You have two ends with horror: you’re either loud and bombastic or quiet and introspective. On the conspicuous end, there’s something like Until Dawn. It succeeded not only because of its mashing of I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Descent, but it made me believe that its characters were always in mortal peril. It had high tension and excellent production values, so it rates highly on the unsubtle end of the horror genre.
With quiet and introspective games, it’s a little harder to pull off. You have to draw people in, make them care about the characters, have the music and the cues be just right. The best Silent Hill games were these types of experiences. The atmosphere would ratchet the tension to ridiculous heights, but done through ambient noise, foggy streets and the feeling that horror is always somehow the characters fault.
Oxenfree, while not strictly a horror game, deserves to be ranked as one of the better examples of those quiet, introspective experiences. It pushes its characters in interesting and unsettling ways, in equal parts due to its presentation, setting and writing.
Originally released in early-2016, Oxenfree is an adventure game developed by Night School Studio. In it, a group of five late-teens visit a local island at night in a test of courage. According to those that have done it before, you go, post up on the beach, take a radio and hear some strange things while dialing in to certain stations. Then you have a couple of drinks, stare at a bonfire, and do whatever it is that teens do sans supervision. Only this time, things become more complicated. When the teens dial into frequencies that were better off left alone, they have an evening to save themselves and uncover the truth of what happened several decades prior.
Despite the standard horror movie plot, Oxenfree differentiates itself from other stories of its type by making you care about its cast. You start out on a ferry with main character Alex listening to her new step-brother talking with her friend about the history of Edwards island, the area they’re about to visit. When they address her, you can choose how she reacts to them. However, unlike other games where you can choose dialogue options, you have to be aware about your timing. If you take too long, the conversation will continue without your input. Rapid-fire reactions will cut people off. It helps make conversations feel more natural; leading you to let people talk so you can hear them out. It helps that they dialogue is well-written. Unlike Life is Strange, another adventure game starring kids in their late-teens, the conversations feel natural and lack attempts at sounding hip.
Excellent writing and performance aside, Oxenfree is an aural treat. It’s atmospheric soundtrack, composed and performed by SCNTFC, nails the feeling of isolation that Alex and her friends would experience. Early on, you get something that sounds closer to an 80’s mystery/adventure with a dash of mischief. However, as things start to get worse for our plucky teens, the soundtrack begins to mix radio static, Morse Code and ambient sound waves to unbalance you. It has quickly become one of my favorite soundtracks and if you have an affinity for artists like S U R V I V E or Kavinsky, I think you’ll dig it.
The game is also gorgeous. Presented in 2.5D, each area looks like it was put together by Laika, with characters that could’ve walked out of Coraline or Para-Norman. The large areas look appropriately desolate, with the abandoned locations looking super-creepy. Considering that it is set in the Pacific Northwest, there are the required amounts of fog-wreathed woods and cold, empty beaches to let you know that things aren’t quite right. It does feel like a visual off-shoot of Twin Peaks, especially when stuff gets weird in the second half of the game.
Oxenfree also feels like the right length. You’ll be done in five to six hours, with a fetch quest near the end that feels like extra padding. You typically won’t be revisiting areas unless you’re looking for the hidden radio stations, which can be found when you come across a cairn. There are also pages from a characters journal that can be found later. Both aren’t necessary to complete the story, but the give you some insight on what happened decades earlier. There’s also a New Game +, but I can’t talk about it too much without spoiling the ending. Let’s just say that there are multiple ways that things can play out and you’ll need to a bit more poking around if you want to definitively solve things.
You can pick up Oxenfree on Steam for Mac or PC. It’s also available on the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One. The soundtrack can be purchased from Steam or through SCNTFC’s Bandcamp page.