By Jonathon Dornbush
January 14, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
  • Video Games

Letting players choose dialogue options for characters in games is nothing new, but rarely have those choices felt as genuine and true to life as they do in Oxenfree. The adventure game from Night School Studio demonstrates its special habit for nailing a realistic tone in every scene, even as the story takes a ride for the supernaturally wild. That adventure wears its influences on its sleeves, but Oxenfree never feels like an imitation of its inspirations.

Instead, Oxenfree feels fresh, both emotionally evocative in how well-rounded its characters are and enthralling in how the story of its world unfolds in its tale of maturing, moving on, and meddling with forces unknown.

Oxenfree tells the story of five teenagers heading to Edwards Island for what should be a night of fun, exploration, and maybe just a bit of underage drinking. Players take on the role of Alex, who has brought along her new stepbrother Jonas to the night of revelry. Their friends Ren, Nona, and Clarissa are also along for the occasion.

Despite how calmly Oxenfree begins, with an extended sequence as the kids’ ferry pulls into port, it’s a surprisingly refreshing kickoff, signaling what at its core makes Oxenfree so consistently special. As the boat arrives at its destination and the kids set up a bonfire on the beach, the group is spitting dialogue around like they’re the staff of Jed Bartlet’s White House. Smart, funny, and insightful, the dialogue immediately establishes the pace and patter of the game while outlining who these characters are and what they mean to one another.

More so than that, it all sounds like what teenagers would actually say, and that achievement is nothing short of a miracle. Teens can be difficult to nail in film and TV as it is, and are less explored in gaming (last year’s Life Is Strange made a valiant effort but was saddled with leaden dialogue). But all of Oxenfree’s teen characters sound as they should — full of themselves yet undercut by a timidity of the future. Each has their underlying Breakfast Club-like archetype (Ren is the stoner, Clarissa is the mean girl, etc.), but Oxenfree goes the extra mile in making them feel like so much more.

That is due in part to the dialogue options. As Alex, players can shape her dynamic with the other four main characters, mending some friendships, reinforcing others, or making new ones. And because the dialogue sounds so natural (and is performed so earnestly by Erin Yvette as Alex and the rest of the cast), those relationships mattered on a deeper level beyond a means of playing through the game. They become relationships to care about nurturing (or tearing down, depending on your inclinations).

Oxenfree reiterates the importance of these connections scene after scene, which essentially boil down to a series of West Wing walk-and-talks. The discussion is always going, always important to either the characters or the plot as players explore a beautifully mapped out island to find a means of escaping the dark turn the evening takes. 

Those relationships become paramount as Oxenfree’s story takes a hard right from the familiar to the freaky. What should be a fun night twists into one of madness, confusion, and an endeavor to make it through the night. Oxenfree delivers some genuinely unsettling, spooky scenarios. Along the way, the history of Edwards Island will come into play just as much as the ties among the group do in an unexpectedly affecting tale, crafting an enticing breadcrumb trail of clues as you work to solve the mystery of the whole eerie ordeal.

Those Lost, Twin Peaks, and Whedon inspirations aren’t just surface level touches. Oxenfree takes Alex, and by extension the player, to some powerful places, in a coming-of-age story that wrestles in heartfelt fashion with the idea of moving on in age, in life, and in regard to the people around you. Finding a part of yourself in these characters is easy to do when they’re presented in such a fully realized form, and it makes Oxenfree’s entire story one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in recent games.

From its methodically paced opening scene to the memorable, frightening tale unraveling around Erin and her friends, Oxenfree leaves a lasting impression, a reminder of how impactful your relationships to others can be during those formative years, that has lingered for weeks since finishing it, and will likely continue to do so for weeks to come.

  • Video Games