After finishing Oxenfree, I quickly realized just how well it pulls off interactive storytelling.
Developed by Night School Studio, which is made of former Disney and Telltale developers, Oxenfree (available now on Steam (reviewed) and Xbox One) is a 2D adventure game that puts an emphasis on exploration and dialogue choices. It follows a group of five eccentric teenagers stranded on a haunted island who have to find a way back home. Players assume the role of Alex as she, her best friend Ren, and her step-brother Jonas attend a high school party taking place at Edwards Island.
After they join up with their friends Nona and Clarissa, Alex begins to pick up strange signals emitting from a nearby cave on her radio. Alex and Jonas decide to explore the cave, where things start to get very weird.
The story is a mixture of Freaks and Geeks and Poltergeist, and at first glance it does seem like a typical, modern coming-of-age tale. But Night School Studio manages to tell a familiar narrative in a clever way.
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What you’ll like
Dialogue choices feel natural
All you ever do in Oxenfree is explore the island and make dialogue choices. While the exploring bit isn’t all that special or different from any other adventure game — just move your character around with the analog stick — the way you make dialogue choices definitely is. It’s very subtle in Oxenfree and feels way more natural than in every other game that employs the same type of mechanic.
Three dialogue bubbles appear above Alex’s head whenever a choice can be made. You have to press either the X, Y, or B button on the Xbox One controller to make your pick or simply choose not to say anything at all. The way these choices are presented doesn’t feel overly dramatic or grandiose like it generally does in most Telltale experiences, for example. Everything stops before you make a choice in those games, with the camera dramatically panning on your character. It’s a little in-your-face, and it’s the polar opposite in Oxenfree.
Characters will continue to talk, you can continue controlling Alex, and the story rolls on. But your choices will still affect the plot in a major way. For example, at one point I had to decide which one of my friends I wanted to take with me to find a certain item on the island. Ren and Jonas were arguing with each other, trying to persuade me to pick one of them. I ignored the two guys and chose Nona instead, and I quickly bonded with her in the process. However, my relationship with Ren and Jonas deteriorated. The whole affair more closely resembled real life than just some dramatic video game moment.
Voice acting and writing is top-notch
The voice acting, writing, and characters are just as great. All of the teenagers are nuanced and quirky. Alex is a sympathetic protagonist who’s trying to cope with her brother’s death and her parents’ divorce. Ren is a total nerd who’s very talkative and has a secret crush on another character. Jonas is a troubled individual with a dark past. Nona is down-to-earth and a bit shy, and Clarissa is a bully with a huge attitude problem. This is where the Freaks and Geeks inspiration stems from. They all play an equally vital role in the game’s plot, and you’ll quickly grow to love and appreciate all five of them. I resonated with Ren the most.
The voice cast — which features the talents of Erin Yvette, Gavin Hammon, Avital Hash, Britanni Johnson, and Aaron Kuban — does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life. Oxenfree heavily relies on the cast’s voice work because the characters are quite tiny onscreen. You can’t see any of their facial and body expressions outside of a few minor gestures and movements like headshakes. But the voice acting is so good that these certain exclusions never detract from the character development.
The excellent writing plays this exact same role to great effect. Voice actors are usually only as good as the lines they have to read. Night School Studio expertly depicts its young characters as flawed human beings who constantly struggle to find their place in the world, and treat their friends and loved ones the best way possible.
Awesome 70s and 80s influence
Outside of Freaks and Geeks and Poltergeist, 70s and 80s pop culture is another source of inspiration. The musical score closely resembles 80s synth movie soundtracks like Blade Runner, Escape from New York, and The Terminator, but it’s a bit more calm. It adds quite a lot to the entire experience, and without it, Oxenfree would genuinely feel like a lesser game. It wouldn’t be the atmospheric delight that it is.
The story also revolves around ghosts and awakening them by using a radio, which is where the Poltergeist influence comes from. Oxenfree depicts ghosts the exact same way old-school horror movies do — terrifying entities that are out for blood.
Lovely visual style
The art direction is stunning. The game looks like a moving Renaissance painting with warm color palettes. It reminded of fine Italian wine for some reason. I know it sounds a bit strange, but that’s the effect it gave off for me. The character design is just as beautiful. Even though the character models are a bit small, they still all look very distinct. Ren wears a goofy-looking backpack, Alex has blue hair, and Jonas likes beanie hats.
What you won’t like
Needs more puzzles
Even though the story is the main focus here, Oxenfree still could’ve used a few clever puzzles littered throughout the five-to-six hour story. Simply exploring an island and absorbing the narrative is fine and all, but I definitely think Oxenfree has room for additional gameplay. Finding certain valuable items, for example, which you’ll do a few times, could’ve easily been a bit more challenging. You’ll also encounter a few weird time loops, but solving these is also way too straightforward.
Oxenfree might just be a big next step for adventure games, particularly when it comes to the way it presents dialogue choices. Night School Studio has managed to execute an interactive story that treats player choice in a mature and subtle way. It’s an emotional experience with wonderful characters and great writing, and it’s one that masters its 70s and 80s influences.
Oxenfree is now available for Xbox One and PC. Night School Studio provided GamesBeat with a review code of the game for the purposes of this review.