Oxenfree

Oxenfree is a neat little indie horror adventure game that I’ve bought on a sale for, like, two bucks. I’m not entirely sure it’s worth the full price, but as it is, it was enjoyable.

You play as Alex, a teenage girl on a trip with her friends to a remote island for a night of drinks and irresponsible actions. There is an old military base on the island turned into a museum and a cave system, which is of special interest to the protagonists since there are rumors that you can catch nonexistent radio stations near it. The rumors happened to be true, of course.

Upon arriving and catching up with everyone, Alex, accompanied by her step-brother Jonas and best friend Ren, make way for the caves. Ren just shows how to catch a few weird signals at the entrance, while Jonas insists on going inside. Alex follows and soon they find a weird yellow triangle shining on one of the walls. Alex plays around with a radio, causing the triangle to expand into some sort of gates through which mysterious voices start communicating with her, asking if leave is possible. Then shit gets weird. Alex and Jonas are teleported to another part of the island, with the rest of characters scattered across it. While they try to communicate with everyone using local radio station and gather together, it becomes clear that some weird phenomenon takes place there, with time looping onto itself in various locations and people getting possessed.

From there, it’s up to Alex and her friends to discover what’s going on and get out.

Gameplay-wise, it’s pretty eh. Mostly, you just walk around and sometimes tune your radio on the right frequency to advance the plot. There are some puzzles here and there, but they’re rudimentary, aside from the scavenger hunt late in the game, which may require some thinking. The hardest one just has a time limit and pulls a nasty surprise by reversing your screen, along with controls.

Speaking of controls, they’re rather unpolished. It’s sometimes hard to turn corners due to how path recognition works. Choosing dialogue options (which is done in real time rather than on a separate screen) is done with a mouse click, but interacting with various items around you (and also jumping over chasms, which is required often) is done by pressing Enter, while you move with WASD or arrows, meaning that you have to switch one of your hands between keyboard and mouse constantly. I think using E button for interactions would have made the process much more smooth.

Also, the dialogue options disappear after a few seconds. It’s a feature since that allows you to remain silent and allow the conversation to carry on without your input, but I generally don’t appreciate time limits when it comes to important choices.

There is also a rather annoying bug that caused a character following you to freeze in place twice. It wasn’t too game-breaking, but it did make me reload a level because the character couldn’t initiate a plot sequence, and undermined a rather dramatic moment because the character fell on the ground right before the bug kicked in, so his dramatic lines were delivered from a lying position, which is more hilarious than horrifying. Another character in the same scene was absent until halfway through it, which didn’t help either.

Overall, I’d say the game isn’t as polished as it should have been.

Those are minor quibbles, though, since the main strength of the game lies in plot and characters.

The plot itself I won’t spoil too much, but it’s a reasonably solid horror story. The only problem I had with it is that the characters arrived at the correct conclusion of what’s behind it too quickly (I though it were aliens at first, but no). There are some moments here and there that I could question, but overall I’d say it all ties together well enough and provides a good background for character exploration. So, let’s do that.

First we have Alex. Her personality is somewhat undefined since you get a lot of dialogue options and can play her as a sympathetic person always with words of comfort on her lips, as a sarcastic smartass, as an insanely confrontational person (there is even an achievement for driving all of your friends away) and so on and so forth. For the most part, she serves as an audience surrogate more than anything, and your choices is what would define her. What we do know about her is that she was close with her late brother Michael, who drowned before her eyes while she could do nothing, due to which she harbors some unresolved guilt issues. After that, her parents got divorced and then her mother married Jonas’ father. Alex is mostly OK with the development, though she feels awkward around Jonas since they don’t know each other.

The game allows you to resolve Alex’s issues with Michael’s passing, one way or another, and I’d say it’s done fairly well.

