Oxenfree and the power of sound design

I play a lot of video games, and I wish I had the time and energy to review every one of them. But it’s not my job, and honestly, I don’t really want to talk about games that I didn’t like. And most often, I lack the skill to talk effectively about games I like. So what I will try to do, is pick a game that I loved from a previous year and do my best to give it justice, and hopefully, someone will discover something and will want to play it too.

So today, I want to talk about Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016). And since it’s just out on the Switch, it’s a pretty good timing.

People who know me, know that what I like in a game (or a book/movie), is a good story and interesting characters. And also a good sound design (not in books obviously). Because you can have an compelling story and deep character arcs, if your sound sucks, it takes you out of a story. Personally, I don’t think the story of Oxenfree is that great. It’s good, and it’s consistent with the atmosphere it’s trying to convey. But it’s mainly a character-driven game. To me at least.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a group of friends who go to an island for the weekend. There is only one boat trip to go, and the next trip back is the following day, so they have to spend the night on the island. And of course, there is no cellular network. As you might expect, things start to happen, involving radio interference, friends disappearing out of the blue, and a WWII submarine stranded in time (that escalated quickly). And between all that, the characters spend their time talking about their life and Alex’s (you) brother (who died).

As you might expect from this brief synopsis, there is a lot of time-related issues, of the kind that will mess with your head. I am not sure that everything actually works, but who cares, because that’s not what’s important. It’s a game that focuses on grief and gives you the role of the younger sister who has to deal with it, and also with a bunch of friends who all have a different way to dealing with grief, and some will take it on you. And of course, you choose how to handle it.

To do that, it uses a very common system of branching dialogues. You hear someone talking to you and you’re given the choice in your response. It sounds like a pretty boring, overused system. But it’s done the perfect way. First, every dialogue prompt is timed. Not to pressure you (although some are really fast), but because you never have to actually choose anything. You can even play the whole game as a mute if you want, the other players will react in consequence. Also, the game makes trying to optimize your choice of dialogue pointless. Choices that seem good, may have bad consequences. And antagonizing some character may have good effects in the end (for some characters, at least). If I have one advice in playing this game, it’s this one:



Play the first time like you would be this character, with your own feelings, because that’s how you’re going to have the best experience and immersion. Don’t hesitate the second or third time around (1) to settle for a type of character and play it until the end, to see how it may turn the story, but again, don’t optimize. It kills the experience and there is no right answer anyway.

Now, about what makes this experience possible: sound design.

You’ve all played to games that use choices in dialogues; there is this awkward pause before you choose, and there are always weird transitions between each piece of dialogue, with the wrong tone, or other discrepancy that doesn’t feel right. In Oxenfree, there is nothing of that. Everything plays seemlessly. It’s perfect, and I don’t just say that because I love the game. It’s actually an amazing feature of this game, and that’s what makes it stand out. Every dialogue feels like a real dialogue, that plays along whatever you choose. The character will cut the other character or wait until they finishes, depending on your choice, or the character will talking continue even if you didn’t choose anything. The voice acting is always right, the sound editing is perfect, with no level difference or glitches, and it integrates amazingly with the soundtrack for the best experience possible.

For me it’s way more important to have a good sound experience than amazing graphics. Here, the graphics are good. They’re not extraordinary, but the artistic choice is interesting and it works well with the story, but the focus on sound is really a top-of-the-shelf performance. Something that has to be commended and rewarded. So I hope this review gives it credit, and I wish more people would play it, so Night School Studio, the developer/editor, would make more of that kind of game.

(1) The game is actually different the second time you play, thanks to a feature added later on (for free, which is amazing in the era of game-as-a-service) that uses the choices you make in your first run to change the story on the following runs, which makes for a good re-playability.

Game available on PC (Steam, GOG, Humble Bundle), PS4, Xbox One, Switch.

Editor’s website: http://nightschoolstudio.com/oxenfree/ (where the image is from)

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