Oxenfree and the Art of Instability
When Alex unwittingly opens a rift between her world and the supernatural, everything gets messed up. The past enters the present, the present loops back to the past, and the dead are living, the living possibly dead. A masterclass in building atmosphere and tension, Oxenfree makes artistry out of instability, both building and unbuilding a world in the short hours it takes some games just to get started.
This world is tense, atmospheric and chilling enough to make you want to reach for a jumper. With its narrative that bends the fabric of time, its watercolour artwork, the endless looping dialogue that masks trauma with mundanity and, the real scene-stealer, Alex’s invaluable pocket radio, Oxenfree can be held up as one of indie games’ great success stories.
Oxenfree begins with three teenagers. Alex, her step-brother Jonas and her best friend Ren, are setting off for their last party on the deserted island that has been the scene of many a drunken night of revelry. Despite a few drinks, the party isn’t the success they had imagined, so, what can they do but get into a little danger?
Alex and Jonas are enticed by the prospect of crawling into some caves, but they quickly come to realise that these are not ordinary caves. Undeterred, the pair explore on, greeted as they go by the sound of distorted voices. The voices only get louder as the teenagers move further into the unknown.
When Alex and Jonas come across a small triangle hanging in mid-air, working on a hunch that the radio she carries could interact with the strange noises, Alex begins to switch through the devices’ channels. Sure enough, after a sweep of the frequencies, the triangle responds.
The object grows, becoming a portal, leaving the cave a blur as if the player is winding and rewinding a VHS tape. When the portal is complete, a mess of voices attempt to speak. They overlap, repeatedly talking of leaving, but leaving where? We aren’t granted this information, just that Alex and Jonas wake up somewhere else entirely.
From this first jump in location and narrative, Oxenfree prepares us for the unsteady structure that will becomes the game’s trademark. Like stepping on sand, the player is never sure when the narrative might give way, transporting us somewhere else, possessing friends with demonic voices, or killing them off entirely.
What does remain constant, however, is the usefulness of Alex’s radio. The radio is ever a source of amusement. Flipping through the channels gives you an array of strange music, careening between melodic piano to the high-pitched twang of the ukulele, before settling on nonsensical talk show garble.
Able to interact with monuments and objects, the radio is also an invaluable source of background information. Once a tourist hotspot, the island has its own dedicated channel for historical commentary. Listening to it in specific areas gives you context on the island as a whole, colouring in its busy past in eerie contrast to its current state of desertion.
Constant as it may be, even this object is unstable. Just as the radio opened the portal that started it all, the device continues to be the teenager’s way of connecting to the ‘other side’. Whether or not it is a source of good or bad becomes blurred, as you never know whether using it will dispel or encourage the vengeful spirits of the island. Both an anchor to the real world and a bridge to the next, the radio is a powerful force and, on a basic level, just a lot of fun to play with.
The radio may lead you where it wants, but with Oxenfree’s dialogue the player also has a hand in shaping the course of events. According to the dialogue choices you make for Alex, you can find out as little or as much about your fellow explorers as you want. Siding with one character over another in an argument will create a closer bond between them and Alex, and may even determine the fate of that character in the long run. With multiple endings to unlock, how the player chooses to use the dialogue gives them a feeling of control in an otherwise unstable world.
For the most part, Alex and her friends seem strangely unfazed by the supernatural weirdness happening around them. Still wrapped up in their own worlds, even as they are in danger of being pulled apart, the dialogue is curiously mundane, briefly touching on the past, but never divulging too much emotion.
The character’s apparent disinterest in the severity of their situation adds to the chilling atmosphere, as the player is more aware of their impending doom than the teenager they’re controlling. This effect is heightened when pieces of dialogue are looped back and repeated, as the alien forces of the island send Alex back in time again and again. Having heard the same piece of dialogue a few times, with only Alex the wiser, these innocent snippets become creepier and creepier.
Despite all of these brilliant game mechanics, the feature that gives the game its most definitive sense of instability is its one-of-a-kind-art-style. All watercolour blotches and uneven platform surfaces, even Oxenfree’s environment is drawn in crooked lines. The trees of Edwards Forest bleed into each other co-dependently, while the buildings of Fort Milner sit hollow, seeming haunted even from afar.
Easily navigable, the areas flow into each other, but all have a definitively separate feel. Fort Milner is by far the most haunting; having previously housed the military, its rooms feel only recently unoccupied. Wire-bed frames, posters and litter-strewn floors make it seem that people vacated this place before its natural conclusion.
It’s not just the locations, but the time of day that allows the art style to dictate the atmosphere. The muted colours of night only add to the sense that the characters are playing with borrowed time. The watercolour backdrop seemingly dissolves before our eyes, giving the feeling that the world itself is fighting a losing battle.
The fates of our five teenagers are always uncertain. Even when the game shows us a truth, you cannot take it as scripture. Their lives hang in the balance, dictated by the turn of a radio, a casual conversation between friends and the supposed choices they make. Question marks never really fade away, because Oxenfree isn’t about making an unstable world stable. Every part of it tells you that.