Then we have Jonas, Alex’s new step-brother. He has a rather rough life and has a juvie record, along with control issues that cut both ways: he’s got into juvie for beating up a guy for insulting his late mother, and during the plot he attempts several times to take charge over various situations and declare the course of action. While normally those are warning flags for a character, I actually found him sympathetic. He actually tries to put that incident with beating behind him and be a better person, and it’s clear that his attempts to take charge are rooted in his fear at the situation rather than malice, it’s just a coping mechanism. Most importantly, he never crosses a line to become threatening, and when he behaves unreasonably, it very clearly comes from the context rather than being how he always behaves.

Basically, he comes across as a good guy with a few rough edges rather than all edge, all the time, so Alex eventually accepting him as a brother (if you go that route) feels natural and welcome.

Ren is… OK, I guess? I’m not hot about lovable loser archetype, and Ren doesn’t bring much more to the table. He mostly acts as a comic relief and a source of light banter. He’s mostly harmless, at least, even if he can be very irresponsible, and he doesn’t fuck up anything too bad, so he’s tolerable. Plus, he’s not a pervert, which is a welcome change of pace after Japanese games that all think we need Brock in our lives. We don’t.

Nona steadfastly remains a minor character with little to no personality to speak of. She’s mostly here to move the plot a few times when you need a bit of exposition or a hint about what’s going on, and otherwise she fades into the background and mostly acts as a potential love interest for Ren (if you play a matchmaker for them). I think there are routes where her character is more explored, but I didn’t do them, and they won’t be the first choice of most players.

Finally, we have Clarissa, who is the best. She’s Nona’s friend (which is why she’s here to begin with) and Alex’s nemesis. What’s great about her is that at first she seems to be a regular mean girl archetype picking on Alex because she can and because she’s popular. However, as the story advances, we learn that the actual reason is much more personal and sympathetic. Basically, she was dating Michael and convinced him to move out of town when they go to college and live together. Before departure, Alex convinced Michael to go swimming one last time, because that was a regular pastime for them, and that was when Michael drowned, while Alex did nothing due to fear and danger. Because of that, Clarissa blames her for Michael’s death, so she’s always on Alex’s case. While not nice, her actions come from grief and hurt rather than malice, and we see in a flashback her being a pleasant person honestly and awkwardly trying to connect with Alex.

Of course, you get the chance to patch things up with her. While she and Alex never become best friends or anything, they learn to put the past behind them and enjoy what connection they do have, which is a nice message.

She also spends most of the game possessed, with mysterious voices speaking from her mouth mixing with her own anger towards Alex, which serves well to emphasize the themes of the game about letting the past go and where not doing it could lead.

Overall, I found the characters fun to watch and play with. They felt real, and their relationships were interesting enough to get me invested. Without a doubt, that’s the main strength of the game.

It is not to say there aren’t any flaws on that front.

Firstly, between Nona being a very minor character and Clarissa spending most of her time away from the main party, there is very little interaction between the girls. Alex mostly banters with Jason and Ren, rarely speaking with Nona and either avoiding or being antagonistic with Clarissa (well, when Clarissa doesn’t go all spooky on us). I think on that from the game would have benefited from swapping Ren and Nona’s genders or just turning Ren into a girl and making them lesbians. That’s if we want to preserve the matchmaker aspect, anyway, which isn’t that important to begin with.

Secondly, there is an issue of tone. The characters do feel real partly because they talk like a bunch of irreverent teenagers. Which is great during the opening scenes where they were looking forward to a night of drinking, but doesn’t seem as natural once the horror starts. I mean, they do panic and show natural reactions when bad stuff happens before them, but they slip into light banter mode pretty easily afterwards. I feel it’s not so much a mistake on writers’ side as a deliberate decision. In order to get to know and care about these characters, we are shown them acting naturally, and the focus remains squarely on that, with horror elements being more of a framing for character interactions. Still, it can be pretty jarring if you’re not in the right mood.

Finally, there is that specific thing I need to explain in detail.

So, over the course of the game, there are three instances where you can see your reflection and it suddenly stops following you before giving you a cryptic advice that becomes clear only much later. That’s genuinely good spooky stuff, especially since the game deals with time loops and timelines jumping back and forth, but unfortunately it has a resolution which fills me with RAGE.

