WARNING: serious spoilers ahead. This is the kind of game you do not want spoiled. If you've not played the game at all, or are playing and haven't yet completed, I thoroughly advise you do not read any further. Yes, I wrote this exact same message for Undertale - yes, it's a similar level of don't-spoil-me-please-I-really-want-to-enjoy-this-game.

The forceful removal of an ignorant people to make space for destined holders is a time-honoured tradition in our still-young country. And you will be a part of that heritage, Alex. Do not resist.

Amongst all the new video games I've put my hands on in the last couple of years, Oxenfree is one of the more gripping. Initially released in 2016 by indie developer Night School Studios, Oxenfree is a supernatural/horror-themed 2.5D point-and-click adventure game that is now out on all current major gaming platforms and all three major PC operating systems via Steam. The player assumes control of teenager Alex. Alex, her step-brother Jonas, and her friends Ren, Clarissa, and Nona travel to (the fictional) Edwards Island for a night of drinking and partying. Alex, Jonas, and Ren decide to explore a nearby cave, whereupon Alex tunes in her radio to a frequency that sets off the opening of a dimensional rift and communication with disembodied voices. The five teens wake up on separate parts of the island, with only Alex and Jonas remaining together. The pair quickly set about finding the others, but the supernatural events have only just started.

It's been a while since I found a video game that made me take time away from Overwatch. So what has it got that Overwatch doesn't? The game is a heavily story- and dialogue-based game, with minimal puzzles, zero inventory (save a very small number of Macguffins), and virtually no HUD. In fact, your core mechanic is conversation. Where many story-based games opt for cutscenes and strict timing for your dialogue choices (if any), Oxenfree instead has (almost) zero cutscenes. The dialogue choices are limited to (mostly) three, but you can choose when to say things - at times interrupting the other characters if you wish - or simply not saying anything at all. Furthermore, at every point during the game (except for menus and loading screens) you can walk and talk - you're free to move around, with the obvious exception that you still can't walk through walls. Almost everything to do with the endings is determined by your choices in conversation, with only one major decision coming right at the end of the story. There's a good chunk of endings you can get, but notably none of them are "game over" - only what you choose for Alex's friends, and possibly Alex's brother who, in-story, died some time ago.

And speaking of dialogue: the game stars teenagers and basically nobody else. The bulk of the writing that isn't advancing the storyline is very typical teenage talk, although without copious use of words such as "like". It starts with a beach party (albeit with only five members) with booze and a variant of Truth Or Dare, two of them may or may not end up dating after protracted "I like you. Like, like like you" conversations, and there are discussions of school and college. It's something of a coming-of-age narrative which does pretty well, considering the game lasts 12 hours of in-game time. There's also the possibility that you'll get suckered into an exploration of loss as the game discusses Alex's brother Michael's death (Michael is also Clarissa's ex-boyfriend, defining most of the latter's personality) and, to a lesser extent, Jonas' mother's death. One thing I lacked from my first playthrough was a sufficient explanation as to exactly what happened to Michael - accusations are flung, mostly from Clarissa to Alex, but there's no observer-independent explanation provided. At least in the version of events I got. Seems the game wanted Alex's flashbacks to be almost utopian, albeit delving into mood whiplash territory.

What of the horror element? Through exploration of the in-game world, it's possible to uncover a fair chunk of the reason you're being haunted. Edwards Island was a military base in World War II, at which the submarine Kanaloa was struck by friendly fire. The nuclear implosion (it's always bloody nukes) caused a dimensional rift which trapped the people on board - nearly a hundred of them - a dimensional rift which can be opened up by radio waves. Guess who brought a radio to Edwards Island? And guess what the trapped sailors (or their ghosts) want to do to Alex and the gang? It's put forward as the ghosts wanting to gain their lives back, by force if necessary (or whatever force ghosts can produce). So it's a bit less black-and-white than "scary guys bad, meek guys good", especially since the ghosts start becoming more friendly towards Alex as the night goes on. And hell, the story is a fascinating one to uncover if you're playing for the first time (which I hope you're not, if you've read beyond the warning at the top of the node).

Oh, and as for jumpscares: they only kind-of exist. It's easy to get past them as all they're adding is a touch of tension, story-wise - they're most certainly not game-defining mechanics. Still not particularly best to play at night unless you really like the atmosphere.

I've spoken at length about the writing more than the mechanics because that's more-or-less what this game is. An interactive novel, movie, comic book even. The writing is rather good and I'd say this game belongs squarely in the category of "video games as art". It's not meant to be played as a hardcore PvP or even an arcade game for points, but as a story. Perhaps that's why I liked it so much. Games that can pull this off are rare in the wake of growing eSports popularity. The indie games market seems to be full of story-based games, but few I've seen are on the same scale as Oxenfree.

  • Graphics: 7/10 2.5D models on (the very well-drawn) 2D pictures - it's a touch jarring.
  • Sound: 9/10 The soundtrack (by scntfc) is incredible. Another one I've been listening to AFK.
  • Playability1: 9/10 Easy to pick up and play with reasonably intuitive controls.
  • Lastability: 7/10 It's easy to want more from this game, and it delivers, but second and subsequent playthroughs can feel like a grind.
  • Plot: 9/10 The game opts to keep teenagers as teenagers, but removes a lot of the almost-stereotypical vapidity often seen in other fiction.
  • Overall: 41/50 = 8.2/10 A very solid game, very well worth your time.

1 Disclaimer: I played through the Nintendo Switch version.

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