Oxenfree is a Young Adult story about a girl named Alex, a group of her friends, and the supernatural entities they get involved with on a mysterious island. Like most mysterious islands, this one is an attractive hang out spot for teens looking to escape from their normal lives for a night, and what begins as a night of unsupervised drinking becomes something much more sinister and dangerous.
On its face, Oxenfree is a standard, though well-written, young adult coming-of-age story, the story of One Big Night that offers life lessons to its teenage characters. However, beneath that generic surface is a story that undercuts and deconstructs the very idea of coming of age, the idea that there’s this arbitrary line in a person’s emotional development in which we go from “child” to “adult”, from someone young enough that we should be taking advice to someone old enough that we should be giving advice. Oxenfree argues that there is no line, there is no coming of age.
There are several moments in the game in which we see our reflection in a mirror or in a lake, and our reflection gives us advice on our current supernatural situation. The advice seems like nonsense in the moment — in my game, my reflection told me to tell Michael, my dead older brother, that he should stay in a relationship with Clarissa, the mean girl of our group. Besides the fact that Michael is dead, Clarissa is such an asshole that any decision that makes her happy seems to be the wrong decision.
However, a few supernatural time traveling shenanigans later, I’m in the past and talking with my soon-to-be-dead brother about his future. He asks about his relationship with Clarissa, and I’m given a choice in how to respond. In retrospect, it’s now clear that my reflection was speaking to me from the future. So do I say what my future-reflection advised, or do I reject her? Will rejecting that advice cause some sort of time paradox? Was my future self trying to change the past by telling me to do something different, or was she trying to keep the timeline intact?
There are a lot of questions raised in this moment that deal with the philosophical consequences of time travel, but at the core of this issue is something much simpler: Do I agree with that advice?
Oxenfree isn’t actually interested in those philosophical questions about time travel. That sci-fi plotting is just a means of digging into issues of identity and personal growth, specifically regarding teenagers.
As noted, Oxenfree is a coming-of-age story about a group of teens and the One Big Night that changes their lives forever. It’s the kind of story in which the main character usually ends up learning an important lesson about life, love, loss, friendship, family, or all of the above. Alex should, ostensibly, leave the island as a more mature woman. This trope and the degree to which Oxenfree plays into it is what tempts us to follow the advice of our future-reflection. She’s supposed to be us, but grown up just a little bit more.
However, the point of giving us a choice in this moment is that we’re meant to realize that we don’t have to agree. We can do something different. That’s why this isn’t just a cut scene. Do we do what we’re told, or do we forge our own path through this world? We’re meant to consider who we are and our relationship with others, relationships each player has developed organically based on dialogue choices, and to consider how those things might change or not change in the future, and then to make our own decision. The point of this moment (and the others like it throughout the game) is to realize that we don’t have to do what we’re told.
In any normal coming-of-age story this would be a moment of tragedy, a moment in which my youthful arrogance is exposed, setting me up to be eventually humbled when I come to better understand my fragile place in the world. But Oxenfree doesn’t judge us for breaking away from the supposedly correct timeline — the game actually justifies it.
Behind the scenes, when our future-reflection gives us that advice, it’s either speaking based on the selection of someone on our Friends list, or the game is just selecting a response at random. Or we could even be selecting the advice ourselves. After all, the dialogue bubbles are always backwards, and in one case, upside down as well, so reading them is difficult. However, I’m certain that I hit a button by instinct and that became my future-reflection’s advice. The point is that we don’t really know where the information is coming from.
In the context of the narrative, we’re inclined to take this advice because it seems to be coming from someone in a position of authority, someone who knows more than we do. Yet, in reality, it’s either coming from my current present-self, the random guess of a computer, or from a friend. What seems like a confident statement is actually a rather poorly considered one. That’s not to say that it is bad advice, as one choice in particular can save a character’s life, but it is advice that is not coming from a place of knowledge or maturity. Our figure of authority is anything but.
On top of all this, when it comes time for us to do the time travel thing and actually become the reflection, now giving advice to our past selves, we get that same dialogue tree for a third time. Again, the important part of this being that one choice is that we can choose something different than we did before. We don’t have to follow what was said or done. We can change our mind about everything or nothing.
Did I only reluctantly follow my future-reflection’s advice? Then, here’s my chance to say what I really think that I should have done. Did I regretfully not follow the advice? Then, here’s my chance to repeat it, as if this emphasis will matter to my past self. The point here is that while we’re free to say what we want, we also know that it won’t actually matter one bit. Our past selves are still free to ignore or follow us as they see fit because we’re not the same person as our reflection in the mirror. This timeline is not a closed loop in which we’re fated to repeat ourselves. It is an open loop in which every option is always possible. Therefore, we can never truly know better than our past selves because we don’t know the life that they’ll lead, the choices that they’ll make.
Oxenfree undercuts the idea that we can ever truly come of age. Our future self is first presented as a kind of guide, but that guidance is based on guesswork and luck. We have many future selves, and each one would give different advice to our past selves, and each one would think that it is giving the best advice. When it comes time for us to speak to our past self, we’re not really speaking from a place of authority because we still don’t know how that original advice will play itself out. We’re just making what seems like the best decision in the moment.
Age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom. Growing older doesn’t necessarily make us more mature. Going through hardship, whether normal or supernatural, doesn’t necessarily give us insight into how to avoid or endure similar hardship.
As a final kicker, the last line of dialogue in the game is also the first line of dialogue — literally. The line is repeated to us as the screen fizzles out like an old VHS tape and time rewinds, and we find ourselves back at the beginning again, starting the night over. Time is not a closed loop, we’re free to explore every possibility in our relationships and personal growth, but there’s no definitive end to that growth. This is what coming of age looks like, argues Oxenfree. It is not a straight line of increasing maturity and wisdom, but a loop in which we repeat the confused, desperate, guesswork of childhood, over and over again.