Saturday, July 07, 2018

Oxenfree (2016)

It was inevitable that I should play this game, given how much I loved Night in the Woods: they're both talky story-games about young people growing up featuring ambiguously supernatural elements (okay, not so ambiguous here, but that's what I initially thought). And in both of them, you play as a girl with blue hair. How about that? It's extremely difficult not to compare the two, but in a sense, it's unfair: Night in the Woods is thematically resonant in a way that Oxenfree isn't really trying to be. It just wants to be a li'l ghost story.

Here's the straight dope: five teenagers go to an island to have a late-night party. There's your avatar, Alex; her new step-brother Jonas, who is sort of dumb; her old friend Ren, who, uh, is kind of a stoner, I guess, though in a way that suggests that the writers may never have used marijuana in their lives; Clarissa, who's kind of bitchy; and Nona, about whom, even in the loosest terms, I can't think of a single thing that could be called a character trait. The gameplay consists of wandering around and having conversations, using a system where you choose from three different responses (or stay silent). There's this thing where your radio can pick up mysterious, spooky transmissions; I thought this was something that was going to be built up to, but no; it's pretty much shoved in there more or less from the beginning. There's this whole business with time loops and ghosts of drowned sailors and the game tries to stick some lore in there, about an old woman who lived on the island and investigated all this and whatnot, but it never feels real or amounts to anything.

Do you get the impression from above that I maybe wasn't the hugest fan of this game? Well, you ain't wrong. I thought it was very bad, and the critical acclaim it has received is baffling to me. As noted, the characters are annoying nothings; even minor characters in Night in the Woods effortlessly have more personality than any of them. The dialogue in NitW was highly stylized, for sure, but it nonetheless brought the characters vividly alive, and Mae and her friends were believably young adults. The characters in Oxenfree aren't vividly or believably anything; the fact that they read as though they were written by middle-aged people with only a vague recollection of how teenagers sound isn't even the issue, really; the issue is that they're just not interesting or appealing in any way. The game is fully voiced; the acting ain't great, but in fairness, given what the actors were given to work with, you can only blame them so much. When dialogue choices came up, I chose to remain silent a disproportionate amount of the time, just because I felt as though responding would make me complicit in the inane babbling that I was sitting through, as though I was endorsing it in some way. And then I felt bad about not being willing to engage with the game on its own terms, so I made an effort. It was not a successful effort, however.

The concept of ghostly radio waves is a good one, but, like everything here, the execution leaves something to be desired. This could be genuinely spooky, but it's not; none of it's done with any subtlety or finesse (okay, I will admit that the stinger at the very end of the game is effective, in a predictable way, but that is ALL I will say in the game's favor). So in the end, all you're doing is walking around agonizingly slowly, enduring (in the Switch version, anyway) thirty-second load times between areas, and for what? So you can listen to these dumb fuckin' kids be non-compelling.  The graphics are intermittently sort of pretty, but it never has a tenth of Night in the Woods' graphical panache.  Whee. I mean, I feel a little bad about tearing down this game so, given how much effort was obviously put into it, but...not that bad. Given all the praise the developers have gotten, one grouchy pan isn't going to hurt them. I mean, even if they ever saw it. Which would be pretty weird.

There are good story games, such as Gone Home and Night in the Woods and Butterfly Soup. And there are bad story games, such as Firewatch and this. And the fact that so many reviewers refuse to distinguish between the good and the bad is a source of frustration to me. Dare I suggest that this is what happens when people get their notions about storytelling exclusively from videogames? Regardless, I do not recommend Oxenfree to kids and adults of all ages.


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