As 2016 comes to a close, gamers everywhere are talking about gaming’s best and worst of the year. When talking about the worst that gaming had to offer this year, I could pick the low hanging fruit by talking about No Man’s Sky or Mighty No.9 but there’s very little to say about them that hasn’t already been said at this point. Instead, I’d like to tell you about Oxenfree: The most disappointing game I played all year.
As its described on Steam, “Oxenfree is a supernatural thriller about a group of friends who unwittingly open a ghostly rift. You are Alex, and you’ve just brought your new stepbrother Jonas to an overnight island party gone horribly wrong.” It has very positive reviews on steam, particularly positive reviews off of Steam, there seems to be an element of thriller to it–which I appreciate–secluded ghost island as a setting, gorgeous stylized graphics, the choices matter tag, so when I see this I’m thinking this game looks like something right up my alley. Months later, after being very high on my radar for quite a while, I finally got it and by this time, I’m looking incredibly forward to it.
Immediately once I start playing it, the first thing I notice is that this game runs like a potato on my laptop. In its defense though, my laptop isn’t too good for gaming. In any case, it took decades for a single scene to happen because there’s a lot of conversation in this game and talking speed is fine, but the animations for characters talking is incredibly slow because of the aforementioned potato-ism. And so each conversation was like a battle to the death with my impatience because after any sentence would end, I was generally waiting an extra minute or 2 to hear the response to it because the talking animation is still going. But as I said, I more or less excused the game for this since my laptop was the reason this was happening, and I didn’t have another way of playing it. This complaint wasn’t necessarily the game’s fault, but it certainly didn’t aid toward my attitude of it as the game trudged on.
So our story is that these high schoolers are going to an island on some kind of school trip–except that the rest of the group isn’t there yet? But also because our protagonist didn’t want to be alone on the anniversary of her brother’s death? The reason for their being there isn’t exactly made completely clear, so right off the bat the writing needs some help.
Now, our main characters are a group of high schoolers. And very early on I started thinking that, in the nature of writing realistic high schoolers, all these characters are shit heads. You play as Alex, who’s very much a special snowflake. We’re already off to a bad start because the only thing I hate more than characters who are written to be special snowflakes just for the sake of being special snowflakes is when the main character is a special snowflake just for the sake of being a special snowflake. And what’s worse is that this game goes out of its way to remind you that she’s a special snowflake on multiple occasions, only driving the nail further into the coffin.Then we have her “friends”: New step brother that nobody’s friends with yet, quiet girl, the guy who brought pot brownies, and bitchy girl that nobody likes and there doesn’t seem to be a reason why anyone invited her in the first place.
But again, I tried not to think about this too much since that’s just the nature of writing a set of realistic high schoolers. High schools are full of shitty people. So again, I let this one go thinking, “Well, these characters are high schoolers and high schoolers are shit heads, so it’s natural that they’d be shit heads. …Even if they’re shit headier than most high schoolers buuuuttt—”
Our supernatural situation is presented fairly early on after the world’s longest campfire game of exposition, courtesy of my laptop, and it’s that the ghosts are triangles…? At first I thought that was fine, a little weird but fine, I’m sure it’ll all make sense later on, it’s still only the first hour of the game. This’ll definitely be explained later on. (Spoiler alert: It was never explained later on.)
If it isn’t already really obvious, by the one hour mark, I was already having to actively try to make myself like the game. After all, it looked so interesting and the reviews were so good–maybe it just had a slow start? Maybe the characters would get better? In any case, after your contact with the triangle ghosts, you and your “friends” get separated, (y’know because ghosts) but you’re able to find a way to communicate with each other so now you and your step brother are gonna go pick em up. And the process is…long, to say the least. Between the lagging on my laptop and the needlessly long and winding roads in the game, traveling from spot to spot was a pain, to put it simply. It was a pattern of click a few inches away from Alex, wait for her to finally catch up, wait a little longer, click again. For several hours of the game. (That alongside making decisions and adjusting your radio is all the gameplay you’ll see in Oxenfree–it’s very much a story and decision driven game.)
50 years later when you finally find them, you guys start to make a plan for how you’ll escape. Luckily for us, turns out Alex used to go to this island all the time with her dead brother, so she knows where the dead owner of the only house on the island kept a boat that’s surprisingly not dead. So they go to the house, and FINALLY we have some kind of more direct communication with our ghost pals via the girl that nobody liked or missed anyways. If the writers wanted the ghosts to possess a person with hopes that it’d put our moral compass in a tizzy, they chose the worst character for the job. (Not that there were any good choices, but this was still the worst choice.)
Up until this point, the ghosts have been screwing with us, making small fragments of time repeat, photobombing, etc. but sit down, friends. Let me tell you what finally made me admit to myself that I wasn’t having fun with this game, and that’s the brand of “creepiness” that this game uses.
Here’s where we enter the wonderful realm of subjectivity: What one person finds creepy, another may not. But like all things, there are many things that most people agree is creepy. And like all generalizations, these generalizations will evolve with time. So what this game uses to creep us out are red eyes, small time loops, radio static noises with mixed voices, intentional visual “glitches”, never explicitly stated satanic themes, and of course, those weird triangles.
When something is creepy, that means it creates a feeling of discomfort within us. Like robots in the uncanny valley, seeing a middle aged man look at a 16 year old girl for a little too long, or even something more conventional like a black cat walking under a ladder. Another big part of what makes creepy things creep us out is whether or not we’re used to it. Taxidermy is another thing that creeps most people out, but do you think that when a taxidermist looks at their collection they get creeped out? Probably not because they’re so used to seeing it that they’ve got used to it. It’s normal. And this is where Oxenfree falls.
