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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

[What We Play in the Shadows] Exploring a Creepy Island of Teenage Angst and Grief in ‘Oxenfree’

Grief is a universal constant. Wherever we’re from, whoever we are, we’ve all experienced trauma so deep that it leaves a mark on our souls. Some people carry that mark with the help of family and friends. Others push it down, hoping to bury it beneath new memories. And still, others try to change what’s already been set in stone, as if believing in themselves hard enough will erase the past and rewrite the present. Oxenfree is about all three of those people.

The game opens with a gloomy sky and a weirdly upbeat voice-over. Alex, the player character, finds herself on a ferry to Edwards Island with Ren, her longtime friend who never shuts up, and Jonas, her brand new step-brother she doesn’t know that much about. Their plan? To meet other high-schoolers on the diminutive beach and spend the night drinking. When they get there, only Clarissa and her friend Nona are accounted for, a much smaller group than expected. Nevertheless, the teens get down to business.

After a few rounds of Truth or Slap (exactly what it sounds like), Ren convinces Alex and Jonas to test the rumor he’s heard that if you stand in the right place and tune the frequency of an analog radio just so, weird things will happen. In an attempt to humor him, Alex does as she’s told. Before long, Jonas is lost in a cave, ominous voices are coming through the channels, and the next ferry not stopping by for 12 hours is the least of their worries.

It’s often said that originality is the art of concealing your sources. We all know that The Matrix is a giant stew of action flicks, westerns, martial arts, philosophy, and religion, but the way the filmmakers combined all the ingredients together made it a unique and entertaining movie. Well, Oxenfree is a giant stew of a video game. There are echoes of Twin Peaks, Welcome To Night Vale, even Gravity Falls is mixed in here and there. The game gets a lot of mileage out of the inherent creepiness of the Pacific Northwest, with its endless trees and constant rain. The sound design is masterful. Every clap of thunder, every creaky door adds to the dread. This isn’t the kind of story that hinges on jump scares, but rather keeps treading water in an ocean of uneasiness. Every new location will have the player thinking “Oh no, what’s going to happen now?”

Speaking of those locations, they are gorgeous to behold. Each background has a watercolor look that makes everything feel like it came right out of a (very messed up) storybook. The player’s vantage point is always kept at a distance, as if observing all the events that unfold through binoculars. This not only adds to the painterly quality but makes it easier to focus on the story. And what a story. Oxenfree shows remarkable restraint in the first 20 minutes, letting you explore the island’s tiny main street and taking part in the Truth or Slap game before things go all freaky. The next four to six hours are nearly overflowing with Kubrick nods, dark humor, and teenage angst.

To say much more would force spoilers, and this is definitely the kind of tale that should be discovered at ones’ own pace. The primary game mechanic involves your radio, as it has the capacity to locate anomalies, relay crucial information, and even unlock certain doors. Some frequencies may seem useless -indecipherable blathering, snippets of Bugs Bunny cartoons from the 1940s- but in their own small way, they still tie into the plot and the mystery of the island.

That’s not entirely true, however. The primary game mechanic isn’t the radio, it’s Alex herself. Oxenfree features a frankly revolutionary dialogue system, in which the player can naturally respond to the other characters using one of three choices. They can wait until their friend finishes speaking, they can interrupt to make their voice heard, or they can choose to say nothing at all. Each of Alex’s comrades will react dynamically to these choices, and the ending can be changed based on how people are treated and what outcomes you pursue. This system and the dialogue it’s built on make these kids feel real, and their terror all the more pressing. There are a few moments in the game -avoiding spoilers is SO difficult here- where the choices made can affect endings for people besides yourself even. Think carefully, choose quickly. The multiple choices and endings, hidden achievements, radio anomalies, and letters to find make for lots of replay value.

Honestly, this game left me feeling emotionally exhausted. It also left me with my jaw hanging open, marveling at the cleverness of the presentation and the gutpunch of an ending I received. Like so many others, the creators of Oxenfree (Night School Studio in their game debut) use the trappings of horror to convey deeper and sadder truths about the human condition. We are born, we live, we die. But between those moments, others live and die, and that’s what we carry with us.

Oxenfree is available on Steam, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3623280/play-shadows-exploring-creepy-island-teenage-angst-grief-oxenfree/

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