Oxenfree should not be missed: writing that is this good just does not appear very often, and even though games may be starting to challenge books and movies when it comes to weaving tales, great stories like this are still a rare find regardless of the medium

It goes without saying that, ever since its early days, the videogame medium has astonishingly evolved on many fronts. Whatever their hopes and expectations for the future were, it is hard to think the people counting bits and bytes to make a pixelated ball successfully move around the screen could have envisioned that, less than half a century later, the kind of technology they were pioneering back then would be used to create massive open worlds that offer total freedom as well as immerse players in the experience to an unforeseen level thanks to motion-detection tools. And given those are just a couple of gameplay innovations that have occurred ever since, there are many other equally notable developments in that area that, if mentioned to those brave trailblazers via some spacetime anomaly, would probably cause them to laugh in disbelief.

However, the news from the future most likely to generate the biggest amount of shock would be how, in the first half of the 21st century, some games would simply choose to start giving both books and movies a run for their money when it comes to storytelling. After all, even though the basics of constructing a world and using commands to trigger on-screen reactions were there from the start, the ability to insert a lot of coherent text into games was not, to the point that numerous are the titles that, up to the 64-bit era, opted to put most of their plot into the instruction manuals; choosing to focus, instead, on what the medium was mostly born to do, which is deliver gameplay.


Yet, not too long after those days of sticking script details into booklets, the wheels started turning and games dedicated to storytelling began emerging. Once upon a time, the land of involving plots was ruled by RPGs, and it was out of these types of titles that players expected to get the most meaningful narratives. Yet, companies involved in the creation of role-playing efforts still have to designate a good slice of their resources to putting together deep gameplay elements such as combat systems, skill trees, weapon upgrades, stats, enemies, and many others. As such, they were easily overcome once a handful of studios interested in challenging the limits of plot development in gaming chose to defy the balance of script and gameplay by focusing on the former while giving the latter a smaller degree of attention.

Oxenfree, made available for the Nintendo Switch in 2017, is very much part of that movement. However, as its release date ought to indicate, it arrived quite some time after the initial wave of games of its ilk. By that year, Heavy Rain – a PlayStation 3 cinematic landmark – was more than half a decade old; titles that replicated visual novels, like Hotel Dusk: Room 215, were close their ten-year anniversary; and full story-based series worthy of being turned into animated films, such as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Professor Layton, had come and gone. Still, being a pioneer is not a requirement for greatness; and, better yet, being part of an overpopulated genre has never stopped a product from being able to stand out, especially if it is powered by some out-of-the-box indie creativity.

It all begins when a trio of friends is heading to a local island that is inhabited by a whopping total of one person. Taking place on a ferry boat, the opening scene gives some solid background on the characters and details their plans: a simple weekend party on a quiet beach where they can drink, talk, and laugh. Upon arriving there, they discover not many of those invited have shown up, restricting the celebration to five people.

After a little while, they decide to head to a nearby cave. The protagonist, a girl named Alex, has – at the request of her best friend, Ren – brought an old radio with her. As legend has it, if the dial is tuned just right, creepy voices from beyond can be captured by those standing at the cave’s mouth. They give it a go, and it works. Attracted by a noise, one of the members of the group – Alex’s stepbrother – decides to travel a little deeper into the grotto; worried, she follows him and they soon arrive in a wider section. Sensing an energy quite similar to the one she experienced by the mouth of the cave, the girl tries to tune her radio to the right frequency again, causing a portal to open up. Alex blacks out and a few moments later, she wakes up alone somewhere else on the island.


One of the most intriguing aspects of Oxenfree is that, in general terms, it replicates the essential premise of many horror movies. A group of teenage friends travels to an isolated place to have fun, in the middle of it all something sparks their curiosity, and they end up tapping into a horrifying evil beyond their comprehension that puts everyone’s lives in immediate danger. It is an awfully cliched recipe that has generated a large number of horrible results; consequently, it is no surprise that it has been at the receiving end of jokes and parodies. However, Oxenfree subverts that reality, bravely rescuing that script format out of the trash bin of history.

The truth is there has never been anything inherently bad about premises of the sort. In fact, forcing a group of teenagers into a tough situation that also happens to be somewhat supernatural can be quite a productive soil: high school dramas, boiling hormones, relationship problems, love stories, intimate fears, and even personal tragedies naturally come to the surface, and they go along quite nicely with a mysterious backdrop that forces those young people to deal with these troubles in order to come together and survive. It is into that gold mine that Oxenfree – like many horror movies – attempts to tap; differently from most of them, though, good writing guides it to the jackpot.