Red eyes. Intentionally glitchy graphics. Radio static and mixed voices. Satanic implications that are never blantantly spelled out. These are all things you’ll find in other recent games that try to be creepy, or on an edgy 12 year old’s tumblr. Hell you’ll find these things in a Hot Topic. Red eyes? Okay, that’s a trope that’s been used since the beginning of time. Free pass. Intentionally glitchy graphics? Satanic themes that are never blatantly spelled out? Both things that have become very fashionable when trying to portray something as creepy in a more horror oriented way.
Satanic themes that are implied by never blatantly stated are especially trendy lately. Not just in movies and games, but even in fashion–I can’t tell you how many girls I see sporting clothes or accessories with ouija boards these days. It’s hip, it’s trendy, and why wouldn’t it be? Because by the looks of all the recent horror movies, sometimes-explicit but usually just implied themes of Satanism or the devil are in.
As for the intentional visual glitches? Huge trope right now. Found footage and “based on true-ish events” movies are HUGE right now, and this trope is a STAPLE for them. And this trope translates very well into games, so we’ve had no shortage of its usage lately. Undertale. Pony Island. The Stanley Parable. I can go on, this goes back as far as Metal Gear.
Bottom line, the only traits they use to portray creepiness are all, in my humble opinion, trite, cliche, and overused. But because they’re what’s fashionable right now in this wonderful age where unexplicit Satanic themes that are never fully explained or explored are popular, of course that’s what they’re going to go for. The low hanging fruit. And I’m bored of that brand of creepiness. I’ve been bored of it for ages now. And because I’m used to seeing it so often in media, it’s no longer creepy to me. And worst of all, this game uses the most textbook version of that brand of “creepiness” as a crutch to distract from it’s poorly explained story, featuring characters that I just don’t care about.
Suddenly, the only reason I was playing this game was in hopes that everything would be explained or that the story would take a total 180, but neither wish came true. Such is the nature of a lot of stories like this, the evil, supernatural force is never quite explained. It’s just there because it happens to be there, and unluckily for you, you happen to be there, too. Go figure. The rest of the game went by like this. A story that was never fully explained, featuring characters that got no better despite the game’s efforts, gameplay that felt more like a chore than gameplay, I wasn’t getting any enjoyment from this game anymore.
That’s not to say it had no positives though, it did do some things I enjoyed. The visuals, first and foremost, are fantastic. Second, I will preach to the ends of the earth that if at least half of your game’s gameplay is based in making decisions, there BETTER be different outcomes to these decisions–and I don’t mean a Telltale, oh it was different for 3 seconds but both options resulted in the same outcome anyways kinda different, I mean completely 100% different. And these different paths better lead to different endings, and on that front, Oxenfree absolutely delivered. Despite how slow and painful conversations were, I still felt like all my decisions actually held weight–and lo and behold, they did! In fact, it does that thing at the end where it gives you a percentage of how many other players made the same decisions as you, and I love that. I wish more games did that.
And finally, it’s not like this game didn’t even try when it came to the writing. There were these brief, evanescent moments where you can tell that they were trying to care about the situation more, or sympathize more with a character, or even just trying to really get you caught up in a moment. But alas, just as quick as you could tell that they were trying to make some headway with the writing, just as quickly it seemed to stop.
The best example I can give of this is in that campfire game at the beginning. You can ask Jonas if he went to juvy and he’ll say no. Of all the questions you can ask Jonas this one seems the most far-fetched, especially at the time. Like, who do you have a crush on? How do you feel about your new family? How’s school? Have you ever been to juvy?And from right then and there, even though he denies it, the sole fact that such a standoff question in a game void of silly or irrelevant options is even there tells the player that he’s been to juvy. There’s no reason for the game to even bring it up otherwise. So the whole game you’re waiting to hear it him admit it. And it makes you curious about him. Why was he in juvy? Why won’t he tell us? You become curious about Jonas.
And then, close to the end of the game, when he finally tells you, he doesn’t even treat it like a big deal. He’s like, “Yea, I beat up a kid because he threw a baseball at my head and went to juvy. Didn’t say anything earlier because…aaaahhh I dunno’. “And then it’s never brought up again. There seemed to be no reason for it, other than for the sake of making you curious about him, ultimately with pretty much no payoff. Now, if he had told us about juvy–if maybe some event happened there that changed his personality, or even just being there changed him and he described what it felt like to be there, that’d be one thing. That’s payoff, because now we’re getting some tangible character development through backstory. But we don’t. Like, that conversation could’ve been anything else. We don’t learn anything new about Jonas that we didn’t already know without being told.
Seriously, you can replace the word “juvy” in their conversation about it with the name of any other place and it doesn’t make a difference. You can make it Walmart. And nothing about his character changes. That’s how you know this isn’t giving us any character development. It’s not even used as a way to show that now he feels more comfortable around Alex, because he flat out says that he’s telling Alex this so that she’ll know before someone else in their group finds out and uses it against him. The strategy was there in this attempt at character development, but since the payoff wasn’t, it doesn’t do us any good.
On a scale from 1 to 10 I’d give Oxenfree a 4. It’s not that it was bad necessarily it just wasn’t good, either. Even when you put away how poorly this game ran on my computer and how I just don’t care for the generic, edgy 12 year old on tumblr brand of creepiness that this game uses, the writing just isn’t good. You can tell that they’re trying to write it well, but the magic just never happens. Strategies to help emotionally invest the player are certainly there, but never with any payoff. Especially in light of how much I wanted to love this game, it just makes it all the more disappointing for me. But will Oxenfree be remembered in 2016 alongside the likes of Mighty No. 9 and No Man’s Sky? Certainly not. On the contrary, this game is mostly praised. But for me, at the very least, although this wasn’t necessarily the worst game of 2016, this was easily the most disappointing.