Oxenfree is a teenage conversation simulator set on a haunted island.
The protagonist of Oxenfree is a teenage girl named Alex, who takes the last ferry out to Edwards Island with her pothead friend Ren and her edgy stepbrother Jonas with the intention of spending all night on the beach, where two girls named Clarissa and Nona are waiting for them with a cooler of beer. Alex has brought an old-fashioned transistor radio with her; and, after hanging out around a bonfire for a while, Ren suggests that Alex go with him to show Jonas a cave where her radio can pick up strange distortions. This ends up opening a portal to another dimension… sort of.
I enjoyed Oxenfree. The graphic design is gorgeous, the OST is ambient and chill, and the horror elements build on each other and are genuinely creepy.
The actual conversation feels a bit off to me, though. I can’t put my finger on why, but I suspect that my discomfort stems from the male writer/director’s misunderstanding of how young American women tend to communicate.
Alex spends the beginning of the game walking around with Jonas and Ren, and these two young men don’t respond well if the player chooses the conversation options that don’t read as “masculine.”
To give a generalized example, let’s say that, after something terrible happens, Jonas says to Alex, “I’m scared.” If she demonstrates sympathy or empathy, responding with something like “Are you okay?” or “I’m scared too,” Jonas will become annoyed or openly hostile. Meanwhile, a stiff upper lip response such as “Let’s keep going” is usually configured as “correct” and doesn’t result in passive-aggressive snark being directed at Alex. Each conversation branch generally has three option, but there’s always an additional option of not saying anything, and as I played I found myself “choosing” it more frequently.
Regardless, the story of Oxenfree is fascinating, and moving through this story is a unique and interesting experience. Still, as a game, it suffers from two major problems and two minor problems.
The first major problem is that Alex tends to walk slowly. On one hand, this encourages the player to enjoy the scenery and the ambiance. On the other hand, backtracking is a slog.
The second major problem is that the loading times between areas are obscene, usually exceeding ninety seconds. Because these loading times are so punishing, I felt strongly discouraged against unguided exploration.
The first minor problem is that, in order for Alex to uncover the full story of what’s happening on Edwards Island, she needs to go on a scavenger hunt to collect a dozen letters scattered across the various areas of the game. Because of the slow character movement and unbearable loading times, I couldn’t be bothered. As far as I can tell, a Cold War era submarine somehow managed to get itself caught in a time loop just offshore, and the “ghosts” are the sailors trying to free themselves. It’s strongly implied that the protagonist has gotten herself caught in a time loop as well. The main story is about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, however, and I don’t care enough about the deeper story to undertake this optional sidequest.
The second minor problem is what I’m going to go out on a limb and label as misogyny. Oxenfree really wants Alex to spend the majority of its playtime with Jonas and Ren. As someone who has actually been a teenage girl, I tend to find that interaction with teenage boys is best in moderation, and neither of the teenage boys in this game does anything to make me feel more sympathetic towards them.
I therefore wanted Alex to spend time with the two other teenage girls on the island, but the game was not having it. One of the girls, Nona, is set up as Ren’s love interest, while Oxenfree goes way out of its way to make the player dislike the other girl, Clarissa. I like both Nona and Clarissa a lot, and I found them to be extremely compelling characters. I wanted to know more about them and their lives, but the game doesn’t give Alex many dialog options to interact with them that aren’t disdainful or downright mean.
There are several different variations on Alex’s personality that the player can choose to express at any given conversation branch, but I’m not interested in any variations in which she’s mean to Clarissa and Nona. Unfortunately, her options for being kind to them are extremely limited – in fact, I’m pretty sure that I was able to choose them all in one playthrough.
I just saw a post on Tumblr about a similar narrative tendency regarding female characters in stories created by men, “when we’re supposed to dislike a female character but she’s obviously a straw-woman the writer’s using to work out some unresolved issues he has with an ex or his mom or an unrequited crush so you actually kind of like her out of spite.”
Despite the lags in gameplay, Oxenfree only occupies about three to four hours of playtime. My concerns aside, they’re three to four hours well spent, and I’ll more than likely return to Oxenfree at some point in the near future. When I do, though, I intend to be just as bitchy to the boys as the game seems to want me to be to the girls.
( Header image from Kotaku )