case of choosing an option and seeing where it takes you, either; there’s an opaque system of some kind working in the rafters that invisibly gauges how everybody is feeling towards one another—occasionally making itself known with a little thought bubble above characters’ heads—and at the end of the game it lets you know how you stacked up against everybody else who played, pie charts and all. It’s a little bolted-on, I suppose, but it does remind you that you’re not playing in a void.