See, near the end of the game you get to be on the other side of the mirrors and give yourself advice… Except there is the name of your Steam account above your head, and the implication is that you’re advising some other player going through the game.

Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Can one fucking indie game do without fucking meta-fiction aspects that go abso-fucking-lutely nowhere?! Because, much like with Annah in VA-11 HALL-A, nothing is ever done with it! I mean, yes, the phenomenon is connected to a place outside of our reality, so from its point of view time looks very different, various different timelines exist at the same time, intersecting and intertwining until everything stops, but it’s not a big aspect of the game. Everything we see is contained to one world, one battered timeline and, more importantly, everything we see, including the phenomenon as well, is very much on the other side of the fourth wall from us.

Suddenly involving the player as an active agent within the narrative where there were no prior indication of such and nothing follows that is jarring, pointless and overdone. You are not being clever by suddenly going meta for no fucking reason other than because you can, you’re being obnoxiously in love with your own cleverness. Don’t. Do. That.

It doesn’t help that the game can’t even be bothered to commit to what it tried to do 100%. The advices of your reflections are chosen by you (once they’re turned upside-down, though, making it difficult to understand what you pick before you do) instead of, say, being choices a player who completed the game before you started picked (which should be possible to do since Steam does get data about your playthrough). So the meta-aspect is not only pointless, it fails a basic examination. When you involve a player as an active agent, it’s vitally important to make sure that the experience of an in-game “player” and an actual player before the monitor match up, and that’s clearly not the case here. I’m not advised by other players, as was the intention, it’s very clearly me picking the advice, just without context to make it understandable.

I swear, if this continues, I’m going to just follow in Farla’s footsteps and write a copypasta about how not to meta-fic.

Ugh, OK, moving on.

The final flaw is the twist ending. Specifically, that it’s actually done twice. First in the denouement scene on the boat where it’s subtle, ambiguous and easy to miss and later in the epilogue narrated by Alex where it’s made clear. I actually liked the twist ending from the horror perspective, plus it actually ties neatly into game mechanics (unlike certain other aspect), so it’s a shame seeing it misused like that.

So, that would be all.

The game isn’t perfect by any means, but overall I found it enjoyable. The characters really carry it to the end, and the mystery of the island is intriguing enough to keep my attention. For the most part, the narrative flaws don’t detract from the strengths, and the gameplay isn’t too repetitive or annoying, aside from the controls issue. It’s a fine little game that could have been better, but even as it is, I don’t feel that my time was wasted playing it.

In conclusion, have some character portraits:

Note the design of the three female characters.

30 Comments

  1. Act says:

    This has been on my Steam wishlist for a while for much the same reason — kept popping up in sales and looked interesting. I like the art a lot.

    1. illhousen says:

      Yeah, if you can get it on sale, it’s worth it. Otherwise you’d probably need to be a fan of the genre to not feel like your money’s wasted.

      The playtime is around 8 hours, by the way, give or take depending on how obsessive you are about discovering every secret.

      It also has a bit of a new game+ content and replayability due to different routes, so that’s a bonus.

      Oh, and the soundtrack is nice.

      1. Act says:

        JFC that price. Indie games can be great, but their own bloated sense of importance is batshit.

        1. Roarke says:

          This is why I warned you away from Limbo/Inside, by the by. It was even worse when they came out. Like $20 for four hours of gameplay. I can point people to games I’ve played for hundreds of hours and never paid a single cent. (The current such game is Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, but the reason it’s free is because it’s an old-school roguelike that’s too difficult and unforgiving to sell).

        2. illhousen says:

          Yeah, I was lucky to get it just before the end of sale when it was 75% off.

  2. Nerem says:

    You know, I think the Lovable Loser I’ve liked the most was actually the Lovable Loser Gang from Super Robot Wars Z. Who are villains, actually, so you get to beat them up. They’re basically three villains from four different factions who are absolutely bad people, but amusing nonetheless. They’re not terribly threatening and mostly show up in breather missions. There’s Gates, the psycho with a fetish for everything but also has a lot of legit funny jokes. Timp, who is basically the villain from a western who mostly likes needling and teasing his rival. Beck, who is a harmless Batman villain and is the only one to join the party. And finally Kan Yu, a cowardly and treacherous soldier who can’t get over his rival being better then him and also being hired to kill him at that.

