Oxenfree is a small game, set in a small game universe, that offers some of the most authentic human drama that I've seen in any medium.
OxenfreePublisher: Night School Studio
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Night School Studio
Release Date: 2016-01-15
To put it simply, Oxenfree is exceptional. The game world looks beautiful, the characters look beautiful, the characters animate beautifully, the gameplay is simple and elegant, and it innovates on the adventure genre. None of this is why Oxenfree is an exceptional game. Most of its beauty as an experience is found in its commitment to authentic characters and their naturalness as human beings, something most video games are not often capable of.
Five graduating seniors meet on an island for a final sendoff to their adolescence, a nerd, a mean girl, a Bohemian chick, a new arrival, and the protagonist, Alex, a girl who has recently lost a brother and gained a step brother (the aforementioned “new arrival”). Each of the characters is more than merely a typology, though those types are useful in initially getting to know them. Each character has clearly drawn relationships to the others, a clear sense of how they initially feel about one another, and their own personal agenda for joining one another for this final rite of passage to adulthood.
The interpersonal drama this evokes is the heart of the game, as the way that Alex reacts and responds to these characters and the situations that they get into will effect her own relationship to each one, as well as to one another. All of this human drama is then framed by the strange events taking place in a single night on Edwards Island, which include encounters with ghosts, time displacement, and other weird and eerie happenings.
This “main plot” is interesting, and as I said, weird and eerie, and involves unearthing the secret history of this strange, seemingly cursed island. This is an adventure story for sure. However, once again, much like a Hitchcock film, the central conceit of this drama is not what actually drives the player's interest. It is the dynamics of a group of very well developed characters and the various parts of human nature that are exposed through these interactions that are really what makes the storytelling compelling.
While this is an adventure game and you will need to solve simple puzzles to open gateways to progress the plot, it isn't like any adventure game that I can recall playing. Usually adventure games are stories that include puzzles, occasionally stalling out a plotline as the player attempts to figure out what to do next. Here, instead, the plot is always moving forward, characters are constantly speaking to one another, and, thus, the story never feels interrupted by the needs of the game, nor does the game feel interrupted by the plot. The plot and the gameplay become one unified, seamless experience. Characters have goals, they set off to accomplish them, and they respond and react to each circumstance right alongside any activity that you, as the player, need to accomplish.
Alex and her friends are each written beautifully. These characters sound and act like five young adults. They reveal uncertainty and bravado, anger and caring, resentment and desire for one another, while talking like real people do, over one another, to one another, and despite one another.
These are quite simply the most natural video game characters that I have ever seen in any game really. They aren't overly melodramatic. They aren't forced to perform weird “video gamey” actions, like have a discussion, fight 100 orcs, and then continue their discussion in the next cutscene. They do grapple with the weird, possibly supernatural anomalies on Edwards Island, but what in-game actions they take still always drives forward their own observations and relationships, which is why we care about any of the occult events on the island -- that is, because we care about them.
I've written over 150 video game reviews in the past decade, and I have given only two games a score of 10 in that time, Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V. These are huge games with amazingly crafted and complicated worlds, full of interesting characters, interesting social commentary, and interesting and highly varied games systems. Both games still seem to me deserving of my scores. Oxenfree is a small game, set in a small game universe, with only a few game systems at play within that universe. However, what it offers is some of the most authentic human drama I've seen in any medium, and it does so in a way well suited to both this medium and storytelling in general. It is exceptional. Play it.