I don’t usually bother to blog about the games I’m playing – sometimes because I don’t have a lot of time to play them these days! – but I felt like this one was pertinent to the sort of gameplay and style that I’d like to make for my Solo Game in Programming. I was thinking of doing something with a choice-driven story, but I didn’t want to make it as simplistic as a Choose Your Own Adventure game. Instead, Ant suggested I think about a way to have the player character walk around while making his/her decisions in game. I think Oxenfree captures this perfectly.
I’ve just finished my first play-through at about 4 1/2 hours, although game boards recommend you play a second time for a more in-depth understanding of the story. I don’t plan on writing about the story itself, since someone reading this might want to play it and I don’t want to spoil anything. Instead, I’m going to look at the brilliant mechanics this game uses to progress the story.
The game consists of five characters who travel to an island and unknowingly unlock a supernatural secret. The player controls Alex (the girl with the blue hair) and tries to steer the group towards a happy ending with the choices she makes. You can improve or ruin friendships, encourage relationships between the other characters, or destroy their lives in the meanest of ways. The point is that dialogue decisions are extremely important, although I found that sometimes you didn’t have a lot of time to make a choice – the timer for the speech bubbles wasn’t very long, so on occasion I felt like I just panic picked the first thing I could read all the way through while trying to listen to the characters.
That was something else that was very well done: Alex could occasionally interrupt the dialogue of other characters with her own. They would respond to what she said, but then they would continue on with what they were saying with a transition of “Anyway…” or “As I was saying…”. I think this works really well if you want to have a more realistic flow to the dialogue, where you’re not always going to listen to the NPCs waffle on when you’ve got a question on your mind.
However, since it’s still a game, your dialogue choices boil down to three options and sometimes they equate to nothing more than saying something mean, nice, or neutral. The trick was figuring out which choices were going to change the story around Alex, influencing the other characters in minor ways. Each of her friends has a hidden stat bar which can be changed depending on the things Alex says, even if it pertains to someone other than herself.
Your choices change minor sections of the story, but as a whole you can get a completely different ending if you treated your friends well or poorly. In fact, it’s suggested you play the game at least two times, if not three times, because of this. You can be nice, you can be mean, but the game actually also can change if you say nothing at all. I’ve never really seen that implemented in an RPG game before, where you can actively choose to say nothing for 99% of the game and still finish it.
Outside of the fantastically implemented dialogue system in Oxenfree, I really like the simple mechanics it uses to solve the island’s mysteries. You don’t have to pick up the searchables if you don’t want to, but it explains more about the story that you wouldn’t otherwise get. You don’t have to fit together any tools or solve extremely difficult puzzles; all Alex is armed with is a radio.
The radio is actually the only crucial tool in the game, since it’s the way you solve your problems, open doors, find out snippets of information/clues, etc. I think it’s so original and clever, since it’s nothing magical or special. It’s just up to the player to scroll through the different channels until something happens when you hit the right frequency. Anyone who is terrified of EVP (electronic voice phenomena) maybe will want to rethink playing this game, but it’s executed so well that they should play it regardless.
I absolutely loved the story-driven, spooky RPG spectacular that this game is and I’m looking forward to playing it a second time when I can. While I can only dream of making something as quirky and interesting as Oxenfree, it’s certainly given me some inspiration and motivation to try!