Even if you’ve only seen an episode or two, it’s not hard to spot the influences of Netflix’s new show Stranger Things. It’s all so very 1980s: the tight-knit group of young boys pulled from Stand By Me, the synth-heavy soundtrack of a John Carpenter film, the suburbia-meets-sci-fi setting of E.T. It’s a potent mix that makes the show easy to binge. Maybe too easy. After a long marathon, you might wonder what’s next? The good news is many of Stranger Thing’s elements are also present in a game that launched earlier this year, which you probably missed.
If you’re digging Stranger Things, you’re really going to love Oxenfree.
Oxenfree is story about a group of teens who head to a small vacation island to throw a wild party — a bonfire and beers on the beach kind of affair. What they eventually discover (cue bass decrescendo) is that the island also houses a strange paranormal phenomenon, one that hints an alternate dimension that’s begun break into our world. The story plays out like a classic 2D point-and-click adventure game — think Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle — but with the choice-driven gameplay of a series like The Walking Dead or Life is Strange.
A good chunk of the experience revolves around dialogue. As you explore the island and all of its mysteries, the scared group of kids rarely stops talking. Even as you solve puzzles or explore maze-like environments, the banter continues like expository background music. It’s a mix of teen drama and a catalog of sincere fears.
Regularly you’ll be asked to make choices that influence the story and how the different characters view and speak with each other. The dialogue then becomes the highlight of the game: it flows in a way that feels natural, and it’s your main tool for engagement with these teenagers and their odd little universe.
Unlike Stranger Things, Oxenfree isn’t actually set in the ‘80s, but it has a similar vibe. And here’s where I’ll issue a SPOILER WARNING.
For starters, there’s the importance of radios; in both, portable radios are a way to communicate with the other side, breaking through the barriers that separate the parallel worlds. And while Oxenfree doesn’t have a cast of preteen boys as its emotional heart, it does include a wonderfully eclectic group. Lead character Alex has to deal with everyone from her goofy new step-brother to her deceased brother’s ex-girlfriend to her longtime, super annoying best friend. Both experiences also grapple with the idea of government conspiracies, revolving specifically around military-led experiments in small towns.
(The two also sport a similar kind of look — with lots of ‘80s dark pinks and purples — as well as absolutely fantastic soundtracks. For Oxenfree it’s an eerie electronic collection by Scntfc, while Stranger Things’ synths were handled by Austin-based band Survive.)
The stories of both Oxenfree and Stranger Things jump back and forth between the struggles of growing older and all of the drama that ensues from paranormal occurrences. The result is a brand of sci-fi anyone can relate to, a story that’s equal parts personal and epic.
Even if you’re not really that into games, you can still enjoy Oxenfree. It doesn’t rely on fast reflexes or quick thinking; instead it’s about existing inside of this story, and figuring out the mystery at its center. And just like Stranger Things, that mystery only deepens and becomes more intense as things unfold. When you’re done with both you’ll get the same kind of feeling: a mixture of relief and nostalgia, wrapped up in a deep desire to see what happens next.
Oxenfree is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.