Playing Oxenfree again, five years after it first came out, has only reminded me how much it got right, versus how little people talk about it. We bat about the word underrated a lot, but I really do feel that Oxenfree gets less than it is due. It got me wondering, so I looked at the other games that were released around it, and suddenly it became clear: Oxenfree came out in 2016, when narrative games alone gave us Uncharted 4, Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Inside, Firewatch, The Witness, Last Guardian, Abzu, The Witcher: Iron and Wine, and more besides. That’s a crazy, crazy purple patch.
Being launched in January, traditionally a sleepy month for games, and 11 months before Game of the Year articles get written, wasn’t going to help Oxenfree much either. There’s a fair amount of recency bias that goes into the formation of those lists, and Oxenfree just wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as Nathan Drake and the rest. So, let me make a case for why it really should have been.
Oxenfree hit on a tone that would go full mainstream roughly six months later. It followed a group of five teens who travel by ferry to Edward’s Island, where they embark on an annual ritual of getting drunk and skimming stones by the beach. An ‘80s synth soundtrack bleeps behind their wisecracking and backchatting, while there’s a hefty dose of the analogue and old-school, as they use handheld radios, projectors and tape machines around the island. The turning point in the plot features three of the group – Alex, Ren and Jonas – tuning to a frequency on their radio which invites an unsettling, supernatural force into their vacation.
Playing Oxenfree now, it’s easy to forget that it came out before Stranger Things, as Oxenfree feels like a sister to it. While Stranger Things dealt with horrific beasts from the Upside-Down, Oxenfree dabbled with something more mysterious (no spoilers here, I’m afraid – we want you to play it!), but they both land equidistant between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, and the music could be swapped between the two. It’s a tone that clearly works, and has worked for Stranger Things for three seasons now; the ‘80s trappings are so over-used that we’re even seeing them in Marvel and DC movies.
I remember playing Oxenfree in a bit of a walking simulator binge, as I got a taste for them after belatedly playing Gone Home. I played it, The Witness, Firewatch, Abzu and Inside in quick succession, which is a hell of a sequence. I remember emerging from that blitz loving something that was shared between Gone Home, Firewatch and Oxenfree: they all toyed with genre. You wondered where they were going to eventually tumble into: Gone Home drew you into thinking it was straight horror. Firewatch could have spun off into science fiction or horror at any moment. Equally, you never knew whether Oxenfree was going to grow into a science fiction, horror or ghost story, and all three games benefited from their individual mysteries. I was gripped, wondering what the game was going to make me feel, what emotion it was going to tug on. It’s probably saying too much to pinpoint which genre it lands in, but it takes a turn that Firewatch and Gone Home did not.
It’s going to sound unavoidably pretentious, but there’s something about the texture of Oxenfree that makes it superlative. This is a world that is incredibly analogue and crafted. The environment is painterly and water-coloured and the text bubbles that you choose feel like post-it notes. As mentioned, there’s a hiss of radio throughout, and occasionally the screen will shudder and tear like it’s being watched as a VHS on an old CRT. It feels like an old piece of found footage, somehow nostalgic while not really feeling like it’s set in a particular decade.
It’s not just a stylistic choice. When the supernatural elements arrive, they are decidedly digital. Gone are the grainy textures, and instead we get razor-sharp lines, electronic music, bold neon. This overlaying of the digital on the analogue makes for an unsettling ‘it shouldn’t be here’ effect, and you’re dragged right into the tension with the characters. It’s so clever, and the moments when digital and analogue meet are the most memorable.
Looking back, almost all reviews of Oxenfree highlighted two flaws. It was too short, they said, and they’re not wrong. But this is the case of a game that felt so rich that you wanted to spend more time with it, so you rue it finishing. Playing through again, the story was never cut short, so the shortness fits the plot.
The other flaw that publications focused on was the dialogue. It felt like adults cramming dialogue into teens’ mouths and it didn’t feel believable, they said. This was something levelled at Life is Strange too: a Whedon-esque trait of making kids so wisecracking and mature that they don’t ring true. Having played through Oxenfree again, the criticism seems harsh: Oxenfree is a game where everything feels heightened, and the slightly over-written dialogue doesn’t stand out as much as a result. These are extremely well-rounded characters, even if they’re not like any kids you may know, and they fit the world. They may not stray too far from archetypes, sure, but Ren manages to be both goofy and bitchy, making him a highlight, while the voice actors do a sterling job of making everyone natural and lived in.
When compared with Gone Home, Firewatch and Inside, Oxenfree isn’t quite in that same 5/5, masterpiece bracket. But it’s hugely effective, and for a game that’s barely more than a few hours long, it’s not as if you have to pick and choose which one you play. So if you haven’t already, treat yourself to Oxenfree, and enjoy its Stranger Things-like story. It’s one that’s going to age well.
Did you enjoy Oxenfree? Are you yet to play it? Let us know what you think about it in the comments below. And if you haven’t played it, go and grab yourself a download of it from the Xbox Store so you can play it on Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S right now.