I can’t really think of a good opening so we’re going to jump right in.
OXENFREE is a 2016 supernatural horror from Night School Studio, a team of developers who consist of former Telltale and Disney alumni, the most famous of which being Adam Hines. Hines himself has worked on the best Telltale releases, those being The Wolf Among Us and Tales From The Borderlands. Since he left, he formed Night School with his cousin, Sean Krankel, and began to work on OXENFREE in 2014, and the result? Well..
OXENFREE tells the story of Alex, an easy-going schoolgirl who, with her stoner buddy Ren and new step-brother Jonas, decide to head to the nearby Edwards Island, where a get-together is thrown by locals near the island, as has been the case for years. Unfortunately, the only other two people to attend the party are Clarissa, Alex’s former friend, and Nona, Ren’s love interest. Oh dear.
Despite the lack of party animals and Coldplay ‘Best Of’ CDs being played on a boombox, they attempt to make the night worth it, with Alex hoping to get Jonas to settle in. Ren suggests exploring the “weirdo caves”, under the pretense that there are spooky happenings there if you fiddle with the radio that Alex brings with her. Under Ren’s recommendation, Alex and Jonas fiddle like a mad fiddler fiddling the fiddle, and they accidentally open a portal to the unresting land of the damned. Oh double dear.
Since the release of today’s subject, OXENFREE has seen critical acclaim from almost all that play it, and have ported the game to just about everything with a screen: the game has seen a release on iOS, Android, Xbox, PS4, and and as of today, the Nintendo Switch. To celebrate said Nintendo Switch release, we’re reviewing it for Spooktober because it’s fitting for a horror game to come out at this time, that’s also my favourite game of all tim- Whoops, did I just say that out loud?!
I’m going to refrain from cutting corners the best I can; OXENFREE is superb. It’s a masterclass of perfected story-telling, and sets the bar high not just for walking simulators, but for narratives as a whole. Everyone who worked on the project, from a physical, visual or audio standpoint, put every fibre of their being and soul towards it, like most do, but what comes out is a beautifully made product that stands proudly at the top of all story driven games. The only issue with this, comes from me trying to prove it.
The case of fanboy-ism from my end is one I have forseen, and will attempt to avoid as well as possible, which is difficult considering my adoration for the game. If there are issues in OXENFREE, then I apologize profusely at the fact that I cannot see them and have never seen them during my experiences at Edwards Island. Nevertheless, I will explain my reasoning’s behind my statements so far.
Without further ado, let me prove my point with gusto, and will do so without heavy spoilers.
Night School aren’t keen on pushing you right into the deep end. They ease you in, lay the foundations and build upon everything in a slow and endearing fashion. Alex, Ren and Jonas trundle over to Clarissa and Nona and over the short journey, you, the player, are able to set Alex’s personality in stone, with Ren and Jonas fitting perfectly no matter what. Ren is clearly a rowdy young man who Alex is more than happy to babysit, and Jonas is not used to being as open as they are, which contests with the rest of the group as the story develops.
It’s a walking simulator, as you already guessed, with a slight adventure zest to it. There’s a lot of history behind the existence of Edwards Island, and Night School have done their very darnedest to make the world yours to explore. It has the same level of interactivity that most walking sims have as well, but they’ve actually made it connect to the characters around you, so when you inspect something or attempt to move to the next area, you actually get input from your comrades.
As the ghosts start toying with the strings behind you, Alex and your partner for most of the game, Jonas, keep their hopeful nature and banter throughout, which has seen criticism. People don’t believe that anyone would act in this situation and I tend to disagree. Mind you, I cannot explain my reason behind thinking that due to the spoilers I’d have to tell, but know that when the game finishes, you’ll understand why they still retain a slight chirpy nature.
Added on to the horror element, is a simplistic but effective art style. Everything has a spindly and scrawled nature to it, which adds to the scale of the island itself. Trees surround the entire island and when paired with the characters’ skinny looks, it adds fear that if something were to happen on a physical scale, would anyone know of their fates? Would they be able to find the 5 characters afterwards?
Another character is Maggie Adler, who is there in spirit. That’s spirit in the literal sense, mind you, as it’s revealed early on that she passed away a few days before they arrived, but she plays a bigger part than you might think. It turns out she resided on Edwards Island her whole life, in a victory of, dubbed by Alex, “the Life Lottery”. Sooner or later, she was going to be involved and despite her minuscule presence, there’s a hint of her around at all times.
Dotted around the island are collectibles from Maggie Adler, letters she left for the player to discover, and you’re clued in to their location thanks to the portable radio. In these letters, information about the darker moments of the island are told to the player, and her own personal connection to the spirits themselves. Is it possible that she’s part of the entity now?
The horror sequences, used throughout the game in a regular shift, make the game that much more of a terrifying treat. The ghosts possess your friends, outright steal them at some points, and make Clarissa their own on Alex’s misunderstood word. They play childhood games with you, namely ‘Hangman’ and ‘I-Spy’, and threaten possession and further theft of your friends if you defy their requests, or simply just refuse to co-operate.
