“You are Alex, and you’ve just brought your new stepbrother Jonas to an overnight island party gone horribly wrong,” Night School (2016) writes about their game Oxenfree. Yes, the island that Alex, Jonas and their friends visit is not just any island. It was once a military base and its only permanent resident, Maggie Adler, has recently died. After camping on the beach, Alex, Ren, and Jonas explore the nearby caves. In a small cavern, Alex tunes her radio and unexpectedly forms a dimensional rift. Things go horrible wrong. Her friends get possessed by ghosts, and caught in time loops, and it’s up to Alex to fix things with her radio (see detailed synopsis).
At first sight, Oxenfree is a coming-of-age game with horror elements. But once players dive deeper, they will find many more stories within the game that pertain to the history of the island and the ghosts that roam there. The radio is crucial in unlocking these stories. There’s an explorative aesthetics to Oxenfree – a story framed through objects and audio cues that players can stumble upon on the island. The player is an archeologist of sorts, unearthing cues, not unlike in Gone Home, Contrast or To the Moon. These objects and found footage hint at a distant past and suggest that it still has effects in the present. The past is always a performative possibility and its memories shape the present.
Oxenfree evokes what Melisa Kagen (2019) calls the ‘archival adventure’ mechanic, in which players assemble a story by piecing it together from memorabilia left in the game. That is to say, this is a game about time and space, and radio is key in unlocking these archives.
The Island is an Archive
Similar to Swords & Sworcery, audio is key to the game play for puzzle-solving and the narrative. Because the radio is connected to otherworldly frequencies, it adds to the suspense. Patricia Hernandez describes this vividly in Kotaku, stating: “ You never really know what you’re tapping into in Oxenfree—you might wind up listening to de-tuned ragtime piano, or a voice reading an old-timey instruction manual, but it’s all unnerving when it’s devoid of its original context.”
The technology does not only set the mood of the game, but it is also the core of the game play. Radio facilitates time travel, opens doors, reveals codes and secrets about the island. For instance, the radio sets players out on a scavenger hunt through the island to find Maggie’s letters which detail the history of the island. The vintage technology of radio, then, creates an archive that players can immerse themselves into.
Like the audio tour in a museum, the radio reveals the context of important sites. The title of Oxenfree is not a coincidence – the game is like hide-and-seek. The radio unlocks past signals, giving players access to a complicated history.
By tinkering with the radio, players find out the back story of the ghosts or “The Sunken”. The crew of the USS Kalanoa, as Maggie Adler states in her letters, was “separated from our dimensional existence” by the implosion of the submarine’s nuclear reactor. Their submarine was targeted by the USS Walter Roy via friendly fire on October 25, 1943, sending 97 people to their demise. Maggie Adler was working at the watch tower and relayed the message to fire. Her guilt about this act was immense. The letters even imply that she believes it was a set up in which one crew member, Francis Salter, was key.
Maggie writes: “Know that I acted in what I felt were the best interests for all at the time. And truly… for the interest of time itself.”
A Game About Agency and Choice
The past is tied up with complex emotions that are at the heart of this story – guilt, shame, loss. Alex has to cope with the death of her brother Michael, who died when he went swimming with her. Maggie has to come to terms with having initiated the destruction of the USS Kalanoa.
Despite the pain, sometimes things are meant to be and we have to accept this. Certain outcomes may be fated and they are no one’s fault. “Sometimes things go bad – you — you’ll never change that!” Alex states when she confronts The Sunken. When The Sunken accept this, they can finally let go. They tell Alex: “Take care of the time you have left, girl. And take notice of what you choose to.”
At the end of the game, players can get sucked into the time rift. Alex is scattered through time and space and can revisit her past selves and provide information. It turns out that one of the ghosts that players saw, was future Alex all along. Let me repeat that – the scariest ghost in the game is the player themselves. It is their future self who wants to fix things but is presented as otherworldly, mysterious and haunting.
The time loops allow Alex to make alterations and change the ending of the game. Players can start over and over to unlock an ending in which the teenagers are in love, have successful careers, and/or in which Alex’ brother is alive.
But no ending is truly satisfactory. Though time can be altered, some characters may not be together and some friendships may be less strong. Through time travel, accidents may be prevented but does this really improve the status quo? One way to end the game is to simply stop tinkering with the outcomes. After their first play through, players can end the game by choosing not to visit the island at all.
A Game About Trauma, Collective Memory and War
The radio stations tune into messages pertaining to World War II, which is the backdrop of the story. The Sunken were created in a time of war, and their anger is symbolic of these times.
The war is also the backdrop of the story of Maggie and Anna, two lovers who players only learn about through the radio. Anna’s presence is felt throughout the game, but only mentioned in the letters by Maggie. When Maggie tried to contact The Sunken, and tuned in with the rift in time and space, Anna was lost. Her messages are encrypted in morse code and can be received at specific places in the island.
It is noteworthy that there is a parallel between Anna and Alex, as both get lost in the rift. Alex is explicitly compared to Anna by the Sunken, also in terms of personality. Anna’s communication attempts can be translated by the players. They show her despair and the fading of her memory:
The erasure of queer identity is central to the love story of Maggie and Anna, and a difficult narrative element of this game. Their queer representation is minimal and they are tragic ghosts of a love that once was. Both exist only in frame stories (stories within the story). Their story is told through found footage. Seeking Anna through radio signals is meaningful but also painful. These queer identities have no real counterpart; they are ephemeral and diseased. Their bodies are liminal, lost and erased. The representation of queerness in this game is not an easy, as queer characters are reduced to distant memories.
- Trauma – The collective memory of WWII but also of personal trauma (e.g. accidents) is central to the game. The player actively tries to correct the trauma, but will ultimately fail. We need to own up to our guilt and gain closure
- Time – The loop and revisiting of time are essential, but time can never be truly fixed. Anna remains lost. The accident of the submarine can’t be fixed. Michael can be saved, but this feels like the exception to time travel rather than the rule
- Queerness – When we consider the resemblance between Anna/Alex, the story gains queer potential. Fumbling with the radio, to retrieve signals of liminal characters and bodies, is also reminiscent of queer play
- Agency – The player’s actions shape the game and are reflected upon. Players actively need to paste the narrative together, tune in, listen, unearth. The most fundamental ghost that players stumble upon is him/herself. The player is not just a flaneur in a walking simulator, but an archeologist putting the pieces together