The teens have this bad habit of arguing about who’s at fault. I hate that. I don’t like in conversations where people are throwing blame around. It makes me really self-conscious and uncomfortable, the idea of being expected to take a side and rip into someone. So, whenever I can, I tell the others that what’s happening isn’t anyone’s fault. Or I take the blame. “We don’t need to split into factions.” I just want people to chill. I don’t like some of these people, and I know those people don’t like me, but I just want things to be alright.
This is me imposing on my character, sure. Absolutely. This isn’t me playing Alex so much as it is me playing me. But I look at the blue-haired girl I met on the ferry to Edwards Island: distant and slightly surly, even towards her friends. Even if I am imposing on her, projecting my own behaviour onto her like a double-exposed photo, it doesn’t feel like imposition. It feels pretty honest.
Alex is the centre of Oxenfree, a high school senior preoccupied with her past and treading water in her present. She’s one of five teens on Edwards Island for a traditional end-of-high school bash: there’s her, her step-brother Jonas (an unknown quantity she’s treating with quiet caution), her motormouth best friend Ren, a chilly acquaintance named Clarissa, and Clarissa’s quiet indie friend Nona. The party’s a bust, so Alex and Jonas go off on their own, chasing after some weird radio signals that Ren keeps yammering about. It’s not long before they tune in to one of those signals...and they unwittingly unleash all kinds of supernatural hell.
What follows is impressively moody and low-key, a chiller in the well-worn mold of John Carpenter’s The Fog, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and the like. Edwards Island, a collection of dimly-lit watercolours, establishes that mood. The sky hangs purple and heavy overhead, reflecting the lights of a city in the near distance, and the hills are covered in pointed trees and empty buildings. The eerie score, a dissonant collision of ambient electronica and classic John Carpenter, pulses in the background. This place is empty, isolated, so close to safety and yet so far away. Caught in the narrow forest corridors and surrounded by water, I’m creeped out. I can feel the desperation.
From the screen-tearing supernatural encounters to the dialogue to Edwards Island itself, Oxenfree’s supremely good at creating and maintaining a menacing, oppressive atmosphere. My skin was crawling at the mention of a character’s “soul as quiet as a church”, and I pretty quickly learned to start getting nervous the moment I heard the sound of screaming static. I was constantly on edge, and that takes work. Jump scares are easy; sustaining this kind of deep unease across four hours? That isn’t.
That’s especially the case given that you’re not really unravelling any mysteries or running away from danger. Sometimes, you tune into the spooky-scary frequencies on your pocket radio, but mostly, you just talk. Your most meaningful interaction with Oxenfree’s story is through its conversation system; the game lives or dies on this. Thing is, it’s really, really impressive.
Like most games with branching dialogue trees, you’re given three options broadly aligned with various emotional states. There are time limits on your responses, a la Alpha Protocol, and your choices begin and end at the mood of the response. Alex may let the person talking finish before she interrupts, or she might just interrupt them. You don’t know ‘til you know.
That said, there’s also a fourth choice: silence. You can keep your mouth shut, to let the talking happen around you. All four choices can influence the way the others see you, but again: you don’t know ‘til you know. Oxenfree makes you weigh up the choice between getting involved or sitting it out, exploiting the natural impulse to interact and exert your agency. That choice complicates the decision-making process - do you keep things together by staying silent or by speaking?
This is part of how Oxenfree captures the truth of these characters and their relationships. When these five teens get talking about their hopes and their regrets and loss and blame and betrayal, they’re direct and evasive and dismissive and hyperbolic and stubborn. It’s honest and recognisable, and it’s sometimes even funny. You’re plunged right back into the mindset of a teen, submerged in their anxieties and dreams and fears and contradictions.
Some of the details come off clunky: there are a few too many overwritten Whedonisms (no one has ever referred to a machine as “humming like a barracuda” and you don’t get a pass just because you acknowledge that), and the quality of each character’s body language and movement is sometimes fitted to the environment at the expense of the emotions in the moment.
But, more often than not, Oxenfree is both brutally and poignantly honest about the human complexity of growing and nurturing relationships, no matter how high-stress the situation. I know that it caught me in my own experiences, dragging them out of me as I tried to protect Alex and her social circle the way I’d like to think I would protect my own – deflect things, take the blame, avoid confrontation.
As an aside: without saying too much, there are a handful of moments towards the end that reframe what’s come before and implicate the player in the story. Some of these are clever and some of these are jaw-droppingly brilliant, things that twist the story in wildly unpredictable ways, things I’ve never seen done before and would kill to experience again for the first time.
If Oxenfree has done anything, though, it’s shown just how universal the teen experience is; you pick that frequency up again in seconds, no matter how long you’ve been out of that uncomfortable, limitless, endless period. It trips a few times, and at four to five hours, the ride may be too short for some, though I don’t know how you’d build on what’s already there. Besides, it’s such an inventive and well-measured little thriller, with such a strong sense of character, place and terror. It’s so smart and real and unsettling that you can’t help but impose yourself on Alex. You’re just as freaked as she is.