That moment when you realise the world expands beyond the gate post is incredible, the untold adventures of this strange new land await young explorers who want to broaden their horizons. My childhood was a never ending summer of adventure: the secret tunnels we discovered behind our street to an old World War 2 shelter we made into our HQ. Films like The Goonies, Stand by Me and the Explorers tapped into the very essence of these magical days. Even when we skip to present day these coming of age stories can still be done well: Stranger Things and Super 8 are two very good examples of this. As gaming starts to mature we are now seeing some fantastic examples of storytelling that can carry the experience on good writing alone.
Oxenfree is a game about five young people heading out to spend the night on the mysterious Edwards Island, drink beer and do what young people do when they finally break free from the watchful eye of their parents. The opening few scenes manage to quickly bring the player up to speed on the already complicated relationships between the five characters. You play the game as Alex, one of three girls in the group who is voice acted by Erin Yvette who you may know from various Telltale games. Local rumours allude that the island has dark secrets that can be found by tuning into the right frequency on a handheld radio. Needless to say, our young friends decide to check if this myth is real and things escalate from there.
I found the visual style of the game appealing because while not super detailed the team have created a look that works very well. At times when the game pans back, it actually reminded me of an animated Lowry painting with the characters having matchstick arms and legs. There is some good animation on show, but it's not on par with the likes of Inside: however that doesn't matter because this game's strength doesn't come from cutting edge visuals.
From a mechanical aspect, Oxenfree is actually fairly light and you will move through the game entirely using a few basic controls. The various 2.5D scenes are made up of paths which are literally navigated with left or right and the occasional open area where you can walk toward and away from the camera. The majority of puzzles are easy to the point I'm wary of using that description. Alex has with her a handheld radio which she can use at any time to try and tune into different frequencies. Sometimes you'll get an old program from the 1940's but other times things get very creepy: indeed tuning into the faint crackle of disturbing voices is one of the game's high points. Trust me, play this game at night on your own with some good headphones. While there is no real challenge here the radio mechanic does fit perfectly with the atmosphere the game and as it happens is integral to the story. The island is split into various areas that you must visit as the story progresses. My only small criticism of the gameplay is that you can end up backtracking quite a bit and due to the disjointed way areas connect this can end with frustration. When a game is being carried by the story and not gameplay, these small lulls in activity can release some of the vital tension.
I'd say the core stick for the game is the way the conversions flow between the characters as sinister events start to take place. The developers have said they wanted to avoid the static way some adventure games deliver dialogue. So as the various characters talk, colour specific speech bubbles appear and this happens as you play. When Alex speaks you are given various options but thankfully the game doesn't try and cover all possible moods, there is a story to tell and I like that. If you miss your chance to reply that's it: so you need to stay engaged. Likewise, of you pick something to say before the other person has finished you will interrupt them. So in this way conversions flow in a far more natural way, it doesn't always work but these occasions are rare. You will also notice small thought bubbles appearing that show if someone liked what was said.
For a game that relies so heavily on its dialogue, the voice acting has to be good and I'm glad to say the voice actors here do a fine job. Sure, some of the lines fall a little flat but overall each character was brought to life sufficiently. Oxenfree also has some excellent music throughout the games various scenes: from synthesised tension builders to more sedate affairs. However, I do feel like some of the music was badly placed and didn't fit with what was happening on the screen at that time. This isn't a huge problem but it did detract from some scenes that could have hit higher emotional notes.
Blurring the Line
For those of you who are the adventurous types, you may have heard of Geocaching or the older letter box games. Heading out to find hidden treasure is amazing fun, especially if you have kids or indeed you are a big kid like me. So why am I telling you this? Well, the developers of Oxenfree went to pretty extraordinary lengths to add some real world adventure for dedicated fans. There are clues hidden within the game that will (or did) lead you to along a path of discovery including morse code, a hidden phone number and a real world treasure. Oxenfree isn't the first game to include an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) but it's certainly one of the better ones. The group that deciphered the clues have posted their exploits on YouTube which you can watch here.
There are some games like Inside and SOMA that should be entered into with the player knowing as little as possible (ideally nothing). I have endeavoured to give you a review that doesn't take anything away from that experience when you sit down to play: which isn't as easy as it sounds.More and more I play games that give me an emotional kick as well as being mechanically satisfying. While getting sucked into the mystery of Oxenfree I have also ricocheted into research about how two-way radios work and the enthusiasm these devices generate. Many gamers who came together to solve the ARG for Oxenfree have made life long friends and I find this to be incredible. Adventure, friendship and learning to work as a team: who said gaming was an antisocial past time? In a sense, Oxenfree has become far bigger than the game that initially tantalised people's curiosity and I hope we see this happen more. Unless you really dislike adventure games I cannot think of any reason not to pick up and play Oxenfree.