For starters, the characters are simply fantastic. Yes, they are very much based on high school stereotypes: Alex is the smart kid with a sharp wit; Ren is the silly stoner; Jonas is the cool guy with a mysterious past; Nona is the shy girl; and Clarissa is the popular but edgy and temperamental figure who while liked by some, is hated by others. However, rather quickly, they turn into much more than that, as plot development comes to reveal several extra aspects of their personality. Furthermore, and on what is probably a related note, Oxenfree also excels in its dialogues, which are fast-paced exchanges that show not just the teenage conflict between emerging maturity and painful insecurity, but also give a glimpse into who the members of the group are without committing the sin of overexposure.

Similarly to what happens in many story-based games, players who like to do a whole lot of actions may have trouble getting into Oxenfree. This is an adventure that mostly unfolds via walking around and talking, as it boasts more dialogues than what one is likely to find in a three-hour movie. Sure, the B button can be pressed to interact with objects, hear what Alex has to say about certain elements of the scenario, and perform simple actions like climbing walls or grabbing onto ledges. However, Oxenfree is a title that has no puzzles, no enemies that can cause harm, and no platforming sections. That does not mean, obviously, there is no thrill to be found here.


Centered on exploring, getting to the bottom of a mystery, and figuring out a way to leave the island safely, Oxenfree is ultimately a suspense film in videogame format. It always feels as if evil is lurking around the corner, and even though it does not strike all that often, the fact that it punctually does creates a lot of tension. Moments of quietly walking to a location, getting into an argument, having meaningful conversations, and fearfully thinking about what lies ahead are by far majoritarian, but they are intersected by jumpscares and sequences in which the lines of reality become blurred and confusing.

As relatively thin as its gameplay may be, Oxenfree is not a walking simulator embedded in a horror setting, since it features at least two other constant actions that players need to perform. The first is activating Alex’s radio and tuning it, which can cause doors to open, supernatural events to be triggered, and a few secrets to be uncovered. As neat details that show how much care was put into the game, it is even possible to use the equipment to either listen to some random stations, songs, and messages; as well as access, in spots marked with a specific sign, a guided audio tour of the island that gives some background information on the place.

The second action is probably the most important and frequent of the pair, which is the choice of what Alex will speak. Whenever she talks, players will be given three options, each assigned to a button, and since they can be quite different from one another, this is a great opportunity for them to add a little touch to her personality, as she can come off as anything from caring and understandable to heartless and annoyed. Naturally, depending on the line that is picked, dialogues can take a completely distinct turn and as a testament to the quality of the writing, it is not rare for one to wish they could choose all of them just to see how it would all play out. However, that is simply not possible, and for a very good reason, since what Alex says will determine not only the relationships she will build with other members of the group, but also affect the ending of the story itself.

One of the great unsung aspects of these conversations is simply how natural they feel. Part of the credit for that has to go to the unbelievable voice acting, which is one of the best collective efforts of the kind ever seen in the videogame medium. The other part of the laurels goes to how smoothly chats flow, and that happens for a couple of reasons.


Firstly, conversations in Oxenfree usually take place in motion. Mostly, they occur when Alex is going somewhere with someone. Even when that is not the case, though, it is still possible to move around, like in an early scene of the game when she can pick up a beer and throw a rock into the ocean while having a chitchat by a fire. Secondly, people usually do not wait for answers. In the majority of scenarios, if one takes too long to select a line, the talk will just go on without Alex’s intervention, which is pretty much what happens in the real world. These touches may seem trivial, but they give a lot of life to Oxenfree, strongly propelling it to a cinematic experience in spite of how it has almost no real cutscenes.

It is true there are a few minor annoyances caused by this unstoppable flow of dialogue. Even though the text bubbles start fading as a warning if time is running short, it is a bit disappointing when the opportunity to say something is lost. Contrarily, if the choice is made too early, Alex may end up cutting off what was being said by somebody else, which is equally frustrating. However, these are essentially silly complaints that can be shrugged off quite easily since they happen so that the beautiful fluidity of Oxenfree’s verbal ballet can unfold.

The true one big problem of Oxenfree lies somewhere else, and – as it turns out – it can be found in a very shocking place: its plot. It is unlikely somebody will ever be able to build a popular accepted argument against the tale that is told here. The character arches are wonderful; the conversations are engaging; and the truth behind the island’s mystery is simultaneously devastating, emotional, and a satisfying resolution to a supernatural phenomenon. But the main issue is that this secret will not be available to everyone.

