Teenage utopia isn’t a world radically different to our own, resting rather on a single principle easily applicable to somewhere as banal as a downtrodden summer resort: the complete absence of adult supervision. It’s a universal quality of youthful fantasies, from the awkward swashbuckling of Richard Donner’s The Goonies to Arcade Fire’s furtive dreams of escaping the suburban wasteland. In its more masterful manifestations, this sense of freedom is always already tinged with the nostalgia of impending loss. Whether of one’s home, best friends, or familiar hangouts is mostly beside the point. The loss ultimately, and inevitably, concerns youth itself.
Oxenfree understands this and makes sure to drive the point home as soon as possible. “Nobody lives here except some geriatric named Mrs. Adler,” quips Ren, the geeky, overenthusiastic member of a gang of teens that disembarks on Edwards Island, before proceeding to declare “we’ll never mention her or any other old person’s name again.” Admirably, the mood isn’t carried just by dialogue, but lies interwoven with its imagery of empty piers, orphaned cars, and closed-up shops—symbols all, not of desolation, but of exploratory possibilities unhindered by parental control. It all makes for a wonderful start to the game, especially considering the fantastic presentation, a combination of soft colors and selective detail that recalls the landscapes of Grant Wood as much as Kentucky Route Zero.
Ren’s introduction to Mrs. Adler is imperative since it’s Jonas’s first visit to the island. He’s just been recruited to the gang and hasn’t met any of the others except for his new half-sister, Alex, Oxenfree’s haunted protagonist. Soft-spoken Nona (who Ren has a not-so-secret crush on) and haughty, vindictive Clarissa (whose animosity toward Alex is initially bewildering, but eventually understandable) round up the group. The shifting relationships between the five kids are the crux of the game, and the central mechanic to navigate the treacherous waters of teen communication, as well as its most discussed feature, entails a rather interesting approach to video-game dialogue.
Oxenfree is a game whose characters talk at every opportunity. They gossip, take jabs at each other, verbally jostle for position within the group. Playing as Alex, you may interject at any time by picking a response, out of the two or three available ones floating like cartoon bubbles over your head. With the dialogue proceeding in real time, however, your responses stay relevant only for a few seconds. Fail to use one in time (or choose not to) and the conversation keeps going without your input, your options replaced or faded away. While Night School’s approach still adheres to the traditional branching-dialogue model, the introduction of a time limit changes the experience dramatically and, once the player gets used to its rhythm, is a mostly successful attempt to replicate the flow of a real conversation.
The illusion is reinforced by accomplished writing and excellent voice acting. Each character feels unique and rounded, convincing as individuals and, perhaps more importantly, as teenagers: Clarissa’s fragility peeking through her aggressiveness, Jonas and Ren making terrible dick jokes then rushing to acknowledge their lameness, and everyone conveying the same yearning for the unexplainable they set out to investigate and the same fearful determination in the face of it when it finally erupts.
Edwards Island, it turns out, hosts a system of caves where radios can pick up on Morse code messages and broadcasts of a peculiarly old-fashioned sort, an occurrence possibly connected to the presence of a nearby abandoned military base. After their inquisitiveness gets the better of Jonas and Alex, the plot starts to unfold, enveloping a colorful local history of naval disasters, supernatural activity, and parallel stories of personal tragedy.
The problem starts when, after the initial infatuation subsides, it becomes obvious that, other than exploring around the eerie island, experimenting with the radio, and engaging in conversation, there’s little else for players to do. Untypically for a 2D game of considerable budget, Oxenfree is basically a walking simulator. Non-dialogue interactions are minimal and mostly involve stopping to examine a piece of scenery, usually prompting a comment from one of the characters. There are very few puzzles and it’s unclear if failing even those will have a significant impact on the game, which points to a second, more serious, flaw.
Meaningful interaction doesn’t necessarily involve a loop of skill-based performance and its assessment in the form of a final score or a win/loss result. Until Dawn succeeded despite its shallow QTE mechanics because it tied them to real repercussions that could drastically affect the direction of its story, keen as it was to dispose of major characters, or mutilate whole chapters of gameplay as a result of a single mispress. Here, the fear and excitement of every action being pregnant with consequence is absent. There’s nary a handful of truly impactful choices and, even with these, the range of potential outcomes is rather narrow. For a game reveling in the freedom of its characters, the experience of Oxenfree is frustratingly scripted.
Thankfully, at four to five hours long, the game never outstays its welcome. Its flaws are real and prevent Night School’s debut from achieving greatness, but, for most of Oxenfree’s duration, you’ll be too busy to notice, distracted by the gorgeous visuals, engaged by the witty dialogue, and invested in a story that, if not entirely original, remains exciting and poignant in equal measure.