The ghosts and spirits themselves become another character as an entity. We learn they’re the vengeful souls of a disaster who merely want to be freed of the dimension they find themselves trapped in, and with Alex opening the gate for them to wander, they see their chance and take it. They see Alex and her friends as an opportunity for release, and come across more tortured than anything.
In dialogue, the entity possessing Clarissa reveals that they’ve seen the world turn over and perish time and time again, in an endless loop with nothing ever being changed, like a 24 hour marathon of The Walking Dead. And when Alex bravely defies their clutches, they laugh at her, grimacing at the thought of hope. “Do you really think there is a single solution we HAVEN’T tried that you have thought of?”
It’s moments like this that make the narrative. The debates, the shouting matches, the humanity portrayed on all ends. Night School haven’t created archetypical characters, seen in drivel such as Life is Strange, Gone Home and N.E.R.O – they’ve made human beings. Human beings with soul, emotion, life and will crafted into them. Every character on display here has a cohesive history, and with that knowledge being given to the player, you understand where they come from verbally, at all times.
All of this is backed by the soothing yet cold music of SCNTFC, who remains a well-used weapon in Night School’s arsenal. As the game starts, “Beacon Beach” begins to play, and it sets the tone immediately; a poppy, relaxed yet ultimately nihilistic soundtrack for the rest of the game. The soundtrack, which is available to purchase, fits every moment perfectly, with all 21 tracks finding a moment and makes that horror atmosphere that much heavier later on.
The OST itself has many a highlight, with a few elevating themselves into actual movements, symphonies that do more than accompany the game. “Epiphany Fields”, “Kanaloa”, “Days Past” and “Cold Comfort” in particular, stay with you after the game is long finished. All 4 of these tracks are different genres and sub-genres, yet move between them effortlessly.
Within the trippy sequences, a lot more of the history behind the characters and island are revealed to you, thanks to a nifty part of the game. With the use of your radio, you find clues for use further down the roads, tid-bits about Major Dick Harden (pfft.), the former leader stationed here, and the ghostly anomalies. When tuned into the right frequency, it sounds like the spirits are attempting to communicate with you further, with some of the anomalies predicting future events and debates.
As the night rolls on, and the ghosts imposing a time limit upon Alex, they rush for an escape plan, with the ghosts not taking kindly to their determination. They start playing with all 5 menacingly, by trying to lure Jonas away from Alex, subjecting Alex to horrific and lonely hallucinations and dreams, and all of it signifies a tonal change which comes to the player over time.
Also used sparingly by Night School, is the element of jumpscares, which are executed in a way I can forgive. In the context of the game, the spirits mess with the progression of time itself, causing Alex to be stuck in “time-loops”. Within these, time is either stopped, repeated or disappears entirely. With that in mind, and the knowledge of the spirits being pretty omnipotent within a limited space, it’s understandable that they would be able to create such moments.
It’s not like Outlast or Bioshock where they just put something behind you or in front of the door for it to scream at you. No, the ghosts are playing with the character, not the player, and in that framing device, it works. Again, it only happens once or twice throughout your 4 hour playthrough, but when it hits, it HITS, and it’s not even the main source of horror so wahey!
Near the end, the hopeful nature of the group, omitting Clarissa, remains but you can hear it cracking underneath their voices as the one last chance for freedom remains. The ghosts attempt to bargain with Alex and continue their playful tricks from before, even going so far as to fake death. Shock remains in the group, and with Alex being the most willing character out of all of them, she is forced to bear all of it.
Finally, after one last heart-breaking sequence involving a former figure in Alex’s life, the games ends with a sombre and saddening flair, with one last song from SCNTFC, “The Beach, 7AM”. The song almost sounds like a game over jingle, signifying your attempts to stop the unstoppable and possibly failing miserably, and that’s that… or is it?
Yes, the game being over doesn’t actually mean it’s over, as a 2nd playthrough adds more content, conversations and hallucinations, and other parts of the game have further context to them. Is it necessary for full enjoyment? No, in all honesty, the story of OXENFREE is told with a beautiful, almost playfully executed flair, and the first ending is fitting when the aforementioned context isn’t given to you.
Nevertheless, no matter if you end your time with OXENFREE with the first or second playthrough, Night School made a game-changer. The qualifications for further narrative-driven games from here on out have to pay attention to what Night School did and didn’t do with their debut title. I mean no hyperbole when I say OXENFREE is perfect.
Perfectly executed tone and atmosphere, perfectly told stories, perfectly crafted characters, and the pure realism of the dialogue make OXENFREE an essential for story lovers, game lovers and even movie lovers. And with the Switch version being released today, at time of writing, and the Xbox One version being free with the Games With Gold program until the 16th of October 2017, there’s never been a better time to play it. Yeah, it’s only 4 hours long, but that’s as long as it needed to be.
All killer, no filler.
An evolution of narrative design, along with being one of the most captivating and original stories ever told in media.