Close your eyes, take a few deep cleansing breaths and concentrate on your childhood. Remember the friends made and the games you played. Most of us, if not all of us, should have played the centuries old “Hide and Seek”. Remember the excitement you had when you ran away from the person that was “it” on your way to find your secret hiding place. Your heart was pounding, your mind racing and your face hurting from the huge smile on it that was there because of the thought, the hope, of “They’ll never find me.” Seconds tick by but they felt like minutes. Minutes felt like hours. But be patient or you’ll be tagged “it”. And just when you thought you were going to break and make a run for the base, just when you think they forgot about you, you hear the call, “Olly olly oxen free!”
Oxenfree is an adventure type game developed and published by Night School Studio. Oxenfree was first released on January 15, 2016 for Microsoft, OS X and XBox One. It was later released for Playstation 4 on May 31, 2016.
You play the character of Alex, a smart mouthed know-it-all teenage girl. You’ve been invited by your best-friend Ren to the annual campfire campout on Edwards Island. Other friends accompany you on your adventure, Nona, Jonas and Clarissa. This game is all story and its a story that I don’t want to ruin for you but at the same time I want to share it with you. Without giving too much away I’ll give you these little delicious mouth-watering nuggets; you’re on an island, there’s some Science Fiction, there’s a little bit or Horror, there are two characters that have haunted pasts, there’s a decommissioned military base, a possibly crazy old rich lady and of course how do you get to an island? A boat of course. (Cue the song “I’m on a Boat” by none other than The Lonely Island.)
The story progresses along as you control Alex and you get to choose between her three thought bubble choices, square button, triangle button and circle button. Occasionally there are only two choices of dialogue to choose from to move the story along. You are also equipped with two tools; 1) a map of the island and 2) a radio. The map is fairly helpful in navigating the island but the real winner is the radio. You can pull it out by pressing the R1 button and spin through the dial by pressing left or right on the right thumb stick. The radio adds so much to the atmosphere but more on that later.
Remember during your childhood when you would play Hide and Seek with friends? Remember sitting and waiting in your hiding place with your heart thumping in your chest? Remember thinking “They’ll never find me?” Remember the sigh you let out as you heard “Olly olly oxen free!” echo through the neighborhood?
The phrase “olly olly oxen free” could be about four centuries old and has changed pronunciation over the course of that time. Believed to originally be derived from the phrase “All ye, all ye outs in free” meaning all players left in the game are free to come in without risk of being tagged “it”.
Oxenfree isn’t the most graphically demanding game, actually its very simple in its presentation. The character design is very simple looking as well. And surprisingly this doesn’t take away from the game at all, it actually adds to the overall aesthetic and atmosphere. The background scenery reminds me of the light and fanciful game Child of Light, only where Child of Light has more of a watercolor painting type of feel Oxenfree has a darker more unsettling oil painting vibe. The backgrounds while quaint and inviting are also a little eerie. This eerie-ness is magnified by the amazing soundtrack provided by SCNTFC.
SCNTFC beautifully composes a subtle and engrossing soundtrack that is both inviting and fearfully tense. While exploring the island the soundtrack provides a quaint accompaniment to the task at hand; if you’re walking through the woods the music is soft and inviting but if you’re exploring the military base the music is a slow build of tension that you want to break but never quite does. It slowly plods along building up anticipation and tension. Think about the way your heart races when you’re hiding and the person looking for you has stopped right in front of you, standing still longer than they should. They’re going to find you but then they slowly walk away and your heart gives a loud exasperating thump of relief.
Any relief that you think you may have had doesn’t last long in your exploration as you often find yourself with your radio in hand patrolling the frequencies. I found myself both encapsulated and afraid of the radio. The radio can act as a historical guide as you walk past monuments and buildings. When you tune to 102.3 at specifically marked locations you can hear a voice explain the history and importance of the area. When you’re not tuned into the islands history channel you can hear music from a bygone era, Morse code, static and you’ll question whether or not if you heard voices.
And because you think you’re hearing voices you’ll want to turn up the volume on your tv and move a little closer to the screen. I know I found myself doing that more and more as I continued my play through. Sometimes you’ll find yourself at a dead-end or a locked door. The doors can be opened by using your radio as well. This function isn’t made available at the beginning of the game, its unlocked somewhere around half way. Any time you’re on the right frequency your controller will start to vibrate. This function only adds to the atmosphere of the game.
Your controller’s shaking and static echoes in your skull as you try to comprehend the distortion on your screen. You’re heart is beating faster and you find yourself forgetting to breathe just like when you were a child playing Hide and Seek. You were tucked away in your little nook where you were hoping nobody would find you but you didn’t want to be forgotten either. And there they are, right outside your hiding spot looking at you. Please don’t see me. Please find someone else. And they walk away and shortly after you hear it again, “Olly olly oxen free!
Oxenfree is one of the most rewarding gaming experiences I’ve had in some time. I wasn’t expecting much from it and I came away with more than I could have asked for. Not every game is perfect though so I’ll mention the issues I had first. Loading time, it sucks. Oxenfree is by no means a graphically demanding game yet the loading time between areas is somewhere between 20-40 seconds. This wouldn’t be a problem but there’s a tone/mood that is set with the story and when you need to move forward in the game the loading screen times takes away from the tension that’s been built. It would have been great if Night School Studio had included the option to explore the radio frequencies during this time. My second complaint is that the conversation choices/speech bubbles sometimes don’t stick around long enough so you miss out on progressing the story the way you want from time to time. These two complaints are minor as Oxenfree excels on many levels.
The game costs $15, which I think is the perfect price point for this type of game. Night School Studio did an excellent job on a multi layered compelling story that continues to pull you in even when you’re afraid to move forward. All of the little subtle nuances in the background add to the gaming experience. SCNTFC blew my mind with his score of the soundtrack. The replay value of Oxenfree is high as I noticed that certain conversation cues change along with a few other tidbits (I don’t want to spoil the fun). It’s a game that’s as welcoming as a game of Hide and Seek.
Remember hearing your heart beat so loud as you hid away from sight. Trying to avoid being found. You wanted someone else to be tagged it but there they were, right in front of you starring in your direction. Do they see you? Can they hear your heart beat? Please don’t fail me now heart, don’t give me away. Please just move on, I don’t want to be it. But I don’t want to be forgotten as I hide away in my perfect hiding place. Soon enough the person that’s “it” walks away and you think you hear someone yell “Olly olly oxen free!” so you come out from your hiding place and are met with surprise when you feel someone touch you and hear…
“Tag you’re it!”