TL;DR: Oxenfree is a great game for those who want an interactive story with gorgeous art, excellent voice acting, and a truly remarkable atmosphere. For just $10, it provides more than its money’s worth in emotional heft and loveliness.
I’ve been hearing about Oxenfree for years and finally picked it up as research. The Writing and Publishing Lab class I’m taking this semester needs a final project; I’d like to make a narrative video game for it. (The hubris is real: I know how to code, but I’m only just picking up Unity now. WISH ME LUCK, lolsob.)
For those who aren’t familiar, Oxenfree is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure story in video game form. Alex, a high school senior, travels to a nearby island with her BFF Ren and step-brother Jonas. Once they arrive, they realize there are only two other people there for the beach party. The first is Clarissa, who does not like Alex for reasons that are explained later. The second is Nona, Alex’s best friend’s crush. As they explore, things start getting… well, hella spooky.
There’s no real action in this game in the sense of reflexes or button-mashing; you play by picking one of (usually) several dialogue options with the other characters. Through those choices, you learn about the mysteries of the island and develop relationships. The game has a lovely, eerie atmosphere, with excellent music and entrancing voice acting. I usually play games on silent (I know, I know, but my parents never let me use my Gameboy Colour with the volume up when I was a kid and I didn’t have headphones. The habit stuck.); I was really glad to have experienced the audio aspect of the game.
Oxenfree packs an emotional punch, especially at the end; it explores heavy subjects: grief and choice and fate and friendship. Even so, the game wasn’t 100% satisfying for me, I think because of its conceit and and my own personality. My first qualm: although you make choices at every turn, most of them didn’t feel impactful and I couldn’t even tell which ones were truly pivotal. That also decreased the replay value for me; I didn’t know what I could have changed to make things go differently.
Looking online, it seems (spoiler in white text) your choices don’t end up making that much of an impact anyway; there are only a few aspects that can differ. I achieved one of them (Nona and Ren end up together) that made no sense to me. I chose to go back to town with Nona instead of Jonas, which I thought meant that there’s no way the two lovebirds would’ve had a bonding moment. Computational inefficiency is a thing, of course; just thirteen significant three-way forks lead to over a million possible branches. Still, I wish that I’d had a stronger understanding of what mattered where.
I also felt a bit frustrated with the lack of ability to fast travel on the map. Yes, this mimicked actually being on the island well; there were also cool events that would often take place en route to a location. But sometimes, I’d traverse one section of the map and have absolutely nothing happen along the way, which was kind of a bummer. This felt extra frustrating given the sometimes-long loading time between each section.
Lastly, one part of gameplay (finding letters that explain the mystery of the island) came in shockingly late to me; it would have significantly increased my enjoyment of bopping about the map, given the chance to discover so much more. By the time we got there, I’d grown fatigued of seeing the same places so many times. The idea of combing over all of them once more just… didn’t do it for me.
Even with those caveats, I’m incredibly glad I got to play this game. I recommend it to anyone who wants an engaging, narratively driven game that doesn’t shy away from how grief, loneliness, and fear can manifest in different ways. It was truly a beautiful game, and I can only hope that I’ll be able to make something as touching one day.