Sometimes a game just skips you by due to a misunderstanding or a cross wire. Oxenfree was a game that I had certainly heard of but never really worked out fully. It seemed to be forever attached to the horror games genre and as such I’d never really taken any great interest in it. Without truly investigating it I’d managed to somehow combine it with games such as Outlast and Slenderman, games I would never really touch.
The power of the Nintendo Switch though is great indeed for being able to download indie games to play both at home and on work lunch breaks. When Oxenfree recently came down to a mere £4 in the Nintendo eShop I gave it a chance. A tenner is bargain territory, four quid is certainly ‘it doesn’t really matter if I end up not liking it’. I’d spend more than that on a coffee and sandwich during lunch.
Dear reader, I was wrong about Oxenfree.
The initial set up for Oxenfree is very much a horror staple. Five teenagers go to what seems like a deserted island, home to a former military base, in the hope of some drinking fun away from anybody who may tell them otherwise. The very first scene in game is the player character Alex taking the ferry to the island with her friend Ren and step brother Jonas. As soon as a deserted island is mentioned you expect something like Until Dawn to play out. Somebody with a knife will surely stab their way through our group leaving you, as the last surviving player, to get off the island with all your blood intact? Oxenfree never goes there, it’s far better because of it.
During the boat ride I seriously thought I’d messed up during a dialogue option. Ren spoke to Alex and three options popped up for Alex to respond with. They quickly vanished as I was thinking about what to say and never returned. Ren then had dialogue which referenced Alex’s silence on the matter. Far from failing I’d actually tripped upon one of Oxenfree’s greatest features.
In most games with any choice in character dialogue the world will wait for you. They’ll stand there, gawping at you, as you take your sweet time deciding what to say back to them. They will then wait patiently until you’ve said your piece before responding. Oxenfree is possibly the best at representing how proper, real life humans talk to each other. Once an NPC has said something then two or three options will float over Alex’s head, each corresponding to a button on the controller and each coloured differently to suggest temperament (so you can avoid any L.A Noire style sudden mood swings). It’s possible to press the button quickly and cut people off mid speech. There’s also the option to not press anything and have Alex remain silent on the matter. For each of these occasions the NPC will react accordingly. It goes the dialogue a very natural flow and goes a really long way to you being able to influence how Alex is around others as a player. I was probably about two minutes into this game and already I was impressed.
Radios are a big thing in the world of Oxenfree. Alex carries a pocket radio that can be tuned to various frequencies, some have music and others have strange voices from the island’s past. Unlike some other games the environment isn’t full of left over audio recordings as if there was suddenly a fashion for talking into a microphone and dumping the results somewhere. Oxenfree’s voices from beyond soon seep into the story like an oil slick and their disembodied nature means you’re never truly sure who they belong to.
Personally I can live without playing horror games. I don’t think I’ll ever be in a great rush to play Resident Evil 7 or the like (I bought Alien Isolation for £10 a few months ago thinking I’d play it very soon but it remains untouched months later). I’ve come to the believe that I’m too old now to be permanently petrified during my game time. Oxenfree does something a little bit different though in that it really doesn’t go for any kind of jump scare. Everything about the island and its back story has a layer of tension with it, a creeping unease rather than an outright shock. It’s like playing an episode of The Twilight Zone rather than watching Saw. It’s much better for it as well. At no point does it seem like Oxenfree is trying to simply terrorise you as a player, it has something to say but it’s going to whisper it to you over hushed radio frequencies.
As my free time gets shorter I’ve found that the games that really stick with me are not the two hundred long hour epic RPGs anymore. Maximum enjoyment tends to arrive from those smaller games which might only be two or three hours in duration but remain in the mind long after you’ve played them. Firewatch became a favourite this way, Gone Home also. With it’s mind bending story and sometimes fourth wall breaking moment it seems Oxenfree has also joined that list.