Strong Signal Strength.
The screen is blank, but the chatter is non-stop. Before Night School Studio’s OxenFree shows a single pixel, there’s talking. Lots of talking. The voice, which could be mistaken for Topher Grace circa That '70s Show, is by a character named Ren. Excited and over-caffeinated, he recounts fondly about the tastiest Polar Bear sugar cookies he’s ever had. Unfortunately, the store that made them changed the recipe and now they are absolutely terrible.
Teens are a lot like this no matter the era. They love telling each other about something great, something that unfortunately for the rest of them, can no longer be experienced. There are many specific moments like that in this tale of five high-school kids who are away from adult supervision on a seemingly deserted island that ring true, but this singular observation—nostalgia at such a young age—is what stayed with me most after playing OxenFree, the first game to debut from the indie studio.
The plot is part Goonies, part Ghost World, and a host of other stories about adolescence that build from well-worn character traits. Gamers play as Alex, an outspoken but mostly introverted gal who’s come to Edward Island to hang with her friends and her new step brother, Jonas. Rounding out the crew is mean girl Clarissa, the nerdy Ren, loyal BFF Nona, and the memory of Alex’s recently, deceased brother, Michael. In all, there are five still-alive young people that may or may not survive the night. Unlike the B-movie fun Until Dawn, which this game shares a number of structural similarities, you’ll want them all to survive. Even Clarissa will earn your sympathy.
The island is full of secrets. (I know, shocker!) Early on you’ll equip a radio which when tuned into a certain station picks up something that is perhaps otherworldly or, at the very least, supernatural. The main goal is to learn about this strange signal, learn more about Alex and the gang, and leave the island by morning. The game begins on a ferry to the island at 8pm.
The hook of OxenFree is that it’s a 2D side-scroller with a conversation mechanic that is light years ahead of other games, even the AAA ones. Most games with dialogue options must isolate such scenes—think of any Telltale game or the conversation trees in a Bioware game. When you’re talking you’re locked into that and only that moment. Night School Studio aims to makes OxenFree a truly walk-and-talk experience. And amazingly, it is.
The way it works is super intuitive and easy to use. In the Xbox One version, three dialogue replies are mapped to X, Y, and B with each conversation bubble being color-coordinated for ease. The trick is that this is all happening while you’re exploring an area, be it a cave, an abandoned radio tower, etc. Technically, you can’t talk and pick up an item at the same time, but the ability to simply walk, jump, or stand still while immersed in a serious debate about why Ren shouldn’t have eaten so many pot cookies is incredible. It really feels like I’m having a chat with these characters.
As such, walking about is never dull even if you’re really not doing much but listening to Jonas while visiting local hangouts like the “smallest cemetery” in the pacific NW. There are other real feeling qualities to chatting like the times when you choose to say something, but another character will interrupt you so as not to give away information to another character. All of this feels loose, real even. When everyone talks at the same time and you can instantly answer, interrupting the conversation flow, you know you’ve entered teen speak.
If that was the only thing that OxenFree had to offer I’d be pretty impressed, but this idea of communication is the thematic through point of the entire game. The strange signal being received is usually random sound bites from other material. (Think of the way Bumblebee talks in the Transformers movies.) It's a simple idea, but the execution is flawless. Hats off too to the superb sound design that is both great ear candy and off-puttingly creepy.
Even though the characters might be regular teens, the mystery is delivered in ways that made me jump a lot. Not in that cheap horror movie way either, more like that something unsettling just happens, and I really wish I hadn’t experienced it (in the best way possible). The radio is a great device for this. Music, strange things, and thirty-second fun facts about island landmarks are a hoot, like the weird tale of the roosting tree that is over 400 years old. All of this is done with beautiful art direction that looks like a watercolor painting. Everything looks tactile. I did wish the game would allow you to zoom in manually as certain areas are so detailed, I wanted to marvel at them more. Still, for the running time of about six hours, each and every area explored did not disappoint.
What did disappoint? Well, as mentioned before this is Night School’s first game, and it’s glitchy like one. The game crashed on me five times. Also, the beautiful hand-drawn look occasionally has this weird tearing effect when panning across a large area. Hopefully, the crashing will be remedied via a patch. Also, while the game saves a lot automatically, there’s no manual save which would have been nice.
While the story can feel a little too familiar at times, the real strength of the game is how character familiarity is turned into a strength. As mentioned before, there is a mean girl, but it’s how the players choose to react to her actions, and by extension if Clarissa trusts you, that a different side of her is revealed. All the characters are like that. You think you know them, and assuming you’ve been a teenager, you do, but they remain, by the end of the game, unique.
In a lot of ways, OxenFree is the first game in quite awhile that focuses on the art of audio and video to engage the player. Limbo comes to mind, a title that might be more expressionistic than this, but nonetheless both get under the skin. Also, like Limbo, OxenFree begs to be replayed beyond just the reward of multiple endings. What resonates most is that feeling of something that has passed by. Whether that’s one’s own nostalgia or solely heroine Alex, OxenFree won’t be forgotten anytime soon.