Imagine Friday the 13th, a group of teenagers isolated in a forest, and a murderous psychopath on the loose. Take that context, put the teenagers on an island, and make it a psychological thriller instead of a slasher, then you’ve got the setting for Night School Studios’ Oxenfree. This game places you on Edwards Island, an abandoned military island, as high school senior Alex. The approximately four hour journey through Edwards Island is not for everyone, it requires an interest in story and an honest devotion to character development. Joining Alex on the island are her friends Ren, Clarissa, and Nona and her new stepbrother, Jonas. The conflict in the game arises from Alex using latent radio waves on the island to call forth this spectral evil from within a cave. Another source of tension is the relationships between Alex and each of her friends. For the interactions, Night School Studios adopted the method we most frequently see in Telltale games: your actions and conversations with your friends will affect the outcome of the game, for better or for worse.
The graphics of Oxenfree are not the ultra-high definition graphics that we get from the leading studios, and that’s entirely alright. The graphics lend greatly to the aesthetic that the game has; muted tones and a dreary color palette make the entirety of Edwards Island very serene and almost dreamlike in certain areas. If I had to sum up the graphical experience of Oxenfree in one word, I would say that it is “quaint.” The small, isolated feeling of the island and the events that are taking place there add to the atmosphere that emphasizes the supernatural nature of what is transpiring. In this isolated, low-key color scheme, only a few things truly do pop, and those are the characters themselves. Alex has bright neon blue hair and a red jacket, Clarissa has fiery red hair, and Nona wears an orange sweater. This choice is lovely, because it provides contrast from the surroundings, giving Alex and company this look like they almost don’t really belong on the island. From the graphical choices to the in game dialogue, it is clear that these characters are in over their heads.
Keeping with the atmospheric concepts: the score of Oxenfree is phenomenal (I’m actually listening to it as I write). The tracks as you explore each part of Edwards Island makes it feel like you’re really traversing these hills, forests, or beaches. Scntfc’s compositions add a sense of awe to each unique portion of the island. Each track plays its own role in the progression of the story and the overall flow of the game. As Alex tunes in her radio within the cave, effectively summoning the otherworldly horror, the score becomes a scratchy, almost ghastly composition. Before the actual gate to the other realm opens, the player is well aware that it’s about to hit the metaphorical fan. Within the score, the aesthetic is further solidified. We get some tracks that lazily drone in some sections, to be interrupted by this beat and electronic accompaniment that almost seems to be pushing the listener forward. Other tracks are purely ominous -- foreboding, even -- warning of the dangers right around the next bend. Simply put, scntfc knocks it out of the park with Oxenfree’s score, hitting every note that the game needs.
Gameplay in Oxenfree is relatively straightforward. You move around (wasd or the arrow keys), interact with objects (space bar), and use your radio (shift). Alex’s radio is a very interesting mechanic in Oxenfree. Edwards Island was a base of military operations around the time of World War II, and because of that, radios and radio waves were in abundance on the island. Certain puzzles and secrets can only be solved or found by tuning into a certain frequency. Because of the wide range of Alex’s radio, this can lead to some tedious turning of the dial, searching for the correct frequency, but these situations were few and far between. I personally enjoyed the radio concept, especially how the sound design of it played into the story. The radio was a unique game mechanic, but the real focus of Oxenfree is in the story and the character development.
The game opens with Alex, Ren, and Jonas on the boat to Edwards Island. During the boat ride, they provide a lengthy amount of exposition. The thing is, it didn’t seem like blatant exposition, just like a few teenagers chatting about what was going on in their lives right now. Jonas was concerned with moving to a new town with a new family, Ren wanted their night on the island to be perfect, and Alex talked about whichever dialogue option the player chose, or she stayed silent if no options were chosen. After they meet up with Nona and Clarissa, they all have a fireside chat on the beach, which was completely exposition and characterization that felt entirely natural based on the context. The characters ended up being fully fleshed out, actual people right at the start of the game, which got me hooked. The voice acting in Oxenfree was phenomenal. Night School Studios casted the perfect group of talent to portray these characters. This group included the voices of Britanni Johnson (Angel from the Borderlands series), Erin Yvette (a Telltale Games regular), and Gavin Hammon (Kenny from The Walking Dead: The Game). Thanks to Night School Studios’ writing and the stellar team of voice actors, Edwards Island and the world of Oxenfree aren’t things I will soon forget.
I truly only have one major complaint about the game. Oxenfree ends up being a jack of most trades, master of some (like story). In playing the game, there were many aspects I would have liked to go more in depth with. It felt like Night School Studios was testing the waters with what they could and couldn’t do in Oxenfree. The radio mechanic seemed to be used sparingly, and there were a few points in the game where you were briefly able to interact with other players, making this not an entirely single player experience. These aspects were definitely the riskier implementations, though, seeing as an error or overuse in either of them would make the game much more gimmicky, which the final product of Oxenfree is far from. I enjoyed Oxenfree immensely, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It necessitates a player that wants to watch this story unfold, not someone who wants snappy gameplay and action. Seeing as this is Night School Studios’ early work, I am greatly looking forward to what they have in store for us in the future.