    They’re basically low-level villains without much power but really make it by being funny foils to their rivals and never giving up despite being insanely outmatched always.

  3. Nerem says:

    Also, I should add that everyone thinks they’re Undertale, but like you said, the reason why Undertale worked is because the meta aspect was underpinning everything, instead of being a one-time deal.

    It’s why I think certain visual novels worked while Ever17 did not – Ever17’s twist was basically completely undermined by the rest of the game setting itself up so you could never see the twist.

    1. Act says:

      I really cannot wait for the deconstruction/metafiction trend to die. Unfortunately every time I think it’s waning someone comes along and does it well and gets the whole thing going again. >.>

      1. illhousen says:

        Yeah, I don’t know. I like good deconstructions that actually, you know, deconstruct stuff and expose the rot in media. All the people who think they can do it and that stop at pointing out obvious stuff (player is actually a player!) and gawking at it are a problem, but then, people who try to imitate good stuff and fail badly are always a thing, deconstruction or no deconstruction, and they aren’t going away.

        Then again, it seems like the current trend is to make a good game like VA-11 HALL-A and then fuck it up with dumb meta, so maybe trend dying would help that…

        1. Roarke says:

          Can I just say, I’m glad you liked VA-11 HALL-A. That shit was good and I needed to share it.

          1. Act says:

            I should finish it, I was enjoying it.

            1. Roarke says:

              It’s time for you to mix drinks and change lives.

              Reply
            2. illhousen says:

              Yeah, you should. Just be prepared to be majorly disappointed in Annah thing.

              Reply
      2. Socordya says:

        You just need to write a story that’s a deconstruction of deconstructions! How hard can it be?

        No, wait, nevermind. Everybody would just start copying it.

        1. illhousen says:

          That sounds like a singularity of pretentiousness.

          Someone should do it so I can point and laugh at them.

    2. illhousen says:

      Yeah, when you go meta, you need to go all the way with no brakes. Like Umineko. And you need to be insightful about stories we tell and why we tell them and you need to make everything connect and still get a coherent story at the end.

      It’s massively easier to just tell a straight story, but nooo, people must be “clever” about this shit.

      As a result, we get those “hey, have you thought about how you’re actually just a player behind the screen and not actually the character you control? Cool, huh?”

      And, yes, yes I know that. The thing is, it’s your fucking job, devs, to convince me otherwise, and you just failed.

      In conclusion, fuck that noise.

      1. Roarke says:

        You can work with light meta in a story, though. It just needs to be treated lightly, as if it were just trim or garnish. Video games poking fun at their physical medium and paraphernalia has been going on for a really long time. I really don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing situation. Metal Gear Solid 2 is pretty famous for devolving into batfuck meta at the end, calling out the player for everything they’ve done way before Undertale and the like did, telling you to turn off the game, etc. It was all done without a lick of subtlety and only affected like 10% of the plot, but I thought it was really well-done, and still do, for the time.

        1. illhousen says:

          Hm, I think the core issue here is that there must be a purpose behind the meta, it must be used to tell us something about stories that isn’t blatantly obvious, and it must be internally consistent with the rest of the game.

          The issue with the mirrors (or with Annah) is that it doesn’t tie to anything and doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know or thought already. It’s pointless, and the game won’t change much at all if you erase it entirely.

          All it accomplishes is breaking immersion without giving me anything in return, and so I hate it.

          1. Roarke says:

            I think the strongest examples of metafictional elements actually maintain immersion, like with MGS2 or Undertale. With Undertale, for example, it felt right that some monsters could screw with your interface. Asgore trashing the MERCY button, for instance, felt intense. MGS2 introduced the whole Fission Mailed thing, where the game pretends you lost, but the answer to the puzzle is to keep playing and ignore the interface screw. It was totally silly and happened right in the middle of a fight with a hundred ninjas, but it was still so cool.

