Oxenfree is as good as they say, “they” being practically everyone who’s reviewed it so far, but it frustrated the hell out of me. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m here to argue that my frustration played a huge part in making my experience with the game enjoyable, an integral part of it, even.
See, I’m a perfectionist, a one-hundred percenter, if you will. I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s campaign months ago, but I’m still going back to it to find those last few stray mosaic pieces and venture through the labyrinthine Deep Roads. I stopped at nothing until I found and shot down every damn dangly skull necklace in 2013’s Tomb Raider. I don’t know why I have this quirk. Perfectionists are usually equated with adjectives like “neat” or “tidy” or “anal retentive,” but in most areas of my life I can more accurately be described as “scatterbrained.” My desk is cluttered with books and probably important neglected documents that should be filed away somewhere. My bed hasn’t been made since I moved out of my parents house and forsook all expectations of my adulthood.
My frustration with Oxenfree didn’t lie in its collectibles, though, all of which I found easily, with minimal excess time spent happily scouring the island while listening to the trippy soundtrack. As I picked up Maggie Adler’s letters and tuned my radio to anomalies at rock piles, I contentedly thought to myself that this extra bit of effort was allowing Alex and Jonas to spend more time together, perhaps bonding in that way people bond when they don’t always have to talk, when simply being in each other’s presence is enough. Therein lies my frustration with Oxenfree—in Alex’s relationships, particularly with Jonas, and the way they culminate in the end. After everything I thought I had been building toward, the ending completely caught me off guard.
My brain is still a little addled by Oxenfree. It gave me a lot to wrap my head around, but more than that, it toyed with my emotions. I fell for its characters, and I spent ridiculous amounts of time trying to get their lives and relationships to turn out as best as possible for them. Playing as Alex, my biggest goal in the game was not to survive the craziness of Edwards Island or solve the mystery of the strange occurrences happening there, but to make sure I left the island as the best stepsister and friend I possibly could. I was desperate for it, so much that I found myself thinking about how looking for collectibles might bring Alex closer to Jonas, even though it has absolutely no bearing on their relationship at all.
Decisions in the game are made by choosing one of three thought bubbles, each containing a short phrase hinting at what Alex will say if you go with it. The thing is, the phrases aren’t as clear as they seem, so you’re kind of shooting in the dark. You never know how Alex really feels until she speaks, if what she says is going to come out the way you think, or if the other characters are going to be on the same page as her. It feels organic, the way unscripted conversation is often colored by emotion and singed by the heat of the moment.
At first, I was restarting levels to try to get Alex to say the right things, but even then it wasn’t always clear if what she said was “the right thing.” I eventually gave up and just went with it, which made things much more interesting and enjoyable. The night is stressful for the kids of Oxenfree, and they’re both human and adolescent. In their discomfort and fear and exhaustion, they’re bound to snap at each other, which is carried out perfectly about halfway through the game in an argument between Jonas and Ren, when everyone is on edge after the events of the night. The two boys have polar opposite personalities, so it makes complete sense that they would butt heads when thrust into a situation like theirs, and it feels real. As Alex, you have the choice to take a side, to intervene but maintain a neutral stance, or to leave them to their bickering.
Every choice in Oxenfree, whether it’s picking a side in an argument or deciding who to rescue first, affects the ending. Yes, it’s one of those games, but it feels like so much more. It’s a beautiful little horror game, with depth in its writing and atmosphere spilling into every new screen. The character interactions are where it really shines, though. Oxenfree gives you the ability to build relationships over the course of a night, particularly with Jonas, Alex’s brand new stepbrother from her mom’s fresh remarriage. The trip they’re on is supposed to be a bonding experience, and while it plays out with a lot more paranormal activity than they expected, the bonding they do within the four hours it takes to finish the game is as fleshed out as most TV characters’ arcs over an entire season.
Alright, these last couple of paragraphs discuss Oxenfree‘s ending. Tread with care.
I spent the entire game focusing on Alex and Jonas’ relationship, rooting for these two kids and their platonic new sibling-hood, grinning at their witty banter, and building up their ending in my head. They were going to go back home and be not only brother and sister but best friends. They’d have each others’ backs through everything. How could they not, after a night like this? So imagine my surprise when, at the end of the game, it was all completely erased in favor of Alex’s real brother, Michael, suddenly back from the dead and encroaching on my experience. It turns out everything Alex had been through was actually experienced with Michael by her side, not Jonas. I had managed to save everyone, but I sacrificed the biggest thing I had worked for in the process: Alex and Jonas. I almost threw my controller.
I’ve since played again and gotten the ending I was looking for, sort of, except I had to sacrifice Michael for it, and it turns out it doesn’t matter anyway. Alex is still stuck in a time loop forever, which means any ending is plausible and all of them are possible. Oxenfree ends like a true horror story should, with healthy doses of shock and ambiguity, but heroically. Alex sacrifices herself to keep everyone alive, but her relationship with Jonas is the tragic casualty of it all, the what-could-have-been. At least I can, like Alex, play the story over and over again, reliving my favorite moments until the end of time. And the perfectionist in me, the one-hundred percenter? She’s good with that.