The morning after a late night in lockdown spent playing Oxenfree, I was hit by a strangely intense bout of déjà vu during an otherwise painfully ordinary moment of the day. Of course, during lockdown every day feels pretty much identical, but the experience was rendered especially unsettling with the themes of Night School Studio’s supernatural mystery still fresh in my mind. It’s a game obsessed with time, place and selfhood, often finding its characters waking up from a haze, possessed by unknown entities or stuck in time-loops they’re not always wholly aware of.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve just enjoyed a creepy ghost movie, so much so that you decide to immediately watch it again. You assume that it’ll naturally lose some of its impact simply by virtue of the fact that you know what’s coming, putting a stop to any sense of mystery. But imagine instead that you find it’s not quite as you remember. Imagine that the pacing, story beats and dialogue remain the same, but jumpscares occur at slightly different intervals, the ghost appears in scenes it previously didn’t and the antagonist’s motives are somehow even more mysterious. It is this unspoken fear of something being not quite right, of things being different enough to unnerve you but not enough that you can believably articulate those anxieties to anyone who could comfort you, that hit me during Oxenfree. More specifically, Oxenfree’s New Game Plus mode.
Curiously, after completing the game for the first time the menu will urge you to continue the timeline rather than start a new game, and from here the implications of the game’s ending become somewhat clearer. At the end of your first run-through of the game, you find yourself on the boat home having spent a night on an island at the mercy of a legion of spectres known as The Sunken, who were on board The USS Kanaloa when it was mistakenly sunk through friendly fire, transporting those on board to an alternate dimension from which they cannot escape. To conclude the game, player-protagonist Alex narrates what happened next to the characters and to herself, but as she speaks, the familiar static of one of the game’s time-loops appears, and she suddenly and seamlessly transitions into a line of dialogue that introduces the game’s opening. In this moment you realise that the time-loops you experience in-game are mere glimpses of the real thing. Alex and her friends are now stuck in a cycle, doomed to repeat this entire night ad infinitum.
After an initial playthrough, I wasn’t sure the game would leave much of a lasting impact. I was more intrigued by the relationships between the characters and the way the supernatural occurrences were affecting their interactions than I was invested in uncovering the mystery of whatever nefarious presence I’d awoken in the bowels of the island’s underground cave network (turns out this mystery ended up going pretty deep). So, when I went back through on New Game Plus with the intent of unlocking different dialogue outcomes (via the game’s intuitive take on the walk and talk premise), I was surprised to instead find myself engrossed by the mysterious antagonists.
From gameplay through to story, Oxenfree is not a complex or convoluted experience, and thus after one playthrough I thought I understood it. On a second playthrough, I therefore assumed that I knew what to expect. But there’s a reason déjà vu is so disturbing, not only is it completely inexplicable but it is always a surprise. It doesn’t matter how often you experience it, it will always hit you like a truck and make you question reality, if only for a brief moment. In this case though, my fear did not come from the bizarre sense of recognising something that should feel new, but from frequent surprises during an experience I thought I could predict. Flashes of static, like the stuttering picture on an old video tape, interrupted scenes more so than they did previously; key scenes played out with slight variations; and the game’s ghostly antagonists seemed to… recognise me?
When stages of the game I’d already completed previously were suddenly strewn with changes, some overt, some small enough to make me doubt myself, I was no longer playing passively, kept on my toes by the sense that nothing was quite as it seemed. It truly felt as if The Sunken’s hold on Alex was strengthening, pulling her and perhaps her friends deeper into this endless cycle.
A side-scrolling platformer with spooky inclinations is far from unheard of, but they’re rarely all that terrifying. Their 2D setup ensures that you’re always at least somewhat divorced from the action. And yet I felt goosebumps arise after split-second frames that struck like subliminal messages. These were more frequent on the second playthrough and much more intense, the most unsettling aspect being that they seemed to begin directing their ire at me, the player, rather than Alex, the protagonist. At one stage, the vague blurred shape of a wolf leapt out, staring directly at me, and at another a paralysing Joker-esque smile appeared either side of hazy, alien-like silhouettes, all sitting right at the bottom of the uncanny valley and flashing up for just long enough to spook you whilst still leaving you wondering whether you really saw what you thought you saw.
But as frightful as this second playthrough can be, it also reveals a glimmer of hope. Through radios encountered at key stages you can attempt to communicate with a past version of yourself and implore them to take actions that will break the cycle. The game has already shown you that flashbacks are not really flashbacks at all, but genuine breaks in time that allow you to affect the future if you choose certain options in conversation. Thus, a truly “happy” ending seems genuinely attainable for the first time. Only, on my second playthrough, a bonus scene at the end of the game saw the characters ignore warnings from themselves, and I had to watch as they resolved to drive towards the island anyway, destined to fall into the trap once again. It is actually possible to ensure they heed this warning and break the cycle, but it is buried in the game in such a way that not every player will discover this way out. And even if Alex does break the cycle, does doing so mean other Alexs in other timelines are condemned to stay ensnared indefinitely?
Oxenfree is a game that prides itself on variation and the player’s ability to choose, with branching dialogue paths and choices that will affect where characters end up, how happy they are and in some cases even their survival. Even during my first playthrough, I found it to be full of moments that gave me pause, pondering the implications of even the smallest of decisions. In this way, the game’s simplicity works to its betterment, ensuring you become invested in the relationships between the characters. At times on my first playthrough I was almost frustrated by the way the supernatural occurrences would interrupt interesting interactions, but by drawing you in and making you connect with the characters first, the game manages to make these moments of horror more engaging, especially when ordinary moments take a spine-chilling turn. Watching an acquaintance leap to her death before finding that there’s no body where she fell is overtly frightening, but it’s just as chilling when a simple walk through the forest, accompanied by some lighthearted conversation, soon becomes something altogether more sinister as you find yourself stuck walking in circles, repeating conversations and noticing small but significant changes to the environment around you.
These cycles ask interesting questions of the characters and their relationships, and make you second guess your dialogue choices going forward. What really happened? Who remembers what? Should I be mad at someone for something they said in a potentially alternate timeline? The question I was ultimately left with, though, is how much do these choices really mean if Alex is unable to break this cycle? Some may see this as a flaw in logic on the game’s part, but I believe that it’s to Oxenfree’s credit that it gives you a degree of agency and yet manages to ensure you never feel in control of the situation. Sure, you can pick someone’s side in a fight or choose who accompanies you on your next dangerous excursion, and you can even pick all the right options to ensure you reach whatever ending you find most satisfying, but no matter what you do you can’t break the cycle in an initial playthrough.
At one stage near the game’s end, a character remarks that he wishes The Sunken seemed less sure that they would be successful, and more worried about what the group was planning in order to stop them. Perhaps even then The Sunken knew they’d won, and that it was already too late for you. If the whole game really is one never-ending time-loop that Alex is destined to repeat, only ever somewhat aware of the deeper implications of what’s going on, then surely they’re right.
Is leave possible? Yes, in fact. But not without significant stipulations, unanswered questions (who survives in this scenario?) and some time spent jumping through hoops. I went into Oxenfree expecting to spend four hours on a fun little indie game. I came out gripped by a mystery that consumed my mind for several days.
Oxenfree is available now for PlayStation 4, Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh operating systems.
Words: George Parr