I’ll be hearing eerie radio static in my nightmares for the foreseeable future.
That’s because last night, in preparation for my favorite holiday, I turned out the lights and spent three hours taking in the delightfully spooky Oxenfree, a horror game that uses tuning a handheld radio as a core mechanic.
Released in 2016 by Night School Studio, this adventure game that’s “equal parts coming-of-age tale and supernatural thriller” offers depth and meaning alongside enough ghostly encounters to leave anyone jumpy.
What starts out as an overnight island beach party for the local high school seniors takes a sinister turn when Alex and her friends accidentally open a portal to the world of the dead. As the teens attempt to close the rift and escape the island using just a map and a radio, the past is unearthed and bonds are formed or broken, depending on how you play.
It’s just a bonfire at the beach until someone opens a ghost portal.
Considering this game through the lens of the mission of iThrive Games — to provide meaningful experiences for teens through gameplay — here’s why I really liked Oxenfree:
- It’s teen-focused. According to Oxenfree’s lead artist, Heather Gross, the game captures the “delicious awkwardness” of the late teen years. It manages to tackle both run-of-the-mill teen drama — fitting in, rivalries, crushes, family dynamics, deciding what to do after high school — and life-changing tragedy. Writer Adam Hines says of Oxenfree’s teen characters, “I wanted them to be intelligent, complex, complete, surprising characters. I didn’t really think, ‘What would a teenager say?’” The result is authentic characters that kept me engaged throughout. And it’s rated 14+ years by Common Sense Media, so Oxenfree is developmentally appropriate for teens to play, too.
Oxenfree’s teen characters are relatable and authentic.
- It’s insightful AND creepy. The supernatural storyline is punctuated by unexpectedly poignant moments that remind the player not to take for granted bonds with friends…or even frenemies. It touches on universal themes of love, loss, friendship, sacrifice, and discovering what makes life meaningful. But also, as the player, you will contend with ghosts who want to live inside you and demonic voices from who-knows-where asking if you want to play. It’s a horror game, after all.
The mouth of the cave is where the real trouble begins. Put down that radio!
- Choices matter. Player agency matters a lot in games and Oxenfree certainly provides that with over 12,000 possible lines of dialogue and at least 10 different possible outcomes based on how the player speaks and behaves. [SPOILERS: Here’s a guide to Oxenfree’s possible endings.] As your own incarnation of Alex, the complex female protagonist, you can choose to be silent, snarky, kind, aloof, nosy, rebellious, brave, and selfless. You can take sides or stay neutral, be judgmental or accepting, tell others what to do or mind your own business. The choice is yours and, just like in real life, often there is no clear right answer for every situation.
Alex has meaningful dialogue choices that shape the outcome of the story over time.
As you watch your Oxenfree story come to its conclusion, you’re invited to reflect on how your actions and inactions changed the course of the tale. After only one playthrough, I couldn’t help but feel that pieces of the story were still missing. That’s as it should be. The impressive complexity and depth of its branching means that the Oxenfree has many secrets to reveal over multiple plays.
So, tonight, after the trick-or-treaters have come and gone, I might just re-enter the world of Alex and the spirit portals and do everything differently than I did it before. If you’re looking for a meaningful story and a good scare, I recommend you do the same. Happy Halloween from iThrive Games!
Have you played Oxenfree? What did you think? Please share with us in the comments!