            1. illhousen says:

              Yeah, good meta incorporates meta stuff into the narrative. Undertale plot works because the load and reset functions are powers you have in-game. That way, you can’t hide behind “I just defended myself” or “I must become stronger in order to survive” or other shit like that. Every murder is deliberate, every murder can be avoided, your victory is always assured as long as you stay determined, which is what allows the narrative (represented by Sans) to judge you for your actions.

              It makes the story stronger.

              Likewise, with Umineko it’s spoiler, so spoilers, which is what allows spoiler to spoil.

              Reply
        2. SpoonyViking says:

          Not just at the end. It’s most obvious at the end, of course, but “MGS2” is filled with meta. I firmly believe the whole point of the game was to deconstruct the players who just wanted “MOAR SOLID SNAKE” and didn’t care about anything else.

          There’s a very good argument for the whole game (or at least, as soon as you take control of Raiden) being nothing more than a VR simulation.

          1. Roarke says:

            I firmly believe the whole point of the game was to deconstruct the players who just wanted “MOAR SOLID SNAKE” and didn’t care about anything else.

            It certainly was, but the game’s designers weren’t always using metafictional tools towards that purpose. Like I said, they mostly slid into that towards the end. Before that it was in the game’s writing, tone, and general attitude towards war.

            I mean, Metal Gear Solid, from 2 onwards, has always low-key been about shitting on people who go through the game shooting. The games always explicitly tell you to avoid combat/killing within the opening cutscenes, and the only way to unlock the best stuff is by being perfectly stealthy. The games have never once rewarded a player, narratively or otherwise, for killing. In that way, I’d say it’s even better than Undertale, because Undertale rewards you for killing with two incredible boss fights you’ll never see otherwise.

            1. SpoonyViking says:

              Before that it was in the game’s writing, tone, and general attitude towards war.

              Oh, I’m not talking about just that. There are degrees of metafiction, from the subtle to the overt. The stuff you mentioned, like the “Fission Mailed” screen and so on and so forth, is overt, but there’s a lot more subtle* stuff going on since earlier.

              * Which is probably the only time in the series Kojima manages to be subtle, come to think of it.

              Reply
            2. Roarke says:

              I mean, it’s been a really long time since I played it as a tadpole, so I’ll take you at your word that it’s there. 

              Reply
    3. Roarke says:

      Well, the other reason Undertale worked is that it was very, very well-written and had a skele-ton of effort put into it. It’s not half-assed, like this thing here.

      1. illhousen says:

        Eh, I wouldn’t actually say this game is half-assed. It’s rough (also, apparently it’s a port from PS or was developed for PS and PC, which explains a lot about controls) and has that irritating meta element, but the writing is actually good for the most part, and the game is rather clearly a labor of LOVE.

        As I said, I don’t feel my time wasted and would probably play again at some point.

        1. Roarke says:

          Ah, so only the meta was half-assed. That is fine, then.

          1. illhousen says:

            Yeah, I’m headcanoning it hard into just another version of Alex giving your Alex advice she herself learned on her own journey. Should be possible, actually.

            Doesn’t quite work with your future self advising your past self, unfortunately, since you can pick different responses, and at the point it’s happening it won’t make sense for Alex to change her mind. Shame, that would have been an elegant solution.

  4. Nerem says:

    A manga/novel I read dealt with this kind of meta pretty well. The Qualia of Purple/Purple Qualia, about a girl who discovers that her best friend has eyes that see into a parallel world where everyone is a robot, and because of her perception can actually interact with everyone like they are robots. So when she loses her arm her friend fixes it with a cellphone and other ‘parts’, and phone made from a parallel world gives her the ability to talk to alternate versions of herself. So when her friend is kidnapped and murdered, she uses it to begin an omni-universal quest to save her friend, with the parallel worlds being metaphorically referred to as saving and loading.

  5. illhousen says:

    Oxenfree is currently on Steam sale and goes for less than 2$, so it’s the right time to buy it for those interested.

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