Narrative is often overlooked in favour of the more natural forms of interactivity that are inherent to video games. But in the last few years, we've gotten a series of thoughtful and engaging titles that have really pushed the medium forward in this regard. Not only have they changed our perceptions of what constitutes a game, but they have also highlighted the narrative flaws of many beloved of the series of the past – no matter how good their gameplay. It's because of this that perhaps the term "walking simulator" is a tad disingenuous. And yes, Oxenfree certainly fits into this category if you're so willing to use it.
With this in mind, the game is perhaps not for everyone. In terms of gameplay, you're incredibly limited. Like many so-called walking simulators, the amount of interactivity is kept to a minimum. There are few puzzles here – if indeed they can be called that at all – and the ones that present themselves are rudimentary, to say the least. This is a game which revolves entirely around its characters and narrative, and it pulls you along like an overzealous German Shepherd on a leash.
You take control of Alex: a teenage girl in her final year of school who, along with four other friends, decides to travel to an apparently abandoned military island to party, drink, eat "enhanced" brownies, and just generally let loose before being forced to make decisions that will shape the directions of their lives. It starts out as a run-of-the-mill teen-horror movie kind of thing, but thankfully it develops into something far more interesting as it moves forward.
One of the game's standout aspects is its dialogue system. Each of the characters will talk among themselves or to the group and have long, in-depth conversations about normal, everyday things on a regular basis. You can also interject with your thoughts to show Alex's displeasure or to give an opinion on a given subject. When you do this, the others react to you and work with what you said. It feels organic and gives the dialogue and characters a certain authenticity that is often lacking in other titles.
On parallel fronts, Oxenfree runs along two kinds of narrative: one social and the other situational. The social aspect revolves around our protagonist, her deeply moving past, her friends, and the relationships between each of them and how that ties back into her past. In these moments, when it deals with the perils of adolescence and notions of personal identity, the story is at its finest. They work well with the setting and with the situational tropes that they provides.
These moments also make the best use of the game's strongest features as well as the limitations of its distanced style and perspective. When dealing with typical bildungsroman issues the game really stands out as a clever, thoughtful, and emotional journey. The complex interconnected roles of each of the characters – all of whom take on clearly delineated identities of their own very early on and maintain a presence throughout – is brought superbly to the fore.
In the initial sections of the game when it focuses on these social aspects, Oxenfree revels in its clear-sighted sense of self. But when the narrative focus switches to the island and the grander scheme it holds, the story gets a little convoluted. That's not to say that it's bad – in fact, it's intriguing and often engrossing and full of promise – but in much the same way as J.J. Abrams' TV series Lost, it fails to live up to its ambition. The thing is, it really could have been something special, but it trips up in the final third with vague and confusing premises delivered through similarly perplexing methods.
When it ties it all back to the social aspects again, it shows where the real focus of its narrative lies. As a whole, it feels confused in the sense that the game wants to tell a much larger story than it actually does. The events of the island ought to be a defining adolescent moment: the setting for an epiphany of consciousness, or coming-of-age moment, if you will. But all that rings in the final moments are of the social, with the island's secrets merely a weird sojourn on the side. These two narratives don't intermingle into a single coherent plot, and instead feel separate and distanced.
Thankfully the resounding success of Oxenfree is the part that's perhaps most important. The characters – aided by fantastic voice acting and excellent script writing – are memorable and sincere, which is all the more laudable considering the game's relatively brief four-hour adventure. Similarly superb is the game's style which is distanced – a useful technique for the type of storytelling needed here – and truly beautiful. It often feels like you're interacting with a series of exquisitely stylised paintings. For all the failings in the final third of its narrative, Oxenfree remains an incredibly engaging and memorable experience.
It may be brief, but Oxenfree has elements of greatness and stands out as an excellent example of video game storytelling. It's also a beautiful and intriguing game that draws you in from the very start and makes you want to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Unfortunately, the situational narrative is let down slightly in the final third where it confuses even itself and fails to merge with the far stronger and more prominent social narrative.