I just tried to play Cinders, a visual novel with intricate artwork, distinct characters, and moderately intriguing worldbuilding based on self-aware fairy tale tropes. “Tried” is the operative word. I wanted to stick with it, but oh my! That JRPG-esque stream of line-by-line dialogue, finely chopped and rolled out one thin slice at a time, a slo-mo machinegun patter of staccato verbal filler. I made it three days into a seven-day storyline. Apparently, you’re supposed to play the storyline repeatedly to vary the outcome. To see what happens differently this time. I just don’t have it in me to read a novel, visual or otherwise, written by a game designer instead of an author. I had the same issue trying to make progress in Life is Strange, which at least had the presence of mind to include gameplay stuff. These are stories written by people who might know how to make adventure games or write visual novels, but they don’t understand very well how to tell stories.
After the jump, the things Oxenfree understands.
Then there’s Oxenfree, which hooked me in its very first moment with three things. 1) Here are three lively characters. 2) Here are their relationships to each other. 3) Here is what they’re about to do. Each of those was presented as a puzzle that I immediately wanted to complete. The dialogue is never filler or rote information delivery. In fact, most of the dialogue in Oxenfree is absent useful information about the plot. The plot advances not by exposition, but by events. Which leaves the dialogue to do what good dialogue should do: establish and develop characters.
Not in the usual way videogames develop characters. Oxenfree isn’t the usual choice-and-consequence system. In Cinders, an icon of a branch — an honest-to-goodness tree branch — lights up when you trigger a consequence. How’s that for on the nose? Your character is a path along a branching structure. One playthrough she’s this path, the next she’s that path. That’s not what’s going on when Oxenfree lets you choose among speech bubbles. Night School Studio’s Adam Hines, the director and writer of Oxenfree, has already decided this character, which is the job of any storyteller not telling a story about a cypher.
(Not to say there aren’t decisions. There are at a couple of blatant forks in the road, mainly at the end. Also, if you want to search the map, you can fill in details about the story by gathering unobtrusive collectibles instead of just following the linear sequence of events. I gave up on the collectibles not because they’re not interesting, but because this genre works better with a less-is-more approach to backstory. The collectibles are strictly optional, so really, that’s on you and not Night School Studio.)
Your job when the speech bubbles pop up is to color how and whether the main character expresses herself. Your job is to consider how you feel about her, which arguably says more about you than her. In fact, sometimes the choices exist not necessarily for you to pick them, but to communicate what’s going on in Alex’s head, to tell you what she’s thinking, to further the story, the character development. Because it’s a videogame, Oxenfree might resemble a second person narrative, but it’s not. This is as first person as Catcher in the Rye. Firewatch also does a fine job of this with its lead character. Henry is a vividly drawn middle-aged man struggling with guilt and not a dude being steered through a videogame. But Firewatch’s isolation and wilderness imply an emptiness, and emptiness doesn’t lend itself very well to a videogame. Oxenfree has the luxury of a densely packed and deft ensemble cast, using a dialogue system that floored me for how naturalistic it sounds.
The structure of the conversations in Oxenfree is nothing short of amazing. From a screenshot, you might infer this is the usual menu nonsense. Someone says something, you pick a response, someone says something, you pick a response, repeat as necessary. Conversation as rigid as a turn-based game. Speech chess. That’s not at all what’s happening here. For starters, Oxenfree flows in real time. Because there are often multiple characters who aren’t necessarily talking to Alex, the dialogue doesn’t always wait for you. In fact, sometimes Alex’s participation is optional. You can just let whatever conversation is happening happen. Really, isn’t not saying anything another way of saying something? Other times the speech bubbles might go away too quickly. You missed the chance to pick something because you were thinking about it. Oxenfree was encouraging an off-the-cuff response instead of a considered WWAD (What would Alex do?) calculation.
It’s all about capturing the pattern and pacing of conversation and not just the content of it. It’s all about flow, which I’ve never seen in a videogame (please tell me if I’m missing other examples of this, because it’s flat-out exhilarating for anyone who appreciates acting and dialogue). The interruptions, the trailing off, changing words mid-thought, finishing each other’s comments, the naturalistic delivery that comes from actors good enough to improvise without sounding like they’re improvising, a script that trusts them, and a director and editor who appreciate them. This is exactly what you expect from a good performance, and this is exactly what is destroyed by subtitles, by lists, by the artifice of picking from a menu when it’s your turn to talk. That’s simply not how people communicate. Oxenfree knows this.
As for what kind of story you’re getting, the fewer specifics you know, the better. It’s a story intended to open with only those three puzzle outlines I mentioned above. Three characters, their relationships to each other, and what they’re about to do. The genre is horror, but with a light touch. Horror lite, you might say. Heck, let’s just call it mystery. The touch is sometimes so light that it threatens to veer into Scooby Doo territory, but a consistent sinister edge keeps it from going full kiddie. It’s no Goosebumps. But neither is it Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (Pulse) or Blair Erickson’s Banshee Chapter, two of my favorite horror movies. It occasionally resembles both of them, but with less of their otherworldly malice. As you might guess from the title, Oxenfree is more mischief than malice. Call it coming-of-age cosmic horror. “You think contemplating annihilation makes you special?” Oxenfree asks at one point, posing a question written by and for adults who aren’t of the young variety. I bet you won’t find that in a Twilight novel.
But the important thing is that Oxenfree is well written, immaculately acted, and superbly paced. And the most important thing is a conversation system that brings to life lived-in characters actually talking to each other instead of struggling to emerge from a turn-based dialogue game. Oxenfree is the Robert Altman of videogames.
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