Oxenfree Explores Teenage Grief with Ghost Stories

Teenagers are curious, misunderstood creatures. They’re often dismissed as angst-ridden monsters, even when it’s grief that’s tinted their worldview. In Oxenfree, we follow Alex, a grief-stricken high-school senior, around Edward Island as she unravels both the mystery and the madness that has surrounded the island for many years.

Oxenfree begins slowly, much as most ghost stories do, with friends talking and laughing. Alex, Ren (Alex’s best friend since elementary school), and Jonas (Alex’s new stepbrother) travel on the ferry to meet up with their two friends, Nona and Clarissa, for the annual beach trip to Edward Island. It’s Alex and Jonas’ first time meeting one another, their parents having suddenly married and moving in together, and things are a little tense and awkward. If not for Ren clowning around, it might have been a silent trip across the water to the island.

The characters vibe off of one another, interspersing real conversation with poignant questions about motives, past or present, and ribbing somewhat good-naturedly. Ren’s levity is a great balance to Jonas’ sometimes stoic personality. Nona’s quiet, quirky personality mixes well with Clarissa’s sharp, barbing comments. And Alex is the odd-girl out: she is exactly what you allow her to be throughout the game. Your decisions shape her interactions with her friends and new stepbrother. The kind of person that she will become is the direct result of the paths you take, the dialogue choices you make, and little reactions you have to the group’s conversations and choices.

It’s a distinctly teenage gathering, complete with roaring bonfire and some form of Truth or Dare, minus the dares. (Teenage Amanda would have been bored by this prospect. I’d take a dare any day of the week.) Things are said, snarky comments are made, drinks are had, and suddenly, we’re off to explore some freaky cave that reacts in odd ways to radio waves. It’s at this point that the story really begins. 

Oxenfree, which I played on Steam, is best played with a controller. Once Alex begins to tune into radio stations near cairns (stacks of stones) around the island (unlocking secrets along the way), the controller will vibrate in response when you get to the correct radio station. I didn’t test how responsive it was with a keyboard and mouse, mind you, so keep that in mind.

Possessions, door locks, red-tinted lights, and cairns must all be met with the same attention to frequency on the radio. Later in the game, when you upgrade your radio with one from the museum in town, the frequencies are used to uncover secret correspondence, hinting at the origin of the ghost story. Until that point, we’re left listening to broken messages on the radio that may or may not make sense, depending on how we’ve interpreted the original messages in the cave. Fragmented radio signals made for massive misinformation in my playthrough, leading to Clarissa absolutely hating Alex.

Time loops are a regular occurrence in the game, often hindering progress for several loops, until you figure out what the game is trying to tell you. Once you get through the initial loop, right near the bridge stand, you’ll be able to fix subsequent loops by winding up and playing tape decks of various songs that are significant to the story, though I won’t hint at how.

In my particular playthrough, I chose to keep Jonas, Alex’s new stepbrother, close at hand at all times. It created a small rift between Alex and Ren at the time, since Ren had expected to be chosen over Jonas (and perhaps rightfully so, considering Jonas’ rather sudden appearance in Alex’s life). There are a number of ways that situations can play out, depending on the decisions that you allow Alex to make throughout the game. If you’re a snarky so-and-so right back to Clarissa, the rift between Alex and Clarissa grows to an extent that she absolutely hates you at the end of the game, setting her apart from the rest of the group.

It’s apt that Oxenfree frames grief as a social experience for the teens. Alex, Clarissa, and Jonas are all touched by it in a big way, leaving them quite vulnerable to the influence of the ghosts on the island. Alex, having lost her brother in an accident, is the most grievously wounded of them all, though her strength of character is demonstrated over and over again throughout the course of the night. Clarissa, our archetypal Mean Girl, was dating Alex’s brother (Michael) shortly before his untimely death, which she blames Alex for. And then we have Jonas, the new kid to the group, who had lost his mother and was now part of a new blended family with Alex and her mom.

Though I won’t give away the Big Mystery surrounding Edwards Island, it too was driven by grief and tragedy. In all ghost stories, it’s anguish that sets the stage for haunts — ghosts of happy, fulfilled people aren’t a mythos that exists in horror stories, no matter how tame. So not only are the teens consumed by their own stories of grief and uncertainty, they are being possessed by the angry, grief-fuelled ghosts of Edwards Island — a compounding, time-fractured experience that leaves them all raw and exposed, both internally and to one another.

Oxenfree’s decision-driven storytelling is compelling me to begin the game anew, to see if my choices can bring the circle of teens closer together, instead of splitting them apart. With the way in which the game ends, and the introduction of a New Game+ option coming soon, that won’t be far off.

(Original Post: The Daily Crate)

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