Oxenfree tunes up story-driven game dialogue.
Everyone loves a good ghost story. Well, not everyone… but it’s safe to assume that everyone loves a good story in general, and the indie breakout Oxenfree certainly delivers on the narrative front. Released last week by Night School Studio for PC and Xbox One, Oxenfree is a story-driven adventure game inspired by collective memory of the teen horror and adventure films of the 1980’s as well as the ethereal, adolescent turbulence that we all brush with as we get older and slower. First and foremost, though it’s a thought provoking and beautifully executed story. While the plot is simple at a glance (five teenagers sneak onto an island for a night of cheap beer and campfires when suddenly, supernatural happenings occur), it’s not the homage-filled narrative action that drives the plot forward from which Oxenfree draws it’s ample charm, but from the incredibly lifelike and identifiable characters that we spend our time on Edwards Island with. Excellent voice acting, procedural animation, and no shortage of excellent writing serve to paint these characters as a dimensional and vibrant cast. However, for this piece specifically, we’ll be looking at some of the gameplay mechanics that serve to increase the player’s narrative immersion and their emotional investment in the story, characters, and world of Oxenfree.
Taking into account it’s nature as a narrative driven adventure game, as well as Night School Studio being composed partially of former Telltale Games staff, it’s unsurprising that Oxenfree uses a choice/consequence-based dialogue system as one of it’s core gameplay mechanics. This is a tried and true system in most narrative games nowadays, and almost any other choice of dialogue deliver would seem a bit out of place for the type of game that Oxenfree is. What sets this particular system apart from many others is how the dialogue choices are paced, as well as the writing style used. We’ll start with the stylistic dialogue choice first because it’s honestly pretty difficult to talk about this mechanic without mentioning how crisp the lines in this game are. Every character’s personality shines through each individual’s unique manner of speaking, in addition to a healthy dosage of wit for all involved. This creates a back-and-forth between characters that’s engaging enough to simply sit back and watch, but that actively contributing to through the player character, Alex, feels uncannily like having an actual conversation. While the characters and their quirks certainly have a certain degree of their personality based on old-school teen horror flicks, there’s never a moment that the dialogue sounds canned or phoned in, and that in itself is a feat that escapes countless writers on a daily, frustrating basis.
Secondly, the mechanic that the game allows the player to take part in these conversations makes an interesting choice: it occasionally sacrifices the player’s ability to fully understand a dialogue choice in favor of keeping the pace of a conversation natural. How it generally works with story-games is that the player will be given dialogue options that they can use to respond to a statement or question from an NPC. As the moment passes, these options will fade from view. Wait too long and you choose silence as your option for that particular moment. What Oxenfree does differently in this situation is that instead of giving an awkward pause in the conversation while the player mulls over their choices, it releases the possible responses the to the present piece of dialogue a bit early, while making sure the player can still understand their options. Then it allows the choices to fade out at the exact moment that a natural response would come in a real conversation. It’s a tiny tweak to the standard formula for dialogue delivery, but it honestly has such a large effect on the way that you look at the characters simply because of how natural the pace of the dialogue sounds without it having to awkwardly pause for the player to make a choice. It’s a much more go-with-the-flow style of play that requires the player to pay close attention to visual and audio cues, and honestly upon first experiencing it my gut reaction was to view it a weakness of the mechanic. The pacing isn’t perfect and there are times that the player may have to stop progression from screen to screen in order to get the dialogue of a full conversation, but once the player gets used to the different tempo that the game runs along at, it becomes a vastly more engaging way of delivering dialogue in an immersive and engaging manner.
The next mechanic that really stands out in Oxenfree is the radio. Throughout the game, the player is required to tune into a number of otherworldly radio frequencies that often effect the world around them in strange and spooky ways. In addition to the story based frequencies the player must find, the island that Alex and her friends find themselves upon is a bit of kitschy tourist-trap, and as such it has a radio-guided tour available at certain locations around the island. This adds another level of environmental storytelling for inquisitive players who may be searching for more information about the supernatural happenings, as well as a fantastic way to build atmosphere in-between big story events. Whenever the player tunes the radio, they have access to the full bandwidth it has to offer, and Night School Studio doesn’t leave that just for static. In between all of the essential frequencies the player can tune to, there is a plethora of eerie broadcast sounds, outdated radio shows, haunting music, and unexplained tones that repeat upon themselves. These stations also change based on location and the time of night it is in-game, giving the feeling that the world Alex and her friends exist in is very tangible. This is juxtaposed by the actual audio coming from the radio, which tends to not quite fit with the otherwise very real and natural world that we are introduced to. This means that the radio works to blur that line of reality the game so meticulously creates. It’s a gorgeous use of dissonance and succeeds in being genuinely unsettling at times.
What both the radio and dialogue mechanics achieve is an excellently immersive while simultaneously uncanny feel. The people feel so lifelike that it draws attention to the weirdness of everything else. This balance between the fantastic and the familiar is so important in a narrative-driven game because, it encourages the player to engage in both the world and characters and emotionally invest in the story through the mechanics that they use to experience it. Oxenfree knows it’s strengths and limitations as a story bound to a video game, and it masterfully navigates those potential pitfalls to its advantage. I’ve been staying away from plot details intentionally because it’s definitely a much better idea to experience the story firsthand than to get a summary of it, but the emotion, fear, and charm of this game are so sincere that I have a hard time imagining that anyone willing to suspend disbelief would be displeased. The heroes and their issues are not treated as stereotypes or tropes, nor do they ever stray from being believable as everyday teenagers. It’s like a masterful telling of a ghost story you may have heard before, but you certainly haven’t heard told like this. I’ll wrap this up before I just start rambling about how much I love the narrative choices this game makes, as well as how it delivers that narrative by saying that Oxenfree is out now for Xbox One and on Steam. Hopefully you’ll find it as interesting and beautiful as I did. Good gaming, folks!