A little more Conversation, a little less Action - OXENFREE
A group of late-teens head out to a local island for a spring break party, just before high school graduation. You've got the slacker/stoner/jokester guy, you've got the jock/boy who might be a romantic interest, you've got the artsy/hipster girl, you've got the bitchy girl, and you've got the quirky, smart, pure hero (you!). Sounds like the setup to another Friday the 13th entry, doesn't it? But nope, this is the lead up to Oxenfree, a game that starts off sounding like it's going to be a horrendous cliché, and transcends the trappings of the horror doldrums to dig down into some really eerie, meaty, storytelling.
I won't lie, when this game kicked off, I was genuinely dreading it. At first, it seemed like every character was going to simply play into their roles, but very quickly the plot takes off in exciting and fresh directions. You play Alex, a girl who, as I mentioned above, joins her friends Ren, Clarissa, and Nona, along with her stepbrother Jonas, on a party to a local island. Right away though, this island abandons the tropes of a slasher or serial killer legend and dives instead into the realms of a great ghost story. Edwards Island is home to an abandoned museum, a handful of kitschy gift shops (all currently closed for the season), and a rich, storied history, especially around World War II. Many of the museum's exhibits talk about a sunken American submarine, the USS Kanaloa, tragically lost with all hands nearby the island. Along with this rich history, each of the characters has their own personal connection to the island, especially Alex and Clarissa, who used to visit the beach with Alex's biological brother, Michael. Ren's own regular visits, however, turn up a rumour about strange phenomena in the beachside caverns, somehow related to radio waves.
Alex and Jonas trek into the caves with a handheld radio, and inadvertently end up stirring up the restless spirits of the dead sailors of the Kanaloa. From there, Alex embarks on a journey across the island to find her friends and to escape the island. Along the way, she comes to understand the motivations and goals of the ghosts, and deals with a restless ghost of her own past - her brother Michael, who drowned on a visit to the island as well. Using her radio, Alex discovers ways to access closed-off parts of the island's businesses and old military structures.
The game finds several contrivances for bringing the radio into play. The museum on the island utilizes information boards that transmit info over a certain frequency - kind of a like an audio tour. There are also radio door locks, radio clues to hidden letters, radio waves that purge ghosts...and perhaps most charmingly, some very clever audio clips that are not at all vital to the game, including old Bugs Bunny bits and presidential speeches. Surprisingly, this never wore thin for me. There's a lot of fun in exploring the locations and just tuning the channel to see what's out there. There's also a delicious irony in how that very curiosity leads the characters to this situation in the first place. But indeed, curiosity is what sets these characters apart from the potential pitfalls of their archetypes. There's a degree of charm to their inquisitive nature, complemented by a writing style that is both believable and mature.
The strength of writing is echoed in the deft way this game manages to find emotional weight and eerie scares without a drop of blood spilled. There's maybe two moments of violence, both brief and shocking, and both also relying more on character than on viscera splattering on the screen. It's been a long while since I saw a game that took on the idea of a good old "ghost story" that actually was, well, a ghost story, and Oxenfree absolutely nails it. It brings in a sense of tragedy and loneliness that I think is lacking in modern takes on spooks and spirits, and backs it up with a sincerely otherworldly backdrop.
Only an hour into Oxenfree, I knew it was one of those rare games that I'd want to play through again and again. This will definitely not be the reaction of every gamer who takes in this unique entry into the horror genre from Night School Studio. Broadly speaking, I can safely say this is a game by and for people who loved pieces like Gone Home or Dear Esther, games that are more than willing to stretch the idea of what a video game really is. The gameplay of Oxenfree centres almost entirely on picking choices in a conversation tree, with a few quasi-quicktime events on the radio in between. That's sure to be a sticking point for people who expect a bit more "game" in their games, but for people willing to take a chance on something more story-driven, Oxenfree is a rich, enjoyable foray into the horror genre.