In Oxenfree, the first game from developer Night School Studio, the initial setup is simple enough: a group of high school seniors decide to the stay the night on an island as part of an annual tradition. The group initially arrives on a beach for some back and forth banter and a few alcoholic beverages just before stumbling upon a supernatural rift. It’s a plot that sounds straight out of an ’80s or ’90s horror movie and that’s just how the developers like it. Sean Krankel, co-founder of Night School and previous Disney employee (the other co-founder of Night School consists of former Telltale employee Adam Hines), has described the game as Freaks and Geeks meets Poltergeist.
That is to say the game seems to have been made with the teenage maturation explored through interpersonal discussion that was previously emphasized in films such as The Breakfast Club although, in Oxenfree, the concept is set against a ghost story. As the player is introduced to the game’s protagonist, Alex, they also meet the others on the island along with some backstory to the characters showcasing everyone’s unique personality through writing that seems authentic and creates depth. Some characters are combative and welcome confrontation while others attempt to deflect such conversation. There’s a large focus on the relationships between Alex and her friends through the use of contextual dialogue.
The game then balances the heavy dose of teen drama inside its coming of age story with an atmosphere cloaked in supernatural mystery, involving nods to classic thrillers and ghost horror. After the teens accidentally open a time-space rift, they start to encounter ghostly figures accompanied with visual and audio effects reminiscent of VHS static, screen tearing, and distortion. These effects seem to usually initiate within the presence of supernatural elements such as mysterious symbols.
The island on which the Camena High teens have decided to stay is a decommissioned WWII military outpost comprised of abandoned military forts and caves set just off the touristy Pacific Northwest town of Camena (based on Astoria, Oregon, site of Goonies). According to Krankel, “There was an event that took place in the ’40s… related to a nuclear submarine accident, a test nuclear sub. And that event has set in motion some of the stuff that you end up seeing.”
Although dialogue and interpersonal communication make up a large portion of Oxenfree’s gameplay, the other major aspect deals with a radio possessed by Alex. The player controls the radio’s frequency at will. While this is initially used as a plot device, it will continue to be used frequently and later associated with puzzle solving. The game has a slow, deliberate feel to it as players may find themselves sharing conversations with other characters while traversing terrain. The game emphasizes adventure and storytelling rather than action-oriented elements.
As Alex explores the environment, she will also be allowed to indulge in the relationships with her friends. There are opportunities to discuss matters ranging from the significant to mundane, such as exploring an ongoing feud between two characters or conversing about a character’s crush. Discussions highlight the palatable writing that seems raw when compared to your typical game as characters imply drug use and express their relief about avoiding “licking somebody’s butt-hole” in a game of truth or dare.
Oxenfree features no cutscenes and all communication between Alex and her companions is dictated by the player. The game incorporates dynamic environmental and NPC interaction as events will happen around the island without the player’s presence. If Alex leaves her friends, their lives will continue on without her attendance and the story will reflect this change. The player’s interaction with characters can influence their relationships with others; a component that could potentially add incredible value to each playthrough and hopefully increased replayability.
Conversations are not only a cornerstone to the gameplay within Oxenfree but are dynamic depending upon Alex’s interaction or lack thereof. If the player would like to walk away from someone in the middle of the conversation, they can do so. In an interview with Polygon, Krankel states, “by the end of the game, you can very drastically change not only what happens with your character, but the lives of all those other characters.”
The artistic approach to the game is also worth emphasizing as the visuals, sound design, and even choice of camera angle emit style. The art design is reminiscent of Broken Age as the characters are cartoonish, lanky, and move with an angular awkwardness that makes them appear naturally clumsy. Although the game is set in present day, Krankel notes the choice of an aesthetic to evoke the ’80s and ’90s. This is seen in drab-colored hoodies and flannel shirts on the characters. Each individual moves around on both 2D and 3D planes with limited depth, giving the game a 2.5D feel. Most paths seem narrow and restrictive, advancing the environment horizontally or vertically. The environments have a texturized watercolor aesthetic tinted in dull, earthy tones that offset the brash, vibrant hues indicative of something paranormal.
The camera angle used within the game is a wide angle perspective from a distance, so the player can see every individual onscreen as well as multiple rooms and areas at once as the camera follows the characters. It’s an ominous viewpoint that seems to keep the viewer on their toes as you never know when something may materialize; similar to movies in which you can see too much of the screen, hinting at the possibility of an object suddenly appearing onscreen in the empty space. It’s a looming perspective that provokes intrigue and aesthetically adds to the sense of menace and mystery in the game.
The score and sound design are being done by Scntfc, known for audio work on titles such as Galak-Z, Peggle 2, and Fez Remixes. The slow, ’80s-style electronic music suggests that the composition and instrumentation were chosen specifically to match the artistic direction of Oxenfree. Amidst the sporadic aforementioned static noise of worn VHS tapes, the music is layered with analogue synthesizer keyboard tunes over looming, dreary hollow noise that fills the gaps. It’s deliberate and seemingly intended to match the pace of the game to serve as unnerving background noise behind the persistent dialogue. During times in which the atmosphere intensifies, the music mimics the shift with an intensely eerie quality accompanied by occasional piercing sounds.
If there’s one thing I can say from what I’ve seen from Oxenfree, it’s that the game is intriguing. With grounded writing, believable characters, a focus on a drama shrouded in the supernatural, and the potential for drastic changes with each subsequent playthrough, the game looks to be one to keep an eye on as the release date approaches. Check out the new trailer below that accompanied the game’s recent Xbox One announcement.
The game is currently scheduled to release in January 2016 on both Xbox One, via the ID@Xbox program, and PC.