Given that most teenagers themselves barely know what they’re thinking, or why they do the things they do, it’s understandably difficult for game developers—far past their own adolescence, usually—to create convincing characters on the cusp of adulthood. So it’s to the credit of Oxenfree and its creators, Night School Studios, that its young heroes not only feel authentic, but endearingly so.
Set on a largely deserted island in the Pacific Northwest, Oxenfree centers on Alex, a soon-to-graduate high school student whose best friend, Ren, convinces her to sneak out for a traditional end-of-year bonfire in the isolated locale. (If that sounds like a premise straight out of an ’80s slasher flick, it’s not a coincidence.) She’s accompanied by her brand new stepbrother Jonas, brought into her life just hours before by her mother’s recent remarriage.
Given that Oxenfree is largely driven by the choices you make in its conversation, it’s unsurprising that the act of tentatively unraveling—or not, maybe—the complicated, grief-strained new relationship between these two is a major part of its dialogue and appeal. (The influence of Telltale, meanwhile, is all over the place, from alumni writer Adam Hines to the game’s vocal casting, which includes a fantastic performance from The Wolf Among Us and Tales From The Borderlands’ Erin Yvette as Alex.)
Ren, Alex, and Jonas are joined on the island by two more teens—haughty Clarissa and shy, sarcastic Nona—who, like the rest of Oxenfree’s characters, are easy to describe, but complex beneath the surface. The group assembles on the island’s beach, where Ren badgers Alex into pulling out the small transistor radio he asked her to bring along—an object that proves key to most of the game’s events.
After the intuitive and simple dialogue tree, the radio is Oxenfree’s most important feature, and its use constitutes the closest thing the game gets to traditional puzzles. The island is full of strange electromagnetic phenomena—shining lights, strange tears in space, and haunting, lost voices—and Alex’s radio is the only way to interact with them. Happily, this is just as intuitive as talking; hit a button to bring up the dial, then scroll through the frequencies until something comes through—or starts to shake, in the case of the island’s more ominous secrets.
Because there’s something very wrong on Edwards Island, a supernatural presence that Alex and Jonas swiftly bring down on their (and their friends’) heads when curiosity leads them to tune into the wrong frequency in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oxenfree shifts between two basic tones: teenage banter (and its attendant emotional drama) and outright horror, and when it indulges in the latter, it does so with a certain measure of art, mixing traditional jump scares with an effective sense of tension and dread. It also gets pleasantly trippy and surreal at certain points, as time is rendered strange and malleable under the supernatural assault.
It’s in the former mode, though—teenagers talking to, joking with, and yelling at each other as they traverse the island, searching for their separated friends—that the game does its best work, and where it distinguishes itself from its most obvious inspirations. Each of the kids on the island is carrying a fair amount of baggage, and the game teases their traumas out with a slow-paced assurance that speaks of writers who know their characters very well. Alex, especially, is an engaging, distinctive protagonist, and even though it comes to you to choose her responses, each piece of dialogue option the game offers is stamped with her personality, guilt, anxiety, and hopes.
It’s worth digging into that dialogue system, too. With a few exceptions, every meaningful choice in Oxenfree happens in dialogue, from Alex’s decision to drink—or not—at the opening bonfire, to choosing the ultimate fate of her various friends. (Not that it’s all afterschool specials or doom and gloom, either; sometimes it’s just deciding which dumb joke to tell your friends.) Those choices add up, too, in a way that feels suitably weighty. There’s no “Clementine will remember you said that,” prompt to wag its finger at you, but the game makes it clear that what you’re saying is having an impact on the people around you, to the point where it can be easy to be caught off guard when the game throws your words back at you hours after the fact. Alex can be scared, inquisitive, brave, callous, or cruel, depending on what you choose, and the game does a great job of making it feel like those decisions matter. Its non-episodic nature doesn’t hurt, either. In contrast to Telltale’s serialized output, Night School can push players toward diverse endings without having to worry about picking the pieces back up in a couple of months.
As the multiple Telltale references in this review probably make clear, Oxenfree isn’t the most innovative game. Nor is it the most exciting. When you’re not being menaced by mysterious figures, you’ll spend most of your time with it following a clearly laid out story, wandering through lush backgrounds, swapping jokes with friends, and occasionally staring at a radio dial. But it’s very good at what it sets out to do: Hand players the reins of an engaging horror story, and give them the tools to craft one believable teenage girl’s reaction to its extraordinary events.