Oxenfree (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Oxenfree (2016)

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It wasn't until yesterday I realized I've developed an affinity for media centering around alienated young women dealing with some vague apocalyptic threat.  In movies there was Before I Fall, The Edge of Seventeen, in music I had Grimes, and in video games Life is Strange and, now, Oxenfree.  While varying in tone and presentation, to say nothing of being in different mediums, there's a liberating feeling throughout all these pieces of art.  Life is open to possibilities in a way media centering around men feels like it's on rails.

Oxenfree isn't as world-weary as any of those other artistic endeavors to its benefit and detriment.  It's nice exploring the world with Alex (Erin Yvette) and directing her conversations like a water spigot where I choose who gets told what as time marches on.  At the same time, Alex and her friends are on an island haunted by the spirits of an United States submarine sunk by American firepower, and by the time Ren (Aaron Kuban) and Jonas (Gavin Hammon) make the same joke about military figure "Dick Harden" I was wondering if any of them were aware the danger they were in.  There's a disconnect between the increasingly grave threats of the spirits compared to the joking tone the cast continues to use throughout Oxenfree.

Whatever reservations I have about Alex and co. treating the situation lightly are moved aside ever so slightly for a remarkable dialogue system.  Alex is free to select conversation topics as they slowly fade from view while walking around the environment may trigger other options to bring up.  No conversation flows with ease, characters talk over each other while Alex's interjections are just as likely to be ignored as they are to silence, and there's nothing stopping those characters from picking up their previous train of thought if interrupted.  This is the primary source for that feeling of spontaneity I felt in Life is Strange and so on, it also means that what the player puts into the game is likely what they'll get out of it.  Granted, that may be true of most art, but consistently engaging with background observations or taking the dead-end paths reveals more information that gives context to the characters' emotional state.

Which brings me to an interesting problem when discussing these games - it may be impossible to compare gameplay experiences with one another.  I liked listening to the interplay between Alex and her friends, I wanted to know more about Clarissa (Avital Ash) so I went out of my way to speak to her, and I did my level best to hunt down the secret broadcast locations for contextual tidbits about the island.  But what about the person who doesn't want to engage, is going through the motions to get Alex off the island, and isn't interested in the history of the world?  It's fair to say our experiences may never intersect.

But the more I think on the impossibility of experiential intersection, the more I marvel at how well Oxenfree conveys the feeling that the only truth you'll ever know is yourself.  Clarissa is the best example of this.  With her ex-boyfriend dead and everyone getting ready to scatter post-high school, she's begrudgingly along for this trip where she's basically asked to keep her pain withdrawn instead of sharing with the group.  Her terse nature shouldn't surprise anyone, yet they're quick to dismiss or attempt to silence her when she slips into rage.  It's because everyone's off in their own world trying to convince the other they still exist, be it through Ren's pot-addled jokes or Nona's (Britanni Johnson) quiet but stern interjections to get the group focused.The other primary gameplay mechanic comes from different playback devices, be it a radio or hand-crank tape player, that tune into frequencies that have various effects on the island.  Radio, maybe more than any other media outlet, is a useful tool for showing how mired in the past Alex and co. are in the past.  There are the overt signs like how the public and hidden frequencies both tune into old shows or songs.  There's also subtle signs, but those go back to the potential impossibility of knowing or understanding someone else's experience.  Tune in to different wavelengths and Alex's traveling companion may catch a snippet of a song or voice from their childhood.  Without experimenting with the radio, or speaking up as Alex, I may have missed these bits of painful nostalgia mixed in with the ghost story.

Was it a good idea for Night School Studio to make so many of these character details optional?  In a broad view it makes for better conversation between those of us who play Oxenfree as one of the biggest hurdles to Alex and co. dealing with Michael's (Anthony Lam) death is the crew's inability to talk about it openly.  It matters less what each character feels and more why they feel that way.  Open, honest, and straightforward conversation about Oxenfree's successes and failures provide inroads to why some might intentionally distance themselves from these characters or linger in their lives longer than most.In the spirit of sharing some dirty laundry, the art of Oxenfree is both beautiful and disorienting in a bad way.  I loved the character designs with everyone a hazy outline of a person that only comes into focus during frozen moments of intimacy as they're emotionally adrift the rest of the time.  The backgrounds are oftentimes stunning, providing little lived-in details like toys or gravestone markers tucked away in corners I didn't have to visit.  They sometimes get a bit too busy for their own good, with forests intersecting with buildings intersecting with waterfalls, and little clarity as to what part of the background to interact with to move Alex along.

Oxenfree is easily the weakest of the girl-centric narratives finding liberation through experimentation in different mediums.  It's almost more interesting to write about than it is to play.  But Oxenfree's dialogue system provides a degree of spontaneity and insight that kept me pushing right along to my final decisions with the spirits.  A bit of tightening up, and Night School Studio might have a masterpiece in the wings.  As it stands, Oxenfree is in the same awkward "growing up" phase as its cast, and it has plenty of room to mature.

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Posted by Andrew

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