Talking You Into It
One of the things video games struggle with is human dialog, especially when they introduce player choices. It's often stilted and flows poorly, if it's written well at all. Many games can get serious kudos if they manage to get dialog and conversations right. Oxenfree is a game that gets it very right and it might be enough to cover its flaws.
In Oxenfree, you control Alex, a high schooler who's gone to a beach party on a small island with her friends. However, the island has a dark history and Alex and her friends have to uncover it to find a way to save themselves when the night takes a turn for the worst.
The thing that Oxenfree does best is its conversations between characters. Your four friends are fairly chatty. The dialog is natural and well-written, but what Oxenfree brings to it is that you're given up to three dialog choices, and when you makes those choices, you can interrupt your friends. Mass Effect did this, but your friends in Oxenfree actually react to it. It's such a minor thing, but it goes a long way toward immersing you in what is going on.
Night School Studio is comprised of some former Telltale Games developers, so it should be no surprise that your dialog choices affect the story and how other characters think of you. However, instead of an outright "character B will remember this" type statement, you don't really get a lot of feedback on when you're changing hearts and minds. The only feedback you get is a little thought bubble over someone's head with someone else's face in it. It gives some indication that they're thinking about that person, but not explicitly why. I like this a lot because it made my own choices feel more natural and less like I'm trying to push a friendship slider in one direction or another.
What might turn some people off is that there isn't a lot more going on here than walking around this island and talking to your friends about the weird stuff that's happening. There's some very light puzzle solving, and you can choose to do a lot of backtracking to find collectible items that flesh out more of the mysterious island, but don't expect to manage an inventory, or jump on a platform, or shoot anything. I'm not sure there was any point in time I could've "failed", just dozens of opportunities to alter the story in negative ways.
While the gameplay is very light, I could not stop playing Oxenfree. I played it all over the course of a single day with the game lasting about 5 hours. The intrigue-filled story and the immersive dialog kept me around. If I was going to put it down at any time, it would've been during some of the item finding I did, where there wasn't a lot of dialog but still got some payoff by finding another piece of the mystery. It nails a foreboding and dark story without being totally grim or colorless. It's the perfect way to spend a winter weekend.
Baseline Assessment: 9/10
Bonuses: +1 great writing that keeps you invested in the characters and plot
Penalties: -1 light gameplay that won't satisfy item-combining or logic puzzling adventure game fans
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Night School Studio. Oxenfree [Night School Studio, 2016]