Game * Night School Studio * Oh No, Teens * 2016
Teenagers. Ugh. They’re the worst, am I right? Yeah, I’m right. Nobody likes teenagers, especially not other teenagers. I try not to dwell on my own past as a teen boy in the 90’s. It’s all a vague, hormonal, greasy blur, but I do have some solid recollections of being an awkward, angsty, try-hard and simultaneously recognizing myself for being those things. Self-awareness was no match for teen angst is what I’m saying. This is why I tend to avoid teen fiction, by which I mean the kind of story that really delves into the dramatic interplay between teenage protagonists, not fiction geared to appeal to teens. Honest appraisals of adolescent relationships are inherently awkward, and I do not do well with depictions of awkwardness. That’s like my entire life, I have no interest in watching fictional characters act the same stupid way I do in reality, you know? This is the primary reason I avoid games like Life is Strange and Oxenfree. It’s hard to write about teenagers in a compelling manner than isn’t just a nonstop cringe machine.
Well, I made a mistake in my assumptions, because Oxenfree isn’t about that. Oh sure, there’s teen drama there if you want it. The protagonist is a teenage girl named Alexandra (excellent name) who is on her way to a basic-ass bonfire – the exact same kind you went to as a teen, complete with cheap beer, super-important conversations in the dark, and that one drunk jackass who starts jumping over the fire – with a handful of friends. The only difference between the situation in Oxenfree and every single teen bonfire you’ve ever been to is that Alex and her friends are going to an island, and there’s only five of them. For an overnight party five people is a bust, and the characters are there to grumble about it. In addition to Alex, the other people at this bonfire are Jonas, Alex’s new step-brother, Ren, Alex’s best friend, Nona, a quiet oddball Ren is into, and Clarissa, the bitchy one. This is not a close-knit band of besties here, which of course adds spice to the old drama stew, but before moving on I would like to heap praise on Oxenfree for a very important reason. It’s a rare instance of a story having a teenage girl for a protagonist that doesn’t have anything to do with a romantic interest. She’s not at this party for a hookup, she’s here to get to know her new stepbrother and hang out with some friends.
The game itself is pretty much a dialogue simulator. It’s a slow paced game with a focus on story, so if that doesn’t appeal to you, look elsewhere. Lucky for Oxenfree, the dialogue is fairly well done and succeeds in avoiding a “fellow kids” vibe. I played Alex as close to my own personality as possible, which is to say despite a good deal of sarcasm and cynicism I generally try and get along with others (I will note that I’m not accounting for teenage me here). The opening scene of the game is used for getting to know your friends, but Oxenfree doesn’t take too long to get things moving. The island is deserted except for you five – it’s the off-season and nobody lives there any more – and really, you’re not supposed to be there. Whatever, though, you’re just doing some harmless teenage drinking. Your friends aren’t the idiot vandal type, and if there’s one knock against the game it’s that the characters are a touch too mature for their age. That’s fine with me. I don’t need unexplained mood swings, awkward cursing, and meandering improv bits that go nowhere to get the real teen experience. I remember.
Once Oxenfree establishes its characters, and more specifically grounds Alex as a real person in a real place, the game shifts into its true purpose, which is to creep you the fuck out. The way the game goes about this is by introducing the other major mechanic besides walking and talking. Alex has brought along a radio. Like an actual, over-the-air, portable radio. For the purpose of listening to the radio. Teenagers in 2016 using a portable radio is probably the least-believable thing of the entire story, but go with it. The idea is that on this island there’s a cave, and if you go to this cave and fiddle with the radio dial, you can get weird, phantom broadcasts. Well, Alex brings her radio and sure enough, she picks up said creepy broadcasts. And then, well, shit goes sideways.
I will tell you right now, old-timey broadcasts and voices in radio static are my horror kryptonite. The idea of a haunted radio and ghosts communicating through the medium of long lost snippets of old radio commercials, music, and dramas freak me all the way out. There’s just something particularly awful about the idea of radio waves never decaying, never dying, simply making their way into the far reaches of a dark, empty universe. Even worse, what if something out there is listening, and then talks back? Like, you remember that scene in Contact where they’re decoding the alien message and they figure out that it’s a television broadcast, so they put it up on the monitor and holy shit it’s a swastika and oh god are the aliens Nazis? That moment was chilling for me, even after it was evident that all the aliens did was repackage our first TV transmission and sent it back. All of that information is out there, it never goes away, who or what is listening to it right now? Who or what is able to talk back?
Oxenfree is all about this kind of creeping dread, communicated through outwardly benign audio clips and other radio transmissions. When Alex tunes into a particular frequency within the mysterious cave, she unleashes all manner of spooky weirdness. Her friends end up scattered, strange holes open up onto some kind of void, and that radio makes some appalling sounds. The rest of the game has you trying to round up your friends and get off the island safely. Dialogue choices continue to be a nice break from the good/bad dichotomy, while still allowing the player to respond to a stressful situation in reasonably natural ways. Meanwhile, the situation on the island gets more and more out of hand as Alex and Jonas wander around finding their friends. In addition to the radio being a total creepshow, it soon becomes apparent that the beings communicating with Alex and her friends aren’t exactly benevolent.
We learn that the island was once a military base with a focus on radio research, and now the creepy radio stuff makes more sense. I appreciate that you eventually upgrade your radio with an expanded frequency band and door-unlocking capabilities. I also appreciate the introduction of time-loops and alternate timelines – these moments are also creep inducing, especially when it involves the radio-ghosts possessing your friends and making them do unsettling things, you know, like killing themselves. Whether or not these entities are or aren’t actual ghosts (as opposed to impressions of people trapped in some kind of dimensional rift… or something) doesn’t matter all that much, they mean Alex and her friends ill will. And they play dirty. The ghosts attack the kids psychologically by attacking the weak points of a character’s personality or past. Alex is still fucked up about the death of her brother, because why wouldn’t she be? The malevolent entities use this trauma as a pressure point to try and force Alex into doing their bidding.
Oxenfree is also about personal choices, and because of this there are various ways for the game to end. I only played through once, doing my best to keep Alex on an even keel and I tried to do what I felt was right. My version of Alex wasn’t about persuading her friends and loved ones to do any particular thing. Follow your heart, guys. If I have a complaint about the game, it’s that the conclusion the game draws based on your choices doesn’t necessarily make sense. Oxenfree decided that while I kept Jonas as my brother, I kept him at a distance. Why, exactly? I thought we were cool! I was cool with everyone else and they turned out all right – I definitely didn’t sacrifice Clarissa because that would be fucked, and I even played Ren’s wingman and hooked him up with Nona. I don’t know. What I do know is that the quality characters and sharp writing make for an excellent spooky time. I also might have to replay this thing someday, because yeesh, that ending. Stupid inter-dimensional radio ghosts.