That happens because one can get to the end of Oxenfree without knowing the full background of the story, which hides not just the explanation to what is going on, but the biggest twists of the tale too. In order to access that, players will have to go on a final scavenger hunt around the island looking for twelve collectibles, meaning that to those who do not do it the plot will be a bit of a mumbled mess. This sort of active storytelling, which has gamers searching for lore details, has been wonderfully implemented in titles like the entire Metroid Prime trilogy and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But since these are games that do not strongly rely on script, they can get away with broadcasting only a simplified version of the plot and leaving it up to players if they want to know the rest. In a story-focused game like Oxenfree, the decision is highly questionable.


Truly, given the scavenger hunt is openly proposed by Alex, the vast majority of players will go through with it; after all, they will be interested in knowing the truth and filling the holes. But the quest itself happens to be a bit dull because it bumps into another problem: walking. The island where the game takes place is far from big, containing less than a dozen small areas, but traveling through it can be somewhat cumbersome due to how the paths around the place are long and winding. On the first go around, the reason for that exaggeratedly curly design will become obvious, since the snake-like turns the roads take allow characters to finish their conversations before they get to where they are going. When hunting for the nearly essential collectibles, though, there will be no talks going on, meaning it will all be very slow walking and exploring through artistically beautiful scenarios filled with a whole lot of nothing.

With an adventure that should clock in at around six hours to those who tackle this final sidequest, the time spent on this boring but important endeavor will sadly not be very negligible when compared to the rest of the experience. Still, as proof of the strength of its script and of how immensely likable its characters are, many will feel like returning to Oxenfree for a bit more, whether it is to explore different dialogue options or – more significantly – to try to access different endings, which are about ten total.

Carrying the sensibilities of suspense films and rescuing the frequently tarnished premise of a teenage group getting into supernatural trouble, Oxenfree is a clear display of how far the gaming industry has come in terms of storytelling. Through nearly constant smoothly flowing dialogues powered by excellent writing and delivered with flawless acting, the game turns its central cast of characters into an unforgettable ensemble; the kind of group that transcends the boundaries of the product to become an important part of the lives of those who join them on their journey. As a bonus, the arch of these starring teenagers is tied with a thrilling tale of horror.

Surely, it is disappointing that a truly satisfying explanation to the title’s core mystery can only be achieved through a boring and relatively long sidequest. Moreover, anyone looking for a bit more action might be a bit underwhelmed by an adventure that is cleared by mostly walking, selecting dialogue lines, and tuning a radio. But except for those who fall into the latter faction, Oxenfree should not be missed. Writing that is this good just does not appear very often, and even though games may be starting to challenge books and movies when it comes to weaving tales, great stories like this are still a rare find regardless of the medium.


6 thoughts on “Oxenfree

  1. I played this a while back on Steam and agree with your review. I enjoyed the story and interaction quite a bit, though I don’t know that I got a clear answer to the story itself during my playthrough. I don’t “finish” many games that often anymore, so the fact that I did play it to the end is a testament to how much I enjoyed it.

    1. Since you didn’t get a clear answer to the story itself, I am assuming you did not go through with the final sidequest, right? That’s what I figured when I decided to tackle it: that players who did not do it would leave the game with a lot of question marks (of the bad kind) in their heads.

      I guess your situation proves that.

      1. Oxenfree was free with Gold on Xbox a while back, and that’s how I was able to play it. I’ve played it twice, and I remember the first time, I was ironically so excited to figure out what was happening on the island that I rushed to the end without finishing the scavenger hunt so I could see what ahppened.

        Replaying it cleared up a lot.

        You are absolutely right about its top-notch dialogue though.

        1. I was on the verge of doing the same thing you did, because I was also dying to get to the bottom of it all. But I ended up bumping into a comment online saying how the scavenger hunt was vital to understanding the story completely, so I went through with it.

      2. It’s been so long since I’ve played, I’m trying to remember back. I know I enjoyed most of it, but remember the ending felt a little lacking. I might have gone and looked up videos on it just to get some closure because I do remember that there was something I missed in my playthrough that led me to feeling like the end didn’t explain what it needed to.

        1. I guess you must not have done the final scavenger hunt then, because without it a lot of question marks are left in the air.

          I guess that goes to show I was not mistaken when I complained about that. I did the scavenger hunt, but I thought that anyone who did not would probably feel a bit disappointed by the ending.

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