Telltale changed adventure games forever with the release of The Walking Dead. The genre started life as a series of trial-and-error puzzles wrapped up in a story, but Telltale instead approached it as a new kind of interactive narrative. The Walking Dead played out like a TV show where you could make important — and often difficult — choices, and it stripped away much of the traditional game-like elements in service of telling you a story. In doing so it also revived the genre; classic-style adventure games still exist in the form of retro throwbacks like Broken Age, but for the most part they’re a small niche. Games that follow the Telltale model, meanwhile, like the time-travelling teen drama Life is Strange, have become some of the most notable releases in years.
Oxenfree, which launches today from new developer Night School Studio, is sort of like a midway point between these two takes on the genre. It looks and feels like a classic in the mold of Monkey Island or King’s Quest, but it has a focus on story and choice that calls to mind Telltale’s work. The result is yet another game that uses the basic structure of an adventure game to tell a fantastic story.
Oxenfree stars a young high school student named Alex, who is heading out to a small vacation island with some of her friends for a night of drinking around a bonfire on a beach. As often happens when teens go to an isolated place to hang out, things go wrong. Alex accidentally taps into some kind of paranormal phenomenon using a portable radio, and the rest of the night is spent a) trying to get off the island and b) trying to keep everyone alive. The story is a nice mix of campy teen drama, charming humor, and legitimately spooky moments, and things can get pretty dark and scary, even though it’s a 2D, cartoon-like game.
If John Hughes tried to turn an H.P. Lovecraft story into a video game after he played a bunch of Sword & Sworcery
Much like in a Telltale game, you’re able to make choices that shape how the story plays out. As Alex wanders around the island, chatting with her friends, speech bubbles will appear over her head, and you’re able to choose what she says next. (If you don’t choose quick enough, she’ll say nothing, which is its own kind of response.) The set-up makes the dialogue feel seamless; the action doesn’t stop when you need to talk, it happens while you’re doing other things, just like conversation in real life. This creates really cool moments where you’re climbing up a steep hill, or wandering through a creepy building, yet having a deep conversation with someone the whole time. Often other characters will react to what you do or say. At one point I was walking in the complete wrong direction, and my partner guided me to the right path.
Oxenfree does have puzzles, but they’re not the kind of guess-what-the-creator-was-thinking type that often plague adventure games. Instead, they all revolve around Alex’s radio. It’s a surprisingly useful tool, capable of doing everything from opening retrofuturistic padlocks to performing occult rituals. But it’s also the one place where the game can get a bit boring and tedious; often you’re simply sitting there turning a dial back and forth waiting for something to happen. While the results are often interesting, the process isn’t. But even without the puzzles, Oxenfree feels like a classic adventure, thanks to the fact that it’s a 2D, side-scrolling game. Unlike most modern adventure games, it doesn’t resemble a TV show at all, and it’s also a complete story that isn't split into a series of episodes like most of its contemporaries.
A game like Oxenfree hinges almost entirely on its dialogue, story, and characters. Given the relatively simple gameplay, without those elements there’s not a lot else. But Oxenfree is a memorable experience, combining its unique hybrid take on adventure games with something that feels a bit like an ‘80s teen movie — think of it sort of like if John Hughes tried to turn an H.P. Lovecraft story into a video game after he played a bunch of Sword & Sworcery. The elements are all familiar, but used in new and often surprising ways. The game ends with an amazing twist that I’m still thinking about, days after the credits rolled.
What makes the game great is the way it takes something new, wraps it in a package that looks and feels reassuringly familiar, and then uses that to tell you a dark, thrilling story full of surprises.
Oxenfree is out today on PC and Xbox One. A PS4 version is also in development.