My history with adventure games is anything but expansive. I enjoyed the King’s Quest games back on my old PC in the 90s, and while I have a little bit of experience with some of the old Lucas Arts games, I am far from versed. In truth, most of my adventure gaming has come from a more modern Telltale style of interactive storytelling. It is a formula that is enjoyable, yet I fear it is also growing stale. I paid little attention to the second season of The Walking Dead, and I struggled to get through Game of Thrones, both universes that I enjoy.
So it was a breath of fresh air when I started playing Oxenfree (developed by Night School Studio whose staff is composed of many ex-Telltale game designers) with its reserved, minimalist style. Its detached camera, focusing on a pulled-back perspective, is fresh, and its storytelling is natural, yet removed from the push for impactful decision making. Emotional weight is replaced with pure playability, and the end effect is one of the most satisfying adventure game experiences I have had, well maybe ever.
First let’s focus on the game’s brilliant use of atmosphere. Oxenfree is a creepy poltergeist-lite story about an island with a mysterious past, and five young high schoolers are caught in the midst of its paranormal activities. Aided by an awesome score by SCNTFC, the composer behind Sword & Sworcery, the ambiance of every ghostly encounter will have your hairs up on end. This is not to say that the game is scary. By all accounts it is not. But it is atmospheric enough that you will be constantly scanning the environment in search of the next ghostly interaction. The sound design enhances that unsettled feeling even more. Whether it be the ambient noises that you will pick up on your portable radio, or the screeching sound of reality tearing at the seams, each noise and sound effect gave an unnerving, skin crawling feeling throughout my body. Such sensation driven horror, that is to say scares that employ imagination rather than visceral gore, is quickly becoming one of my favourite sub-genres within the horror landscape. I feel like the fairest example in terms of spookiness would be 2015’s It Follows that saved on jump scares and gore, and focussed more on the constant build-up of tension.
Then there is the writing. It is not always on point, but throughout my 5 hour playthrough, for the most part, I was invested in the characters on screen and their various relationships. Their young playful banter gives the game’s supernatural elements an Amblin vibe. The peril is most certainly real, but when played through the eyes of youth, there is this navigation through and balance of strong-headedness and friendly sources of comfort. You want your friends to remain happy, but sometimes you just have to make the unpopular decision (… sorry Ren). And then there is the conversation system that, while not always allowing the player to take the time to think of what they want to say, allows for a pure and natural flow of dialogue, something games have found very difficult to tackle.
If there is any fault with the game, it is the lack of a fast mobility tool. About 60% of your way through the game, a collectible system is introduced, and as such you have the choice between walking throughout the games many landscapes, some of which you have already trotted through multiple times, OR simply dismissing the collectibles and proceeding through the story without some rather deep context. While the dialogue-driven conceit of the game justifies its slow pacing and movement throughout a good portion of the game, there is a ‘no turning back’ moment which would have made either a fast-travel or sprint button option ideal. As such I chose not to go and search for the collectibles, and feel the experience has been somewhat lessened because of it.
Yet such a gripe is small and petty when compared with how good the rest of this game is. I have heard this game called a walking simulator, akin to Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but I wholeheartedly disagree. This is an adventure game through and through with enough intriguing presence that it will surely keep your interests invested throughout its short campaign. It is early in the year, but 2016 is already off to a great start with one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in narrative-driven adventure gaming.
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