Though the radio that skeptical, try-hard Alex acquires at the start of Oxenfree can’t pick up any classic rock (given the dismal reception of Edwards Island), the song that’s likely to play through every gamer’s head is Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.” That’s because the degree to which you’ll be watching characters is greater here than in most narrative-style games, most of which at least pay respects to their chosen medium with an interactive quick-time event or the occasional brain-teaser. Oxenfree, on the other hand, takes its cues from Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, with its sluggish movement speed and cryptic, non-linear radio transmissions. Gameplay consists of nothing more than tuning the occasional radio dial and choosing how to have Alex respond to her companions–newly acquired stepbrother Jonas, adventurous stoner friend Ren, archetypal mean/popular Clarissa, and demure Nona. There are a few forking narrative paths, but nothing like that of Until Dawn or Life Is Strange, which offered more tangible consequences and a sense of urgency.
So while Oxenfree borrows its name from a classic children’s game–hide and seek, basically–it fails to justify its format. Not for nothing is it being adapted into a film: the actual story, which involves radio ghosts, is a clever one. But everything else is basically like walking through a pop-up book, and while you’re ostensibly encouraged to interact with each scene through dialogue or extraneous actions (kicking a soccer ball, sitting down), there’s a sense that most of it is just a distraction: the story goes on without you.
For instance, at one point, while exploring an old army base on Edwards Island (there are thirteen locations, from the beachfront Discovery Cliffs to an abandoned campground in Towhee Woods), Alex finds herself locked in a classroom, forced to pass a “test.” But instead of requiring players to remember and utilize the various lore of the island, each answer can be obtained by interacting with the limited objects in the room (like a globe, or a textbook). Worse, there seems to be little difference between failing and passing the challenge. Now, there is clearly a “good” ending to the game, and it’s probably based around scenarios like this one, but it doesn’t seem particularly earned. I spent an extra hour or two wandering around the island to find a series of optional items (all hidden in plain sight, with blatant clues given over the radio for those unwilling to explore the relatively small maps), and while these fleshed out some the game’s theoretical pseudoscience, there never seemed to be any particular way to use this information. The same goes for the “anomalies” scattered across the island: they’re just one more thing for Alex to tune her radio into.
There are definitely some unsettling moments in Oxenfree, most of which are achieved by playing against the aesthetic evoked by the children’s-book art (think Broken Age), or which revolve around aural, visual, and temporal distortions. And it looks like there might even be some asynchronous ways to influence other players, though it’s hard enough to tell if your choices are having any effect on your own game, let alone another person’s. But the game doesn’t stick the emotional landing, mainly because the camera is often zoomed out too far to give players much facial nuance, and because the story remains fixated on Alex’s perspective, leaving characters like Jonas to be a cypher and showing us sides of Clarissa that seem incompatible with the way she handles herself the majority of the time. (No disrespect intended toward the talented voice actors, who have to deal with a wide variety of dialogue choices.)
Night School Studios has an excellent pedigree–developers from both Telltale Games and Disney are on staff–and great ambition to present original stories. But if they’re going to continue working in this medium, they need to find a way to make the actual controls more compelling. (The lack of quick-travel is baffling, as is the decision to reduce all puzzles to a mere rotation of a radio dial or audio reel.) Olly, olly, oxen free: we found the story, now where’s the game?