by Jed Pressgrove
Oxenfree writer/director Adam Hines makes caring about people in a horror story too difficult. Piss-poor aesthetics is the primary major problem, which you can see right off the bat when the game introduces its main characters — Alex, Jonas, and Ren — riding a boat to a deserted island. The three teenagers look like unimaginative Xbox 360 avatars that have found themselves in a nice painting, and different-colored word balloons pop up every time they speak, further clashing with Heather Gross’ superior surrounding art. With this goofy, nagging mismatch of visual styles, Oxenfree appears to be stuck between a hope to be quirky and a desire to make audiences consider the ghosts that haunt human relationships.
For the first half of the game, you might wonder why you should care about the tension between the three teens and their two friends, Nona and Clarissa. Most of the interpersonal issues result from the fact that two of the characters are annoying and one-dimensional: Ren is always bouncing off walls, while Clarissa seems to harbor negativity for no good reason. This limitation is especially problematic given that you are supposed to rescue these two misfits after Alex, urged by Jonas and Ren, opens a triangular portal in a cave, transporting the teens to different parts of the island. The prospect of having to listen to Ren or Clarissa again does not serve as motivation to solve Oxenfree’s easy but tedious puzzles, which mostly amount to tuning a radio with an analog stick until the controller starts vibrating.
Until Oxenfree requires you to grapple with the death of Alex’s brother Michael (who dated Clarissa) and to consider how you should treat characters while trying to escape the island, the bits of dialogue that you choose as Alex seem inconsequential. In fact, since the game doesn’t force you to do anything when a dialogue choice appears, I sometimes didn’t select a response because the conversations tended to float around the trivial, such as whether a tree looks interesting or not. Even worse, the voice acting and avatar movements often come off as too calm and restrained during crucial emotional moments, such as when two of the friends watch someone inexplicably commit suicide. During a large part of Oxenfree, the cast acts like it is auditioning for a Wes Anderson movie, giving off a privileged, blasé attitude that runs counter to the notion of empathy.
In the second half of Oxenfree, when the characters start behaving more like people who have seen triangular portals, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena, you start to feel something as the one pulling some of Alex’s strings. Unfortunately, Clarissa’s emotions, which drive so much of the dilemma in the story, are not explored enough despite the fact that I, by chance, triggered a revealing conversation between Alex and Nona about Clarissa’s sweet side. If anything, perhaps Oxenfree should have been about the player assuming the role of Clarissa, not the consistently straightforward Alex. The choice to make Alex the star points to this idea that female characters shouldn’t be complicated, and if they are, you should not comprehend their feelings. For playing it safe with Alex, and for not establishing aesthetics and dialogue that directly connect the audience to an uneasy realization about the effects of death on human interaction, Oxenfree is just another island to get stuck on.