Oxenfree is one of gaming’s greatest ghost stories. Granted, they’re a rare breed, the genuinely spooky video game, experiences that aren’t so much played as permitted to crawl across your skin, cooling the blood and yet quickening its flow. But Californian indie studio Night School’s debut production, originally released in 2016, is deserving of investigation by anyone delighting in disquiet. It’s mesmerising while it plays, and memorable long after it’s finished.
Not that you’ll see the real ending if you go around Oxenfree’s relatively brief running time of about five hours only the once. The game’s uncommonly palpable eeriness is filtered through a story of possessed teens and glitches in time, loops in reality that see a group of high-schoolers try to survive a night stranded on an island that isn’t quite as deserted as they believed. To dive into the particulars is to spoil a wealth of surprises, a raft of compelling beats that resonate with genre originality, that keep coming on a second playthrough – and even then, you might meet the credits with unanswered questions.
The mystery of Edwards Island – home to a decommissioned military installation and, until recently, a sole elderly recluse – can be unpicked to some extent by simply following the main story. This takes in a series of branches, directed by an excellent dialogue system that allows for player interruptions and very natural-feeling exchanges (and is made all the better by impressive voice acting), permitting the player’s character, Alex, a pronounced sense of agency in proceedings. Ultimately, the divergent plot narrows to a linear path for a high-stakes subterranean climax, at which point your earlier choices are going to have consequences.
Greater detail as to the island’s past, and how that’s impacting the night’s events, can be gleaned from discovering letters, scattered around the island during the game’s later stages – they go some way to describing a pertinent disaster that occurred not far from the island’s shores. There are also a number of photographs taken across the course of the night, by different characters, that contain clues; and audio anomalies, snatches of conversations from a time before now, that can be tuned into. Look, listen and learn carefully enough, and it all might just come together – but probably not on a single playthrough.
It’s through the use of a handheld radio that Alex – and by extension the friends, family and associates that accompany her to the island – can listen to strange signals. Some of these are songs, crackling and creaking as if weighted down by decades of dust. There are voices, some acting lines, others just groaning, screaming almost, in the static. Turn the dial slowly, and there’s often something that’ll stand out, like a lighthouse in the blackest night – except the feeling here is that the beacon is only ever drawing you closer to the rocks, and destruction.
The radio – which is later upgraded to one able to pick up many more frequencies – gives Alex and company a way to communicate with whatever else is on the island alongside them, a force that’s apparently all around them at all times, and yet unseen. A very clear malevolence can be felt, however, as the game delights in showing us, great detail and personality rippling through the diminutive avatars of the affair as their bodies are tested in ways that daren’t be spoiled. Nobody who took the last ferry the night before will return to the mainland quite the same.
But it’s not the visuals that really shake the player up – it’s the sound, and the music. The work of Andrew Rohrmann, aka scntfc, the Oxenfree OST is a cornucopia of uneasy avant-ambience, constantly getting under the skin of the player and forcing the hairs atop it to stand to attention. There’s a worn fuzziness to much of it, like its edges have blurred, its seams frayed; but there’s no warmth, even the more bucolic passages undercut by a distinct vein of dread. The resulting atmosphere is thick and sticky, then, and impossible to shake once you’ve set your Switch down to sleep. The compulsion to return, again and again, to the trials of these five souls is great indeed.
And you really should take a second trip to Edwards Island, to see those trials find a semblance of finality – and what with Oxenfree now on Switch, you can do that anywhere. It’s a game that neatly divides itself into explorable scrolling screens and set-piece situations, (admittedly somewhat lengthy) loading screens acting as markers between chapters. Portability is a great plus for a game that operates splendidly as a short-sessions experience – which isn’t to say you can’t binge on it, like the latest must-see Netflix show. The Switch lets you play it either way – and you can even use touchscreen controls, changing stick control for a point-and-click system, if you really must grease up your console like that.
Any Switch owners seeking supernatural encounters of the interactive kind should look no further that this otherworldly adventure. It’s not one you can “lose” at, whatever your decisions, and wherever the characters end up – but to miss out on it is to do your Switch a disservice.
A genuinely creepy creation, Oxenfree combines a clever story and smart dialogue mechanics with superbly sinister music to leave a deep and lasting impression on the player, one that should encourage an all-important second playthrough. Fans of Stranger Things and Poltergeist will love the direction this game takes – if not to hell and back, exactly, then absolutely to some other place where horrors abound, just waiting for an invitation into our world. It’s yet another Switch essential.