Standing outside a decommissioned military outpost, unable to enter one of the facilities because the doors are locked via a mechanism employing radio waves, requiring a specific frequency to be tuned in order to gain access, one of the teen protagonists of Oxenfree notes the technology to be a strange juxtaposition of archaic and futuristic. It’s utterly outdated in a digital age, and yet because analogue technology is advanced enough to be beyond the intuitive understanding of an untrained individual, but primitive enough to seem exotic, these seemingly contradictory attributes imbibe it with an air of magic. Such numinous qualities led to a strange coupling of the esoteric and the technological in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as spirit photography and electronic voice phenomena, a coupling which Oxenfree excels at.
Likewise, adolescence itself is a strange juxtaposition of past and future, of childhood and adulthood. It is for that reason regarded as a “magical” time in one’s life, eagerly anticipated by naïve prepubescents and fondly (if falsely) recollected by nostalgic elders. For both those too young to know and those too old to remember, high school takes on exotic qualities of its own.
Oxenfree combines the magic of analogue and the magic of adolescence sublimely, both working in conjunction with one another to unify its theme of juxtaposing past and future, at points in the narrative quite literally.
Moreover, Oxenfree is arguably the most aesthetically impressive game since Child of Light. It’s cool palette, watercolor textures, and disparate scale between characters and environments are all reminiscent of the upcoming roguelike Below, perhaps by way of last year’s underrated platformer Gravity Ghost. Additionally, analogue technology informs much of the game’s aesthetics, from the various visual distortions to the synthesized sounds. Most impressive, however, are the surreal and seemingly supernatural phenomena encountered throughout the game, whose geometric design and neon palette produce in such a truly otherworldly flair.
I followed virtually none of the preview coverage of Oxenfree. Lost (still my favorite television series of all time) was cited as among the major influences, at which point my purchasing decision was made, despite swearing off adventure games following repeated disappointment with The Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, Broken Age, and Life is Strange. Oxenfree single-handedly changed my opinion on the Adventure genre, and nearly lives up to its pedigree with respect to Lost, even surpassing it in some ways. As a standalone episode, it has the benefit of all it questions having answers; there are no mysteries like the Numbers in which the writers were just as much in the dark as the viewers for seasons on end.
However, the answer to said mysteries is, relatively to the sci-fi horror genre, relatively pedestrian. It’s among the first suspicions to cross the player’s mind, ruled out only because it seems too obvious, too telegraphed. I kept waiting for a major twist to utterly invalidate all my previous theories, for the nature of the threat to prove stranger and more surreal than suspected, for Oxenfree to prove more Persona than Poltergeist, more Childhood’s End than Close Encounters.
Nevertheless, as a horror game Oxenfree in no way disappoints. There are no jump scares as such, and yet some of the sudden shocks will indeed cause players to jump. Nor does the game rely on gore, the macabre, or an impending sense of doom. Rather, all of the fear is generated by infusing paranormal properties into ordinary objects and situations. By giving reality a dreamlike constancy, it inherently becomes nightmarish, the grounding of one’s certainty and sanity having been stripped away.
It is unfortunately necessary to report on a number of design flaws and technical glitches*, as such did not detract sufficiently from my experience to keep Oxenfree from being one of the best games I’ve played in years. To start, the game’s options menu is far too limited; the borders of the shot extended slightly beyond the edge of my screen, but there is no option to adjust this. Nor is there an option to separately adjust the volumes of the dialog, music, and other noises. Furthermore, the game hard crashed twice during my playthrough.
More significant are the design flaws. The dialog options slowly fade, giving the player the opportunity to say nothing at all, which in itself is all well and good. However, other characters are almost always still conversing as the choices begin to fade. On some occasions, the player-character Alex will wait for her companions to finish before speaking herself, yet at other time she’ll interrupt, causing the player to miss out on part of their dialogue. While the dialogue option is being selected there is no indication of whether an interruption will occur, forcing the player to wait until the last possible moment to select a response before the time expires.
Also during conversations, each character has a color-coded speech bubble to indicate which is talking, as the characters are so diminutive relative to the rest of the screen that their facial expressions and mouth movements are so subtle as to be absent entirely. However, each of the voice actors is so distinctive that after the first five minutes this proves entirely unnecessary and merely distracting. Furthermore, characters will occasionally have a thought bubble over their head with another character’s face in it; if such has any mechanical impact on the game such was at no point indicated or explained.
Movement is just slightly too slow. At first, given the breathtaking backgrounds and the exhilaration of exploring each environment, this seemed an indulgence the game deserved. It reminded me of the recent film The Revenant, whose long establishing shots probably added forty minutes to the film’s runtime, not one minute of which I’d see cut, their purely aesthetic value fully justifying their inclusion (seriously, Revenant did for North America what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand). However, when searching previously visited locations for missed collectables prior to the game’s end sequence, Alex certainly could have hurried her ass a bit faster. Such was the only time the game felt in any way tedious.
Such might seem an extensive litany of complaints, but truly and genuinely proved minor annoyances in an otherwise phenomenal experience. Here is a game that can wear as it influences Freaks and Geeks, Lost, and Persona (among many other), and not seem wanting in comparison. Here is a game that even naysayers of the Adventure genre will cite among their favorites of all time. Oxenfree is a rare game that is for everyone, a recommendation without reservation; Oxenfree is magical.
*note: I played the Xbox One version