Somewhere near the middle of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud endures a one-on-one date at the Golden Saucer with one of his comrades. Who he selects as his lucky partner for the evening depends on several seemingly meaningless decisions the player has made up to this point in the game. There’s an algorithm working behind the scenes throughout the first disc, tallying up unseen “relationship points” for each of Cloud’s four possible partners based on the actions he’s taken and the words he has said. A certain drink order at the bar after the story’s very first mission, for instance, may end up being the difference between an enjoyable outing with Tifa and an exasperating one with Yuffie. An offhand comment about snoring might ultimately lead to a bro-down with Barret at the expense of a night to remember with Aeris. In all, some forty or fifty apparently meaningless individual choices will ultimately contribute to Cloud’s decision.
Take that concept, apply it to high school kids, stick them on a haunted island, and you’ve got the basis for Oxenfree.
The main character in Oxenfree is Alex, a blue-haired everygirl looking to spend a night partying with some buddies on Edwards Island, home to an abandoned World War II-era military base. She’s joined by her best friend, Ren, and her new stepbrother, Jonas. They soon meet up with Clarissa, who used to date Alex’s brother, Michael, and Nona, Clarissa’s bestie and Ren’s longtime crush. There’s immediate friction in the group and it’s only exacerbated by raging hormones and flowing alcohol. Clarissa resents Alex because of the way her relationship with Michael ended, Ren struggles to handle himself after getting inebriated, no one knows what to make of Jonas, and Alex, well – that’s actually up to you.
The central gameplay gimmick in Oxenfree is teen conversation simulation. What sets it apart from every other game in which dialogue trees play an important role is its snap decision nature. Oxenfree doesn’t pause to let you consider what to say next; conversations unfold in real time, which means you might only have a second or two to consider what you’re about to say before the moment passes and you don’t say anything at all. The beauty of this system is how true to life it feels. Several dozen times during my playthrough, I chose what to say only to have it come out with a completely different intonation than I’d intended. Even the small difference between saying “Yes!” and “Yeah, sure,” can be enough to set Clarissa off, or to make Jonas feel welcome, or to drive a wedge between Ren and Nona. Sometimes you’ll realize just as you’re picking something to say that you should be saying something else entirely. That doesn’t just resonate with my high school experience; that resonates with my life experience. The ramifications of what’s said and what isn’t start out small – so what if someone’s acting petty during a game of truth or dare on the beach? – but it isn’t long before an exploration of a cave leads to a night full of paranormal activity and, of course, a mad dash to escape the island before dawn. I’ll tread lightly on details here, but for me it was here in the surreal and unsettling game mechanics that Oxenfree really shined.
During the first season of Lost there was a throwaway scene in which Hurley and Sayid manage to find a clear signal on an AM radio frequency on the beach one night. Hurley wonders where – and moreover, in a winking gesture, when – the signal could be coming from. That’s what the bulk of Oxenfree feels like. The game makes hay out of the overall sense of unease inherent in radio static and noisy transmissions. Your only tool throughout the course of the night is a handheld FM receiver and you’ll find yourself constantly tuning it in order to advance through the game as you explore the island. Amid the military transmissions and spooky music are pleasant 1940s songs and ragtime piano sessions. It’s all enough to give the game a “BioShock on land” vibe. Combine that atmosphere with watercolor forests, caves, and beaches, and you’ve got something quite unique and memorable – made all the more so when the game abruptly “glitches” with analog tracking errors and three-second time jumps, Eternal Darkness-style.
Of course, like in any game from the past decade where you’re asked to make a lot of decisions, your decisions will ultimately matter in Oxenfree. I managed to escape the island with all five people alive and on relatively good terms, but apparently I could have been a better stepsister; an epilogue revealed that Jonas and Alex never really ended up on speaking terms. There are, of course, multiple endings to Oxenfree and multiple ways to play it. There’s even an achievement to be earned by going through the entire game without saying a single word, which sounds like such a different experience than the one I had; despite being just three hours long, the game seems incredibly replayable if that’s your bag. There are no rewinds in Oxenfree and there are no game overs or checkpoint reloads; literally every decision you make, you need to live with – at least until your next playthrough.
There’s a lot to like about Oxenfree, from a welcome new spin on dialogue decisions to the timeless effectiveness of a good ghost story. I’m just not sure those elements mesh together so well. It was hard for me to give a shit about Ren’s love life when people were getting possessed left and right, and the amount I felt butthurt over Clarissa getting snippy with me dropped to “not at all” the minute actual ghosts got snippy with me over radio transmissions. There’s probably a reason no one has successfully made a horror movie where “getting along” carries as much audience investment as “surviving.” That said, this title has already earned all kinds of “game of the year” buzz and it’s definitely worth three hours of your time.