Set on an island that is a ferry-ride away from the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest, the game revolves around a group of high school students looking to get plastered on the beach. Although the kids duck the curfew that forbids all visitors from tarrying on the island after dark, little intoxication is had — aside from a guy who gets stoned after eating a pot brownie. And, go figure, it’s Ren, the pothead, who ruins the party. He suggests that a group visit be made to a cave on the island and from there everything goes awry — with your help, naturally.
In “Oxenfree,” you play as Alex. Depending on your conversational choices Alex can be sharp, ironic, and empathetic; she can also be icy and ornery, or any combination thereof. On my first playthrough, I played her as a good moral agent. (What did you expect?) On my second, I felt grossly uninhibited. Attempting to make all of Alex’s friends hate her has proven irresistible as there is an achievement called “I’m the Firestarter,” which rewards you for doing just that.
Alex holds the key to the island’s secret. Her analog radio is able to pick up frequencies all across the island. In the cave, she tunes into some spooky goings-on that eventually lead her to uncover a military cover-up, not to mention a tear in the space-time continuum. Her journey across fractured realities is accompanied by a soundtrack that speedily wormed its way into my memory. There are also audio snippets that conjure the memory of the Greatest Generation in the flower of their youth.
Like a Preston Sturges flick from the 40s, what immediately leaps out about “Oxenfree” is its dialogue. It’s peppy yet reined in, with an economy suitable for a winter night’s tale. As in comic books, characters sprout speech bubbles when they talk. Alex’s potential responses are also framed in speech bubbles, which reinforces the graphic-novel vibe.
There is an active quality to the game’s conversation system that encourages you to walk, talk, and maybe even tinker with your radio all at the same time. Characters generally don’t wait around for you to decide what to say to them, and no timer appears on the screen to indicate how long you have to choose your reply. This poses a refreshing alternative to other ways video games usually handle chitchat, whether in the form cutscenes — which typically leave players in a passive role — or the stop-and-start approach of other narrative-centered games that freezes the action on screen while players select from a list of responses to their digital interlocutors.
Although “Oxenfree’s” roots are in the point-and-click adventure games of the 80s and 90s, the developers have shrewdly ditched the obscure puzzles which plagued that genre. The game can easily be completed in one or two sittings; a fine thing in my book.
“Oxenfree” captures a mood (an eerie night), intensifies it (people get possessed!), and then efficiently wraps things up before anything becomes tedious. This analog, supernatural story unites its characters in a web of guilt and showers them in decorative static.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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