Olly olly oxen fbt
Oxenfree is basically a teen adventure written by John Hughes, produced by John Carpenter and directed by Spielberg using watercolours. It’s great stuff; an abandoned island filled with portals, time loops and disembodied voices explored by a bunch of teens in a 2.5D world that reminds you of early adventure games. But with a modern twist. Lets get twisting.
Full of beer, weed, and the usual angst, a bunch of teens take the last ferry to deserted Edwards Island, an old military base famed for the friendly-fire sinking of a US sub during the war. During their beach party, the teens explore a cave where their radio picks up a strange frequency, which causes the kids to pass out and wake in different parts of the island. Discovering some kind of mysterious time-loop, it’s up to teen Alex to reunite her friends and break the cycle of Edwards Island.
Mostly, the puzzles you face are Alex closing/opening portals and affecting time-loops by dialling her radio to the right frequency. And it’s not a typical walking sim since we’re rarely alone – the focus isn’t even on the strange goings on, it’s on the characters. It’s a dialogue sim. The puzzle is how you play Alex; who she is, how she regards her friends and how they see her, and how much events from her past, like her brother dying, have impacted her.
The teens chat almost constantly – about the island, the situation, their relationships, and the fact that they’re growing up and apart. They joke, get distracted, needle each other, go off on tangents and never miss a chance to flirt, and amazingly, you quickly get into being Alex and answer naturally. We get timed reactions, driving their narrative and significantly impacting the plot and ending, but it’s a lot more subtle than just paragon / renegade.
A standout midway through sees Alex choosing who goes exploring with her; even those pals she’s fallen out with take great offence to not being chosen. That the teens are still concerned about how they’re regarded by their peers when there’s paranormal goings on feels accurate - it somehow effortlessly captures the subtle minefield of adolescent egos and how fragile they really are; those kinds of decisions do mean the world to a kid.
You let things go or demand they be talked out, realise you have less in common with one teen and develop a better understanding of another, and cause them to like or dislike Alex, sometimes without meaning to. It’s incredibly complex and satisfying because it feels so natural, like being a teen - there’s no real right or wrong answers just emotions that mean way more than decisions. You don’t have to say anything at all, just leave opinions or worries hanging. You don’t have to have all the answers.
For the most part Alex is stuck with Jonas, her unwanted, unwilling new step-brother while the other teens are Clarissa, her dead brother’s girlfriend who still harbours resentment toward Alex for what happened; Ren, her childhood friend who she’s not been spending much time with, and Nona, a hanger-on. But its up to you how all those friendships develop, how open and honest you are with them, which influences they share.
Still, all this chatting isn’t getting them off the island, and its ghostly inhabitants aren’t making it easy for them. Often a ‘time displacement’ will occur, where a sequence repeats until you figure out what it wants or it shows a glimpse of a possible future - or past - if you carry on down that path, and eventually the displacements reveal more of the island’s strange inhabitants and what they want. It’s a great ghost story, but while it all comes down to Alex’s understanding and what she’s prepared to do, its those relationships that stay with you.
There’s even a Game Plus mode, where Alex+ is aware of certain events from the previous play – throughout, she would realise time was looping - allowing you to further influence the outcome, possibly stopping the loop from ever occurring. Or reoccurring. The only thing that stopped me from trying again was the background music. And by background, I mean overwhelming racket that ruins the entire game.
It’s the only criticism I have of Oxenfree, but it’s a big one. Composed by ‘scntfc’ (learn to spell, hipster), it’s a ‘soundscape’ for each area and stage in the story. Largely it’s like listening to every single game soundtrack from the 80s, at the same time, accompanied by a 2-year-old on pots and pans. I had to turn on the subs just to understand what was being said it’s so overwhelming. In one section there’s at least 3 different tunes playing simultaneously over the sound of a clock ticking - it’s so bad there’s a Reddit thread of people begging for a mod or hack to get shot of it. Some are convinced it’s actually a bug.
It even ruins the ending, where the kids resolve their issues depending on how we interacted, followed by a touching Stand By Me style epilogue based on Alex's friendship choices, is entirely drowned out by the sound of what seems to be a Pan Pipes cover of a Metallica track. And you can’t turn it off. Alex can have her radio open at any time, and thankfully that forces the music to stop – that I preferred radio static to the soundtrack says everything. To be fair, I did listen to the soundtrack on Spotify and it's really good - just too distracting when you're knee-deep in teen angst and ghosties.
Oxenfree so perfectly captures real teen conversations; pointless to everyone else but mean the world to them – and often even the most obvious answer is wrong just because they didn’t want to hear it, and it makes you think like a teen; more than once I chose an emotional response rather than an authoritative ‘we go this way’.
Its amazing that we have a haunted island, horror elements, a mystery to solve, non-linear events to navigate, time-loops and death, but it’s the dialogue that compels you to push on. There’s multiple endings, but rather than good/bad, I got MY Alex's ending, decided by dozens of off-hand remarks and reactions. It was my journey – at times it literally was, during one Loop Alex’s name switched to ‘FBT’, as if I wasn’t already lost in the game. If you turn your speakers off it’s one of the best adventure games since Lucasarts shut up shop.