Oxenfree is an incredible horror game in a painterly art style. With some alternate timelines, being stuck in some time loops, making decisions, as well as being able to get multiple endings, it felt like a horror version of Life Is Strange.
The game is entirely based on dialogue and interactions with the surrounding objects, Alexandra, or Alex for short, is the main heroine of the story. This blue haired girl uncovers some dark secrets of the island and makes sure to stay sane on top of it all. When it came to communicating with people, normal conversations through speech were the way to go, but when it came to communicating with supernatural beings that existed on the island, (Edward’s Island), it was the radio that helped with the conversations. It is a mechanic introduced as soon as the game starts and introduces past events too since many characters talk about how the radio has been used in the past on this particular island.
Unlike in most games, once each objective was completed it didn’t just disappear from the notes, but it was just scribbled out. That reminds me of the way I travel, I usually have a little screenshot of a map on my phone and note down whatever I found to be interesting to see in the future. Though if I was too distracted by other notes that I scribbled I’d erase some of them, or just cross over them like Alex does. And just like in real life, yes I will make that connection a lot, there were so many alternative routes to get to other areas! The map wasn’t making everything too obvious, it was just areas marked out on a map without specific routes. Yes, dead ends were a thing too, but I didn’t quite mind that, it gave me a chance to explore the areas a bit more.
Knowing that the game is about the looping of time, and is made to be replayed, I myself felt a bit stuck in time, replaying scenes over and over to see different options taking me to a very similar ending. Moving around as the character of Alex, I had the chance to have different types of relationships with her friends, as well as her new step-brother. Obviously, that meant a different ending too. The first time I played the game I ended up making a friend an enemy, the second time I played I ended up keeping my step-brother at a distance, but at the same time, I managed to bring two of my friends together into a romantic relationship.
I liked how different interactions and choices change these relationships, in a way I found it quite similar to real life. Whatever I did, I couldn’t keep everyone as close as I wanted to, since some of the characters did have a few arguments. From my experiences in real life, some people will despise each other while others will click together like puzzle pieces. Oxenfree reflected perfectly on this aspect of life and that really made the dialogue of the story interesting and quite relatable.
I’d say the dialogue is the most mesmerising aspect of Oxenfree. The conversations run pretty smoothly while walking around the island and they reflect on the real world in their own unique way. No matter what response you pick, it is possible that one of the companions will start to dislike Alex. Just like in the real world, some people will pause to listen to you while others will rudely interrupt you. Oxenfree seamlessly wrapped together a very intriguing group dynamic with complicated friendships, relationships and personalities without being too in my face.
My first problem with trying to keep the conversations going was with the fact that the responses were limited by time. I found out the hard way trying to make a decision between what to say and I ended up choosing nothing because of this. Some of the characters weren’t very happy being ignored. In real life there’s a similar thing, if you don’t respond to something fast enough, you will seem like you either weren’t listening or just don’t care. I may or may not have restarted the game after realising that my ignorance has been spotted by the other characters with a little thought bubble and a picture of Alex floating above their heads. The replaying of the game for this felt very welcome since Alex is stuck in a time loop anyway I thought I’d do all I can to get her out of it, so restarting for the sake of small choices felt good, I didn’t think of it as cheating. Since I’m a patient person, I’d replay any game just to see how different choices affect everything.
Even though the game is very dialogue heavy, it didn’t get in the way of exploring the island and its deep, dark secrets. It helps the story to go on, while also allowing me to make my own decisions. Some conversations light up the mood and get rid of some tension that is left behind all those creepy and possessive ‘ghosts’, though sometimes it creates the tension. There are times when Alex doesn’t only talk to her four companions but speaks to these beings of another dimension. Those conversations were a lot different, involved some rude comments, threats and a whole lot of shouting. The voice acting of these supernatural creatures really gave me the chills, while Alex’s companions had very emotive lines, which made them relatable and believable.
Now for the best part, there is some hidden dialogue in the game, I mean, not really hidden, but it is in Morse code. I thought that was actually pretty cool as not many games out there acknowledge it ever existing. These pieces of dialogue really add in a bit of a backstory of the events that took place on the island, yet I think some may think it’s a bit irrelevant. That may explain why it wasn’t shown as important, and only was classed as anomalies while searching through the radio stations. I don’t actually know Morse code, but was really interested in what the game wanted to tell me, so I had to do some research to find out what all these codes meant.
Since at first I didn’t notice these messages, as they were referred to as anomalies, I thought it was unimportant until I translated some of them. They have a huge impact on the story. I absolutely love the originality of this. In a way I feel like the use of Morse code was reflecting on how technology has evolved. One of the first messages was: “Still here. Cannot move. Very cold. Love, Anna.” The ‘ghosts’ trapped and having to re-witness events over and over seems pretty depressing, every time they knew the outcomes, so no wonder they tried to contact other dimensions as a cry for help. To me, that sounds like a very dull way to exist without an end.
The ‘ghosts’ that occasionally speak through Alex’s friends also reflect on war, as in the past many people had to join the forces without the choice to do so. They say: “We never had our time! It was ripped from us!” and I feel like that really reflects on sacrifices that had to be made in the past. Sadly deaths of those people in real life have been celebrated and so the dead have turned into monuments, and essentially never die. It’s similar in Oxenfree as well. Even though voluntary service was shown as heroic, the game has tested Alex through the game too, referring to her as a recruit.
In relevance to real life, a lot of issues from the past arise in the form of haunting the characters of the present. As I mentioned, war is one of the issues addressed, and Oxenfree reflects on it starting because of misunderstanding and mistakes. Within the game I found out that due to miscommunication, a nuclear-powered ship was blown to pieces with many on board whilst the ship was tested. Slightly hinting towards experiments with pictures of people in lab coats, many on board possibly knew their lives were at risk. The experiment trapped the people who are thought to be dead in another dimension, and it is those people who are contacting Alex with the use of Morse code. Literally translated they are pretty haunting and sad messages like: “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world”. This clearly reflects on the people who sacrificed their lives for war in the hopes of a better future.
Besides all this depressing and occasionally dramatic dialogue, there still are a few comical moments. They gave me a bit of a breather that was really needed from all the heavy dialogue. For example, the characters play truth or dare, which can end in a few different ways. It’s quite a childish element, but it definitely reflects the fact that the characters are in their teens. Another one of my favourite moments was the visit to the Harden Tower. Connecting to an informational tour channel through the radio, Alex discovers that the tower has been called after the longest-tenured radioman – Major Richard ‘Dick’ Harden. When the characters spoke about this there were some obvious giggles.
In that sense, Oxenfree was an incredible experience, very well paced and really kept me on the edge of my seat while also keeping me entertained when needed. There are so many other elements that add in more of the realistic aspect, but it is mostly the dialogue that brought it along. Views of the characters vary, there are different types of characters, and I love the relatability of Oxenfree. Besides the whole paranormal aspect of the game, of course.
Magdalena Kolodziej is a freelance journalist and contributor to PN2. Be sure to say hi on Twitter @magda_0019.